SOPHIE Shattered The Boundaries Of Pop Music, And It Will Take Us Years To Catch Up
SOPHIE created bold, artistic worlds from scratch - and by doing so, changed the way we thought about music forever.
Infinite Pop is a Music Junkee column about the past, present, and possibilities of pop music.
SOPHIE, the Grammy-nominated Scottish pop and avant-garde electronic producer, died on at 4am January 30, in Athens, Greece, where the artist resided. According to Transgressive Records, SOPHIE had climbed up to see the full moon, and accidentally fell. SOPHIE was 34.
Whenever a public figure passes, it’s tempting to spin their example into a moral lesson: be brave, carpe diem. That’s not necessarily wrong. But this death felt particularly cruel. Not just for the sudden shock of the news, or that in COVID times, we’ve been surrounded by a fog of dread… It felt like the universe punishing someone’s innate human curiosity. Or maybe it was completely random, and is what you make of it. We’re still living under the same full moon, eerie and beautiful and distant to all of us.
I hate to launch this column under such tragic circumstances. It feels uncanny to write in the past tense about someone who so completely defined the future of music. But there couldn’t be a more fitting icon than SOPHIE for a series that will be devoted to deep, existential explorations of pop music, and how it informs everything around us.
The Rise of Bubblegum Bass
First, a confession: I didn’t get SOPHIE, initially. It took me years.
In mid-2013, a new subgenre of electronic music emerged from the internet, seemingly out of nowhere: bubblegum bass. The scene revolved around two big names: PC Music, a London-based record label founded by producer A. G. Cook; and SOPHIE — an almost-anonymous associate of the label, oft-mistaken for a full member.
SOPHIE’s breakthrough singles — ‘BIPP’, ‘LEMONADE’ — sounded like wildly abrasive takes on advertising jingles. Those signature elements are still in vogue in today’s avant-pop productions: candy-sweet melodies; warped vocals; fluttering treble supersaw synths; and most crucially, enormous, syncopated bass plucks and kick drums. They burst out of iPhone earbuds and club soundsystems alike.
I was an early skeptic: impressed by the craft, but a little baffled by the experiment. The music had all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, yet it seemed impossible to read the artists’ true intentions. SOPHIE’s bass drops and sound design, though, did share some common ground with brash EDM-trap acts like TNGHT and RL Grime. Which leads us to the first question many were asking…
Was SOPHIE making dance music?
Maybe — if you could rise to the challenge of flailing about to such hyperactive beats! Unlike trance, house, or techno, bubblegum bass lacked a consistent 4/4 pulse to ease you onto the dancefloor. Nor was it EDM, with its predictable builds, drops, and roots in festival-bro culture. Bubblegum bass didn’t tell you how to dance, just like no one could tell SOPHIE how to produce. You did whatever the fuck you wanted to it.
“I try to make music which is fun to dance to — that should be the loudest voice talking. I think it would be extremely exciting if music could take you on the same sort of high-thrill 3-minute ride as a theme park roller coaster.
Where it spins you upside down, dips you in water, flashes strobe lights at you, takes you on a slow incline to the peak, and then drops you vertically down a smokey tunnel, then stops with a jerk, and your hair is all messed up, and some people feel sick, and others are laughing—then you buy a key ring.”
— SOPHIE, BOMB Magazine
Was SOPHIE making pop music?
At the time, “internet pop” hadn’t yet become a genre unto itself. Online pop fandoms existed, and stan culture was on the rise, but we were geeks devoted to a medium that was essentially mainstream — like Star Wars nerds who read the Expanded Universe novels, but whose fandom revolved around loving (and hating) the films.
There was no such thing as a pop artist who didn’t aspire to mainstream fame. If you made pop music, you were either a household-name star, a cult artist who rightfully deserved more mainstream recognition (Robyn, Solange, Tegan and Sara), or an up-and-comer who was destined to become one or the other (Lorde, Sky Ferreira, Grimes, Azealia Banks).
