August 2, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Sophie, innovative music artist and trans icon, dies at 34

Sophie, the Scottish-born producer whose serrated, insatiably imaginative electronic music demolished boundaries between pop and experimental music, has died. She was 34.

The artist, whose full name was Sophie Xeon, fell from the balcony of an Athens apartment very early Saturday morning, according to a local police spokesperson who spoke to the Associated Press. Sophie’s label, Transgressive, confirmed her death in a statement.

“Tragically, our beautiful Sophie passed away this morning after a terrible accident. True to her spirituality she had climbed up to watch the full moon and accidentally slipped and fell.”

In less than a decade, Sophie grew from a sly, intentionally cryptic project at the edges of noise and dance music into a commercially powerful figure who co-wrote Madonna’s 2015 hit “Bitch, I’m Madonna” and earned a Grammy nomination in 2018 for her LP “Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides.” She was a favorite collaborator of like-minded progressive pop acts like Lady Gaga and Charli XCX, and rappers like Vince Staples and Nicki Minaj saw a kindred spirit in her witty, sometimes harsh but exultant productions.

“The loss of Sophie is huge,” wrote super-producer Jack Antonoff on Twitter on Saturday. “She’s been at the forefront for a long time and we see her influence in every corner of music. If you’re not aware of what she has done then today is the day to listen to all her brilliant work. You’ll hear an artist who arrived before everyone else.”

Sophie was one of the highest-profile transgender musicians working today, though for much of her early career, she kept her identity in the background. Born in Glasgow on Sept. 17, 1986, she credited her father with introducing her to dance music. “He had brilliant instincts, taking me to raves when I was very young. He bought me the rave cassette tapes before I went to the events and would play them in the car and be like, “This is going to be important for you,” she told Lenny Letter in 2018.

She released her first track as Sophie in 2013. The music was sui generis — nodding to house music, synth pop and mainstream pop, but often ferociously heavy and rippling with tension. She was at the forefront of a loose movement of “hyperpop” acts, often orbiting around the PC Music artist collective, that treated the margins of noise and club music as if they were Top 40 radio.

In a review of an early show at the Teragram Ballroom, The Times said that “Sophie’s songs can’t rely on the promise of gossip or confession; they don’t deepen our understanding of a semi-realistic character we think we know from interviews and social media. What the music gets over on instead is pure sensation.”

That move was intentional: Sophie’s music was meant to be heard on its own terms, which were often challenging but always snapped a listener to attention. Songs like “Just Like We Never Said Goodbye” and “Bipp” used pitch-warped vocal hooks and hard pivots of synthesizers to play with the idea of a triumphant club moment, but always subverted it.

“Without a doubt some of the most interesting sounds I’ve heard had come from her,” the L.A. producer Flying Lotus wrote Saturday after her death.

Sophie enjoyed the play between artifice and authenticity — her 2015 debut album “Product” came packaged as a silicone object that strongly resembled a sex toy. She licensed a standout early song, “Lemonade,” to McDonald’s for an advertisement, a move that would seem desperate for most rising acts but felt conceptually transgressive from her (she naturally included the track on “Product”). In 2015, she moved to Los Angeles to better immerse herself in the pop firmament.

“I think of [L.A.] like that because it’s too perfect to be true,” she told New York magazine in 2017. “I think you feel more liberated in a foreign country. You’re more open. You understand less about the social constructs that exist in a certain place, so you take people more at face value, and you’re also taken more at face value, which makes you more able to be yourself.”

While early tours cloaked Sophie’s presence with drag-club-stye lip-syncing or foggy stage setups, tracks like 2017’s “It’s Okay to Cry” began to put her face and unaltered voice front and center, to powerful emotional effect. But other singles like “Ponyboy” and “Faceshopping” pushed her sound in even more thrashing, delirious directions. Fame seemed to make her more eager to blow up pop conventions rather than submit to them.

Sophie: “Faceshopping”

Sophie’s coming out in 2018, coinciding with the release of “Oil,” was a milestone for LGBTQ fans and peers, who saw one of their generation’s most technically gifted and ambitious producers reveal more of herself and her life. While experimental electronic music has long attracted trans and gender-disrupting acts like Wendy Carlos and Genesis P-Orridge, Sophie had designs on pop success, even as her music remained uncompromising.

“My music is political, but talking about politics is boring,” she told Out magazine in 2018. “I’d rather have a more emotional conversation through the music. You can say something more multidimensional. Pop music is the most relevant format we have to discuss anything. A song can have meaning to people anywhere, without any context.”

Trans-fronted acts like Kim Petras and 100 gecs and queer pop acts like Christine and the Queens pulled from her aesthetic template and took her ideas in new directions. For young LGBTQ fans searching for music that felt like the discovery or invention of a new self, Sophie was perhaps the most important artist working today.

“Transness is taking control to bring your body more in line with your soul and spirit so the two aren’t fighting against each other and struggling to survive,” she told Paper Magazine in 2018. “On this earth, it’s that you can get closer to how you feel your true essence is without the societal pressures of having to fulfill certain traditional roles based on gender.”

Generations of songwriters, from veterans of ‘70s disco to cutting-edge Gen Z producers, found much to look up to.

“Rest in Power SOPHIE! You were one of the most innovative, dynamic, and warm persons I had the pleasure of working with,” wrote Nile Rodgers, the founder of Chic and one of Sophie’s forebears in conceptual dance music.

“Rest In Peace to SOPHIE. I found myself so consistently inspired by her and in awe of her production. Heartbroken to hear this,” said Finneas, Billie Eilish’s brother and producer.

Her label’s statement did not name any survivors, and representatives did not immediately return requests for information.