A tribute to Sophie, hyperpop pioneer and LGBTQ+ icon

by Jessica Li | 2/8/21 2:05am

sophie
by Sophie Bailey / The Dartmouth Senior Staff

Sophie Xeon, stylized as SOPHIE, was a Grammy-nominated avante garde singer and producer behind some of the biggest names in pop music.  Before the artist’s unexpected death at 34 on Jan. 31, Sophie had pioneered the hyperpop subgenre — a radical blend of trance, electronic and hip hop music —  and collaborated frequently with pop stars like Charli XCX. As a transgender artist, Sophie also inspired many LGBTQ+ listeners and queer musicians.

Born in 1986 in Glasgow, Scotland, Sophie grew up enamored with music, going to raves and listening to rave cassette tapes.

In a 2018 interview with feminist newsletter “Lenny Letter,” Sophie said that, “As soon as I'd heard electronic music, I spent all my time listening to those cassette tapes. … I would be on my own a lot of the time, doing music. It was an escapism thing.” 

This escapism eventually led to something real. Bursting onto the European club scene in the 2010s, Sophie was originally an anonymous sensation — faceless and bodyless. As Sophie rose in popularity, the artist debuted the song “Nothing More to Say” in 2013.

Two years later, Sophie released, “Product,” a compilation of eight songs that Sophie had previously released on SoundCloud. Most notably, this album features “BIPP” and “Lemonade,” which garnered critical acclaim, with the former ranking in the top 60 songs of Pitchfork’s top 200 songs from 2010 to 2014. These songs set up a quintessentially Sophie sound, despite featuring singer Marcella Dvsi, rather than Sophie’s voice. They are both futuristic and nostalgic, creating new sounds that incorporate computerized elements but drive us back to the bubblegum era of the early 2000s. 

Sophie’s music is liberating in its absurdity and unconventionality. The sounds challenge the conventions of mainstream music, experimenting with auto-tune, vocal distortions and a complete abandonment of acoustic instruments.

One of the most intriguing parts of Sophie’s music is how it simultaneously critiques and contributes to the pop industry. In a 2015 interview with Rolling Stone, Sophie noted that hyperpop strove not to make fun of pop music, but to push its boundaries and urge experimentation.

Nothing illustrates this better than the song “Hey QT,” which Sophie produced in 2014 alongside performance artist Hayden Dunham, producer A.G. Cook and Cook's record label PC Music. Sophie’s creative decision to deliberately integrate a product placement of the fictional energy drink “QT Energy Elixir” throughout the song is a hilarious demonstration of Sophie’s understanding of consumerism in music. Though “Hey QT” can be interpreted as a satire of the industry, Cook and Sophie went to great lengths to flesh out the song’s very real personality. Combined with the glossy lyrics and funky synths, the song highlights the best and the worst of pop music.

In Sophie’s 2018 debut album “OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES,” the artist focuses on the combination of artificial sounds and raw feelings. “Despite the way [hyperpop is] perceived by people as being something very synthetic and artificial, it’s actually impossible to do something completely synthetic,” Sophie said to Rolling Stone. “You have got to have a real person.” It was around this same time that Sophie came out as a transgender woman, and in this album, the artist directly addresses conflicting feelings about gender through bright, loud and exciting music. 

In the song “Faceshopping,” Sophie sings, “I’m real when I shop my face,” in a reference to Adobe Photoshop and the ability it provides to alter the way one is percieved. The dissonance that Sophie feels between the self that is physically presented and the self in Sophie’s mind can only be remedied by editing or surgery. Sophie validates body modification as a way of self-determination — an experience unique to the trans community and to those who experience gender dysphoria. 

Sophie makes other references to the complex relationship with the self in the song “Immaterial,” asking, “Without my legs or my hair / Without my genes or my blood / With no name and with no type of story / Where do I live? / Tell me, where do I exist?” Sophie urges a consideration of identity as separated from one’s physical being. In this imagined world, Sophie wonders, are we able to exist without outward expression? The bubbly synths do not mask but rather highlight the fantasy of being able to invent ourselves as whoever and whatever we feel we are.

The impacts of Sophie’s music can be felt at Dartmouth, too. Colin Donnelly ’24 bonded with his brother over their shared love of the producer and their admiration for the artist’s work to broaden the boundaries of pop music.

“People look at pop and think of the Top 40 hits,” Donnelly said. “I feel like [seeing] people like Sophie push production further was really inspiring. Especially as a trans woman, what Sophie has done for the LGBT community is pretty amazing to me.” 

Sophie’s impact is visible beyond her own albums and songs; her legacy continues through the music she produced for pop giants like  Charli XCX and Madonna. In a message posted to Charli XCX’s social media accounts, the English pop singer wrote “… All I can say is that I will miss her terribly. … She taught me so much about myself without even realizing.” 

New wave pop artists and up-and-coming voices in the queer music community like 100 gecs, Rina Sawayama, HANA and Slayyyter also cited Sophie as a source of inspiration in their messages honoring the artist.

Sophie’s music is a peek into the future of pop. It’s deeply personal, openly critical and unabashedly fun. It uses machine-like sounds to reveal a true, human self. In a world where the digital and authentic are seen as antithetical, Sophie has shown us that real and synthetic can exist simultaneously, and we have the power to create our truest selves.