To most hardcore pop fans, artistic and commercial success were inextricable. No one stayed underground by choice. But here were PC Music: unquestionably pop in their shiny aesthetic and presentation, especially their vocal acts like Hannah Diamond and GFOTY… yet far too weird for the charts. Those two principles didn’t contradict each other – they knew exactly what they were doing.
#3: Was this whole PC Music thing ironic?
In those first few years, SOPHIE and peers seemed to many like an art-school satire of consumerism and pop music, trolling the concept of fame. In 2014, SOPHIE and A. G. Cook collaborated on the single ‘Hey QT’ — a J-pop-inspired track sung by an avatar-like frontwoman, the titular QT. The three claimed to have devised the song as part of a promotional campaign for a real energy drink, Drink QT, and not the other way around. If you were mad enough to spend $20 on a can or saw PC Music’s early live shows — like QT’s Boiler Room performance or the infamous Pop Cube — you either came away a true fan, or even more confused by it all.
Maybe SOPHIE and PC Music were the successors to The KLF, the electronic collective who’d pranked, delighted, and infuriated the British music press two decades earlier. PC Music were at least a little bit tongue-in-cheek too, but they weren’t exactly delivering jokes that you could laugh at. Nor were they offering much in the way of social commentary. When ‘LEMONADE’ appeared in an actual McDonald’s commercial, it inspired a flurry of think pieces comparing SOPHIE to Warhol – but mostly, it just felt like where the song was supposed to end up all along.
At the time, I — and many of the poptimist critics I looked up to — thought it was mostly ironic, high-concept pranksterism. We heard little in the way of substance, or more importantly, genuine emotional connection, within the music. But what if we were overthinking it?
We’d championed the likes of Britney, Katy Perry, and Max Martin on their own terms — because great pop songs never needed rock-critic canonisation or cultural-theory essays to justify their value. But for some reason, we were unable or unwilling to look at PC Music’s deliberate, often hyper-femme and/or queer-coded camp, and see that it could be serious, too. At the heart of it — bubblegum bass was catchy, and it banged. That was all it needed to be. In hindsight, we were simply behind the curve that SOPHIE had set.
to me the genius of sophie was how she took this concept of bigger brighter harder shinier, a tool that so many have used cynically, and made it brilliant & challenging. she used something in a brand new way that was being misused for too long. she is a savior of pop for it
— jackantonoff (@jackantonoff) January 30, 2021
In the early years, we knew almost nothing about SOPHIE. There were frequent (mis)conceptions about the artist’s identity, gender, and music. The few interviews SOPHIE gave seemed reserved, yet heady and intriguing. But the more I heard, the more I grew to understand. It became clear that SOPHIE was indeed subverting pop music, and truly adored the medium too.
Refining the Product
In 2015, the SOPHIE project finally clicked for me. Co-written and produced by SOPHIE, LIZ’s 2015 single ‘When I Rule the World’ brought the California R&B singer into the future, and SOPHIE into the producer’s most “traditional” song to date — it had actual verses and choruses! ‘When I Rule the World’ is a constant sugar rush of rhythm and melody. Imagine the Powerpuff Girls as a girl-group, turned up to 11 — every element sparkles like a firework, or hits you with a thwack.
LIZ delivers her vocals like a bratty cheerleader on a power trip: “When I rule the world, then I’m gonna make you sweat/Dog collar ’round your neck, on your knees and scrub the deck!” She and SOPHIE distilled girlish, bubblegum-pop femininity into a symbol of not just empowerment, but dominance. The song took no prisoners. You had no choice but to love or hate it.
‘When I Rule the World’ is still the song that most balances SOPHIE’s gift for pure pop hooks, and uncompromising sound design. It still sounds far ahead of any recent mainstream pop production — like a Billboard #1 that was accidentally beamed in from 2025.
