Credit: Spotify

A retrospective for SOPHIE

By Morgan Woodfall

There are a lot of people like Sophie Xeon, but there has also never been anyone like SOPHIE.

I have a theory that only two albums in the past ten years have really mattered. Yes, I know, your favourite band is very influential, sure, but when it comes down to it – the landscape is simply too shattered. The notion of a canon has rapidly eroded and increasingly it has become necessary to draw on ‘vibes,’ to evoke or connote a sort of cultural mega-soup containing but not characterised by the great musical artists of the 20th and 21st centuries. It takes enormous strength of will to briefly detonate the soup and redirect its flow; in other words, change the shape of music. 100 gecs did that with 1000 gecs, their debut album, which worked precisely because it did nothing new but instead found all of the separately important defining aesthetics of 21st century music and put them all in the same place at the same time with an absolute disregard for coherence. SOPHIE’s Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-insides, from 2018, was genuinely, seriously new. Her whole thing was new, it was almost the concept itself of newness. She took the amalgam of colours and shapes that people take to be futuristic, to somehow embody a future that increasingly feels like fantasy, and refined them down until they were only signs for themselves. 

SOPHIE, Sophie Xeon, was born in Glasgow, and she was a trans woman uploading music to Soundcloud and learning how to DJ on the fly. There are a lot of people like SOPHIE. There has also never been anyone like SOPHIE. In an interview with Glamcult she said “Every single thing you hear should feel like you’ve never heard something like that before. Like it makes you feel alive in a new way. Like it makes you feel reborn.” I think that’s exactly what it’s like hearing. “Whole New World/Pretend World”, the 9 minute closer from Oil of Every Pearl, almost idiosyncratic in its lunacy, reaching toward an entirely new domain of noise, for the first time. Every SOPHIE song feels like it was the first song you ever heard. Her music is dance music in that it accesses some kind of primal physicality, textured in that it reduces all your senses to basal participation in a world of undulation and layer, loud in that you can’t escape it. You cannot escape SOPHIE anymore; she has passed through a membrane and turned into the shadow of every pop artist turning the distortion dial on their synthesiser. She made a sample pack so influential it has become a meme among producers and DJs online, because she is probably the best sound designer of snare drums to have ever lived (check out Injury Reserve’s “Jailbreak the Tesla”). SOPHIE was too good to play into vibes – she created the vibe, she saw the beating heart of electronica in the relentless emotion of 2000s pop and knew that music as a whole was rotating on its axis. 

Long story short, her genius is in recognising the area of innovation that pop music inhabits and pushing it deliberately to the maximum. For most of Western canonical music history, innovation has come in the domains of harmony and melody – from liturgical music to Bach to Beethoven to whole-tone rows and indeterminacy, the elite composers of the day have always pushed combinations of notes to their limit. Pop music in the 21st century is by comparison extremely limited in terms of harmonic innovation, but that isn’t what matters. It turns out that when you make music a populist institution, you need immediate selling points. A good chord is nothing on its own, but a good sound can sell records in seconds. What matters now is not the notes but what sound is playing the notes. And in SOPHIE’s world, that can be anything. If you have a powerful enough synthesiser, you don’t have to refer back to the limited domain of physical instruments – you can evoke anything in the abstract, so long as you’re clever enough to unstick your mind from the hierarchy of guitars and pianos and drums and so on. Especially thanks to the influence of hip-hop, where sampling and rapping make sound and rhythm king over melody, pop has slowly turned its attention towards the most bodily, the most physical of musical elements. SOPHIE knows that pop music now is about making the best sound in the world, and so that’s what she does. And she was very good at it.

At the start of 2021, at the end of a horrible year, Sophie Xeon died in an accident in Athens, climbing up high to look at the full moon, and slipping, and then falling. It was impossible to feel anything normal about it. It was impossible for me not to feel like some force had stolen one of the world’s foremost creative minds for absolutely no good reason, someone for whom everyone had a good word to say, someone whose relentless imagination could not stop reinventing the state of modern music. Who knows what she would have done? But of course it wasn’t a force. It was just gravity. It was an accident. And I suppose she didn’t want to come down. She might have been busy imagining how the moon would sound.


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