Six Essential Tracks – The Playground


On the 30th of January 2021, Scottish born producer and acclaimed pop visionary Sophie Xeon began to make her way up to her rooftop in Athens to gaze at the moon. “True to her spirituality,” the statement from her label Transgressive would read later that day, also confirming that the shocking rumours circulating online were indeed true. SOPHIE had slipped off her roof, and died. Looking back, there is a tragic irony in SOPHIE’s death coinciding with the peak of lockdown, as dance floors across the world lay dormant and in darkness. In fact, the moment the world lost her was the first moment during this time that the party felt like it was truly over. SOPHIE quickly rose to prominence with her unique take on dance and pop music. Over the course of her career she would go on to produce for massive pop stars from Madonna to notable collaborator Charli XCX, ultimately shaping the genre now known as hyperpop and paving the way for a new wave of provocateurs such as SHYGIRL, Rina Sawayama and Slayyyter. Most significantly, SOPHIE’s music is distinctly and unabashedly queer. She draws from pop culture, fashion, mass media, all those things that queer people grow up finding meaning in that no else seems to understand. It appears SOPHIE understood, and then dared to articulate that meaning by way of a sound so unique and distinct, it is unmistakably her own. In honour of her shimmery, rubber-slick legacy, we look at some of SOPHIE’s most essential moments.


Lemonade 

Before Queen B became synonymous with the sugary lip smacking drink, there was SOPHIE. 2014 saw pop music in an early stage of flux away from bombastic electronic beats towards a more organic or “authentic” sound, a course correction likely attributed to Lorde’s 2013 game-changer, Royals. Unleashed upon this rapidly shifting landscape, Lemonade proposed an alternate pivot for the genre. While mainstream pop’s reaction to the EDM-wave was to turn towards the organic, SOPHIE dared to push things deeper into the synthetic in a way that no one had before. At once fascinating and alienating, “Lemonade” polarised critics upon its release, due in part to it’s shocking brazenness. A slick and sticky piece of avant-dance pop, it’s as if SOPHIE attempts to capture in sound the juvenile excitement of a glass of the beverage, layering squeaky, ambiguous bubble pops and serpentine trickles in rapid-fire succession. While more and more artists turned towards intimate “dear diary” sentimentality, that Lemonade was somehow nothing and everything simultaneously derailed the trajectory of the genre by throwing it towards new dizzying, hyperactive and massive sounds. Together with BIPP and the Product EP, Lemonade would introduce SOPHIE’s thesis statement that pop should embrace mass culture and be the “loudest, brightest thing” in the room. It is fitting then that Lemonade would go on to be featured in a major advertising campaign for MacDonald’s, marking what can be considered SOPHIE’s Campbell Soup can moment. 

 


Bitch, I’m Madonna 

The moment it became apparent that SOPHIE was beginning to infect the mainstream came by way of the planet’s biggest pop star. And when there’s a trend brewing that has the potential to change the sound of pop, you best believe The Queen Of Pop is on it before anyone else. While Rebel Heart was an album marred by multiple leaks and some rushed efforts, it did yield some iconic behaviour. Case in point; this bonkers Eurodance / trap / krunk track featuring Nicki Minaj. Bitch, I’m Madonna is a diss-track-cum-Aqua-revival on acid, and in the years since its arrival it has gained a sort of cult status and notoriety, and for good reason. What could otherwise lapse into tasteless territory instead juggles its army of sounds and influences with a camp tackiness that’s addictive and absurd, and a huge part of this can be credited to SOPHIE. The twinkling, spinning-giddy synths that trip into huge, distorted bass booms at the song’s pre-chorus are amongst Bitch, I’m Madonna’s most memorable moments, and the most distinctly SOPHIE. Against Madonna’s helium light “woahs!” it’s an exercise in SOPHIE’s pop manifesto that presaged the PC Music and Jersey Club boom by a good five years. Vapid, hyperactive and audacious, it’s the embodiment of what SOPHIE once called “an interesting challenge, musically and artistically” : to make the “loudest, brightest thing” in the room. 

 


Vroom, Vroom 

Vroom, Vroom is as essential to Charli XCX as it is to SOPHIE, just as XCX is essential to SOPHIE’s . Up until this point, XCX was touted for major pop success. Following a string of successful hits like Break The Rules and Boom Clap, XCX had last been heard providing the earworm chorus to Iggy Azalea’s 2014 song of the summer, Fancy. But under the surface, XCX had bigger, stranger ambitions. Vroom, Vroom (song and EP) was lambasted by her label and almost never saw the light of day, and it’s easy to see why. Instead of playing into current pop trends, XCX and SOPHIE ignite the visionary/weirdo in each other. Vroom, Vroom (song) is a screeching, metallic, and serpentine beast that plays with form and structure, shifting gears at every moment as it turns into what sounds like passages of entirely different songs. From the opening bounce and synth squabbles, to the crash-laden verses, and finally, the sparkling and bizarrely triumphant chorus, Vroom, Vroom surges forward with the futurism of a Tesla and the ferocity of a custom Lamborghini. While many have tried to emulate the formula, nothing has come close to the cultural shift that is this song. The gay community will be singing this one until forver, and ever. 