SOPHIE’s first compilation release, 2015’s PRODUCT, was the culmination of that early bubblegum bass aesthetic to date. It added several new tracks — ‘MSMSMSM’, ‘VYZEE’, ‘L.O.V.E.’ — that were just as jagged and rubbery as the previous singles. But it was the closing track, ‘Just Like We Never Said Goodbye’, that pointed the way forward. It had the usual sped-up vocals and synths, but no drums at all — with lyrics that could’ve been lifted from any cheesy love ballad. The song’s weird arrangement refracted its sentimentality into a more alien kind of beauty.
These short, clipped songs were still fascinating, but were starting to feel like transmissions from a much larger realm. SOPHIE, along with the PC Music crew, could have kept painting with the same familiar palette. But then, the widely-pegged future sound of 2013 would simply have become the present… and then what?
The Age of Hyperpop
By 2015, SOPHIE had become one of the most highly sought-after producers and songwriters of the moment. SOPHIE’s palette was growing broader, while pushing every collaborator forward — from Madonna’s fun, fluffy pop confection ‘Bitch I’m Madonna’ to Le1f’s queer rap banger ‘Koi’. In a team-up no one expected, Vince Staples and Kendrick Lamar rapped over SOPHIE’s ferocious, shapeshifting ‘Yeah Right’ beat — three of the world’s best elevating each other to new heights.
The mere rumour that SOPHIE was in the studio with Lady Gaga, even before it was confirmed, generated more breathless excitement among pop fans than most actual released songs. It seemed like every pop girl wanted a SOPHIE cut — like a queen’s subjects vying for attention at court — but things didn’t always go to plan. Sessions with the likes of Kesha, Rihanna, and HAIM were never released. The thing is, you couldn’t casually drop a SOPHIE collab in the middle of an unrelated album — it’d become the centre of gravity.
Charli XCX, though, gave herself completely to SOPHIE’s world. The two collaborated on all four tracks on Charli’s 2016 EP Vroom Vroom, which morphed her from an adventurous young popstar into the avatar of avant-garde internet pop. Each song was undeniably catchy, while warping her voice to match SOPHIE’s most angular, brutalist environments to date. It was a transformative experience for Charli; even her most commercial singles since have been animated by that same weirdo spirit. SOPHIE gave her permission to let her freak flag fly, forever.
Around 2016, the “bubblegum bass” label was beginning to feel redundant. Vroom Vroom is widely considered the first release of the hyperpop genre: a more boundless, malleable mindset for an era that we’re still living through.
The True Meaning of SOPHIE
In late 2017, SOPHIE finally pulled back the veil. The personal name and stage name became one and the same — a pop mononym for the ages. The lead single from SOPHIE’s debut album Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, ‘It’s Okay to Cry’ was the first song to use the artist’s own voice. It was also SOPHIE’s first appearance in a music video, and the artist’s coming out as a transgender woman. A ballad about life’s dramatic ups and downs, the song built from gentle ASMR to a thunderous climax. Making eye contact, SOPHIE sang directly to you, the listener: “I never thought I’d see you cry / Just know whatever hurts, it’s all mine/It’s okay to cry”.
The song completely recontextualised SOPHIE’s career to date: it had been a distinctly personal vision all along. Only now, there was a face, a bravery, a vulnerability to the art that you could see in every song, every appearance thereafter. ‘It’s Okay to Cry’ felt like a magic trick: not an illusion, but a flourish of overwhelming truth.
seeing how many trans women, esp of my particular micro-generation, saying that "It's okay to cry" was an emotional breakthrough moment for them — maybe that was the first time I felt like *I* was being addressed so directly in a work of art, didn't have to find some way into it,
— Emily Alison Zhou (@emializh) January 30, 2021
The full album followed in June 2018. On the release, the opening strains of ‘It’s Okay to Cry’ lead straight into ‘Ponyboy’, an exploration of sexual dominance and submission that was as brutal as any death metal song ever recorded. SOPHIE had reached new sonic extremes, where distorted vocals, kickdrums, and writhing, wriggling synths melded into one earth-shaking rhythm.
‘Ponyboy’ formed a pair with ‘Faceshopping’ — on the surface, a satire of airbrushed, Instagram-filtered selfie culture, but it was also an embrace of it all — “I’m real when I shop my face”. The video toys with SOPHIE’s face like digital putty, obliterating the lines between real and fake. (Warning: Contains flashing images.)
Gender dysphoria was certainly one lens through which you could hear the song; SOPHIE made ‘Faceshopping’ feel both broader and deeply specific. It’s one thing to make art that sends affirming messages, like ‘It’s Okay to Cry’ — that your identity is valid, and you’re not wrong to feel your emotions. But what about the days when that message doesn’t ring true? When it’s not enough?
What I got from her work wasn't just an affirmation that I'm a "real" woman or that I'm "valid," it was a permission to endlessly change and customize and de-construct and rebuild myself in as many iterations and combinations as I see fit.
— Michete (@Michete) January 31, 2021
Every song on the album was a mission statement. ‘Immaterial’, a play on Madonna’s ‘Material Girl’, transformed SOPHIE’s dancefloor into a realm beyond time and space: “Tell me, where do I exist?/We’re just immaterial boys, immaterial girls!” Bubblegum bass songs were known for that particular syncopated clave rhythm, but on ‘Immaterial’, SOPHIE perfected it. Call it the SOPHIE clave, once and for all.
The album’s most spiritual songs discarded Western notions of spirituality — the idea that death is an experience to be feared, yet your soul will go to a literal heaven after you die. ‘Is It Cold in the Water?’ makes the act of passing on feel like a beautiful inevitability, set to mind-bending synths.
‘Whole New World/Pretend World’ closed out the album by cheerleading us into the afterlife. SOPHIE used and envisioned technology not in a capitalist sense, of corporations and production, but a 2001: A Space Odyssey-style singularity — where we only reach our full potential by warping ourselves into the next collective phase of human existence.
Most debut albums merely show potential. Five years into SOPHIE’s public career, Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides redefined what was possible not just for the producer, but entire genres at once. It was everything that electronic music could be: intellectual, physical, spiritual, heartwrenching. In its radical sound design and fullness of concept, it felt like a paradigm shift worthy of other instant classics like Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 85-92, The Prodigy’s The Fat of the Land, or Radiohead’s Kid A. In 2019, SOPHIE even released a 94-minute remix album that was even more abstract, almost unrecognisable from its source material — yet still, somehow, danceable.
And at the same time, Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides became as much a symbol of pop music’s power for liberation as, say, ABBA’s ‘Dancing Queen’ or Madonna’s ‘Into the Groove’…except SOPHIE’s music made room for self-doubt, uncertainty, the uncanny, even horror.
“It is so important for queer people, and for anyone making music that’s deemed to be somehow alternative or inaccessible. They shouldn’t be made to feel like their identities are not mainstream, or to be marginalised just through genre and categories. I think it’s really important to break down those binaries, and not feel that because you are making ‘weird’ music, that you are a ‘weird’ person.”
— SOPHIE, DJ Mag
How the Magic Was Made
Electronic music is often (mis)characterised as cold, robotic, unfeeling. Sometimes that’s true, and/or a deliberate artistic choice. But like any form of music, the best electronic music always reveals the hand and mind of a great artist: from the early synth (and public trans figure) pioneer Wendy Carlos to Kraftwerk, Björk to Flying Lotus, Skrillex to SOPHIE. Like a science-fiction author, they took you into the world inside their mind — then turned it inside out, until you saw and heard their sonic imagery reflected in the real world.
What made SOPHIE so unique? Well, nearly every musician in history played an instrument that had already been invented. When you pick up the trumpet, electric guitar, or even a pair of CDJs, you’re not thinking about the inherent meaning of the object — you just like the way it sounds. You grow to understand your relationship to the instrument, and the music you play and write, over time.