 


It’s Okay To Cry 

When discussing It’s Okay To Cry, it’s necessary to note that SOPHIE remained mostly anonymous for the most part of her career. She maintained an elusive, ghost-in-the-machine enigma, working behind the scenes but never really being seen. Everyone knew her name and her role in shaping the direction of pop music, but up until this point very few people knew what she looked like. This makes It’s Okay To Cry all the more triumphant and influential not only to the discourse of pop, but gender and queer theory. Possibly the closest SOPHIE ever came to a power ballad, It’s Okay To Cry was also the first time anyone really heard her voice. In the accompanying music video, against a green screen phasing through picture perfect blue skies, sunsets and lightning storms, a bare chested and red lipped SOPHIE in close frame from the chest up pulls us into her world like a cosmic siren. The careful, strangely distant chimes that form the wonder-filled cathartic backbone of It’s Okay To Cry ring against SOPHIE’s reassuring, considered phrasing, gently revealing herself for who she is. This was the first time that mainstream culture would come to know that SOPHIE was trans. It’s Okay To Cry was as much her coming out as it was the first single off her debut LP/magnum opus, Oil Of Every Person’s Un-Insides. No other moment in recent pop culture has felt as glorious or as groundbreaking as this raw unmasking of the SOPHIE enigma. Her debut as SOPHIE the pop star, It’s Okay To Cry would begin a new (and final) chapter in SOPHIE’s artistry that pushed her image to the front of her work, revealing the innovator that had already changed the direction of music forever for who she was. It also proved that while she had demonstrated her capacity for loud, shiny bombast, she was just as capable of delivering moments that are laden with feeling, and which felt deftly human. 

 


Faceshopping 

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On the opposite end of It’s Okay To Cry, Faceshopping exists as one of the hardest hitting tracks on Oil Of Every Person’s Un-Insides (OOEPUI) and within SOPHIE’s oeuvre as a whole. Continuing her investigation into mass-production and consumerism, Faceshopping is the follow-up thesis to Product that furthers SOPHIE’s argument toward matters of the body. The body and the politics thereof are definitive themes on OOEPUI, especially following SOPHIE’s reveal of her own to the world. On Faceshopping, SOPHIE examines the body as malleable like plastic, considering the multitude of ways the body might be morphed, customised or modified not just surgically, but also socially. It’s a lofty concept for a track that for the most part has four lines of lyrics, but it’s not so much in the words than it is the sounds that this study is put forward. The grinding, industrial squelches that slide and screech throughout the track feel overwhelmingly amorphous, conjuring images of twisting flesh and writhing masses. It’s the sonic equivalent of body-horror, a theatre-macabre of grating, skin-crawling synths, filtered vocal blips, and metallic machine sounds. But then like an oasis, the cacophony recedes to make way for a passage of glowing, thrumming drone ambience. A breathless voice strains to a lover, asking if they desire her as much as she does them. It’s a striking moment of vulnerability in a mostly hard-edged landscape that pivots the meaning of Faceshopping towards matters of desire, and which body types are seen as ideal. Perhaps it’s the need to be desired that leads us to go faceshopping, or perhaps desire is a game of shopping for faces in itself. SOPHIE captures the inherent abjection linked to queer desire, and turns it into a face-melting dancefloor rager. 

 


Immaterial

If abjection is intrinsic to queerness, so to is jouissance. That is: the relishing of pleasure, enjoyment beyond the bounds of the pleasure principle. Somewhat fantastical, entirely hedonistic, the role of jouissance in the lived queer experience is almost essential to survival. Immaterial is a song about that drive to seek pleasure and celebrate being alive. But then, it’s also a song about being as plastic as a Barbie doll. Or maybe it’s asking, what’s the difference? Sugary sweet and full of bright, shining optimism, Immaterial found its place as a queer anthem in clubs across the world. The saccharine camp of this track rings out like a call to arms. It’s like a signal for people rejoice in their otherness together, because as queer folk the most radical thing we can do sometimes is celebrate being alive. This is the soundtrack to that moment at the party when your molly kicks into overdrive and your friends are suddenly around you on the dancefloor, sharing in the euphoria for one brilliant moment where everything and everyone in the world suddenly becomes singular and breathtaking. It’s as if the frequency of this track causes the cells of your body to break out into song; it’s so keyed into joy and jouissance that it’s difficult not to feel absolutely exhilarated from its first, rushing, whooshing moments. The syrupy sweetness of this confection is the prime of hyperpop’s bubblegum division, the ultimate version of the sound of artists like Liz and QT. It’s a testament to SOPHIE’s unparalleled dexterity. That this exists on the same album as the doomcore ambience of Pretending or the cybergoth chaos of Whole New World/Pretend World is proof of SOPHIE as one of our generations most distinct sonic auteurs, one of those distinct tastemakers who crash land to Earth every once in a while. 

 


From Lemonade’s brazen embrace of style over substance, SOPHIE’s future music would go on to explore themes of transmutation and modification, othered sexual desire, and biomorphic sensibilities (see: Ponyboy). With those shiny, metallic bubble synths and helium soaked explosions of euphoria, one might describe the sound of SOPHIE as the acid induced experience of dancing with a Jeff Koons sculpture at Berghain. For so many queer people it was the sound of the future, a future that suddenly feels even further away without SOPHIE on the frontlines to usher it in. SOPHIE created space for queer and trans people by somehow making tangible that experience of the world through the formula of her sound, and then infecting the mainstream with the DNA of that same sound. What SOPHIE did for this community was to reclaim the history of queer artists as the pioneers of electronic dance music. She created sonic retellings of the multifaceted queer experience; some deeply cathartic, others in celebration of being alive as an act of queer radicalism. It is why her synthetic, chrome plated compositions feel so deftly human, perhaps more so than any other electronic music artist of our time. The soul that pop music was attempting to rediscover through bawdy brass flourishes, subdued speak-singing and live instrumentation, SOPHIE managed to programme electronically. Her music has always felt like an undoing of sorts, and in a sense it was. SOPHIE was the queer underground made visible; an unearthing of a microcosm which up until that point, existed in spaces beyond the now and fabric of heteronormative reality. May she rest in power. 

 





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