SOPHIE was different. The producer learned to master one particular hardware synth: the relatively obscure Elektron Monomachine. SOPHIE would use the Monomachine to shape waveforms — the harmonic building blocks of all audio — into traditionally un-musical sounds, like the popping of a balloon, or the rubbing together of plastic. One of SOPHIE’s signature drums sounded not like a real snare, nor a drum-machine recreation, but a spiky liquid-metal ball being struck by a hammer. It wasn’t just music — it was physics.
SOPHIE was far from the first to use waveform synthesis, but the producer’s distinct approach left an immediate mark. SOPHIE’s sound design — and complete one-ness with the instrument — made countless producers unspeakably envious.
my only real block when making music is that i want to be able to pull the sounds out of my computer and bend/mould/sculpt/throw/smash them with my hands but i have to click mouse and press buttons instead
— Lonelyspeck (@lonelyspeck) December 6, 2019
The beauty of electronic music is that it’s easier than ever to learn, but still intimidating to master. You can buy all the same tools as your idols, even download SOPHIE’s own Splice sample pack, and still never come close to that specific artistic intent. So instead, you learn to map the pathways that suit your own unique brain chemistry. The sense that you’re creating synths to create magic never leaves. The commercial synthesiser has only existed for about 50 years, and SOPHIE proved that we might have only scratched the surface of its possibilities.
Whole New World
In the two-and-a-half years since the release of Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, SOPHIE’s image evolved from an enigma, to post-human, to deeply human. Hell, SOPHIE even interviewed an actual robot, Sophia, and treated her as a peer.
SOPHIE felt like a young godmother to several overlapping scenes — pop, avant-electronic music, and the LGBTQ community, leading by example within each. SOPHIE could be generous, and utterly withering too. When SOPHIE was nominated for Best Dance/Electronic Album at the 2019 Grammys, it seemed unbelievable. But it was even weirder to see the artist as an actual physical human being at the red carpet ceremony, giving zero fucks: “As my grandma told me, the nomination means absolutely nothing.”
Of course, SOPHIE’s real legacy is the micro-generation of internet and art pop weirdos who wouldn’t exist otherwise, or were profoundly changed by SOPHIE’s influence. There’s 100 gecs, Dorian Electra, Arca; the entire hyperpop genre; and in Australia, the likes of Banoffee, Lonelyspeck, and Cheekbone.
It was a blessing to see SOPHIE’s influence loop back to prior generations, too — from an early inspiration, IDM pioneers Autechre, who remixed ‘BIPP’ earlier this year — to Nile Rodgers and Shirley Manson, just a handful of the icons who paid tribute to SOPHIE’s loss.
For all those reasons — personal and artistic, if there is a difference — SOPHIE’s loss is immense. It’s all too human to have the future ripped away, to remain a mystery forevermore… but it’s just as inconceivable that it happened at all. We had the privilege of witnessing SOPHIE’s artistic growth, but never got to plumb the intimate depths of how it happened inside the artist’s mind.
“Transness changes everything because it means there’s no longer an expectation based on the body you were born into, or how your life should play out and how it should end.”
— SOPHIE, PAPER
My definition of a genius is a person who creates artistic worlds from scratch. Someone who isn’t just the logical product of one’s culture and circumstances, but an aberration in the timeline — and if who never existed, would never have been replaced. That was SOPHIE, who brought to life futures we never dreamed of; who redefined how we thought of the word “future” itself.
SOPHIE’s music is too spiky and irreverent to ever be reduced to a symbol, or a cheap platitude. Artists and listeners alike will spend the next decade catching up, attempting to deconstruct the worlds the producer constructed. SOPHIE has passed into the next realm…but at least our world was more transcendent, for every day that SOPHIE was here.
we can honour her legacy by pushing ourselves creatively beyond what we thought was possible
— Lonelyspeck (@lonelyspeck) January 31, 2021
Richard S. He is a pop songwriter, producer, and award-winning journalist. He tweets at @rsh_elle.