Culture Trips

Sophie’s triumphantly plastic music moulded a new world for trans people | Music

Long before the late Scottish producer Sophie’s astonishing 2017 track and video It’s OK to Cry were released – an image of Sophie’s transgender body in joyful, anxious, and deeply felt flux – this artist was already special to trans people. Sophie had long crafted electronic dance tracks that freed femininity and bodies from their usual contexts and let them dance with abandon. In 2013 it didn’t matter to me, as a not-yet-out-even-to-myself transgender woman, whether or not Sophie was transgender. What mattered was that in early singles, such as the genre-redefining Bipp that year, we felt as though we could become something else.

Bipp’s liquid synths, which morph from basslines into kicks into melodies, are presided over by a helium vocal intoning: “I can make you feel better / if you let me / I can make you feel better / if you want to.” It’s furiously propulsive, despite not featuring anything resembling a traditional percussion instrument. Any tone could become any musical element; any body can become any body. It’s feminine, in all the ways we’ve been taught by our culture: slinky, high-pitched, and seductive, but these qualities emerge entirely via Sophie’s manipulation of raw sine wave tones to generate a thrilling range of sonics, making use of all the generative processes available from a beloved Monomachine synthesiser.

Bipp made us feel that we could become anything, and that, yes, we could feel better. When Bipp blasted out from a club sound system or the house party of a filthy, intoxicated crew of queer and transgender friends, we felt that we could touch each other and see ourselves in new ways, that we could remake femininity as we saw fit. In part, because it quite literally compels a person to dance – it is, for all its clever sound production work, intensely physical music.

Sophie next released Lemonade and Hard, establishing a “hyperpop” sound that has influenced virtually every aspect of mainstream pop music since, despite being alien and uncompromising. At the time, Sophie was closely associated with the label PC Music, which reworked femininity and bubblegum pop in intricate trance-inflected tracks, but Sophie’s work contained new seeds. Lemonade was giddily effervescent, built around a frothy, synthesised bubble tone that sounds like seltzer screaming at you to dance, while Hard integrated more helium vocals about BDSM, latex and ponytails into a dense textural stew. The immaculately sculpted tones invoked rubber, metal and plastic as they contorted to make a sound that was hard yet pliable, as well as desperately sexual and open.

In these oh-so-fake but oh-so-physical sounds, I found a place I could exist. It didn’t matter if I was a “real woman” to myself or others, what mattered was that these textures were a space I could make my own, where that helium voice, in all its processed trickery, could be mine. Sophie moulded raw sound to make hyperreal versions of recognisable forms – which felt more “real” than any sample. Transgender people in particular exist through self-processing: we make a body that we can live in and a world where that body can feel safe. Sophie’s music does that work for us, with us. We contort alongside Sophie’s sounds, our bodies mirror the music, the tools of audio processing mirror our tools for body processing.

Sophie performing at Heaven, London, March 2018.
Sophie performing at Heaven, London, March 2018. Photograph: Rmv/Rex/Shutterstock

The music industry took note, and Sophie became increasingly in demand as a producer for hire, notably in a collaboration with Charli XCX for the EP Vroom Vroom. The combination of Sophie’s production and Charli’s self-consciously tough and feminine songwriting was thrilling for transgender women, as the pair chopped up images of their own femininity over muscular synths and see-sawing cacophony. Femininity for them was a weapon and a tool. Their deliberately overpowered female sound scanned as sexist to some, but it took what culture called “female” and made it into raw material for us to play with, to rework, interrogate and explore. If it was informed by the weird expectations placed upon femininity by contemporary capitalism and gender roles, well, that’s the hell we live in, and where we will build a new space in the ashes.

The tools of transformation Sophie was developing were as useful to a cisgender woman such as Charli as they were to trans people, breaking down useless binaries and rigid dogma about what pop, or women, should be. Take Vroom Vroom’s lyrics as a playful way of managing our weird world of gender expectations, and a track about a ride in a sports car with your sexy friends becomes a call to arms to anyone engaged in a form of girlhood. Step into Paradise, a track with PC Music stalwart Hannah Diamond, and you’re in Eurodance utopia where all are welcome to let their bodies run free.

And then It’s OK to Cry came out. I was only recently out of the closet, hormones reconfiguring the material of my body much as Sophie’s audio processing reconfigured music, and now we knew for sure that Sophie was transgender, body on display in the accompanying video.

It was revelatory. I was initially disappointed that it was a plaintive ballad and not another dance track, only to break into tears, in awe, as the song and Sophie’s body came into focus. The video is a single shot of Sophie’s face and naked torso singing in front of a CGI, hyperreal image of clouds that turn to sunset and then night sky, and ends in a frenetically edited rainstorm of liberated nudity. It brought Sophie’s physical body into the art. I saw breasts that looked like mine, fresh and still-growing.

With this video and the one for Faceshopping, Sophie established a visual and sonic language that dissolved hierarchies of fake and real; it transformed cliche, kitsch and Photoshop into powerful tools to build bodies. It was open season on gender, the whole history of it ours for the taking. Where It’s OK to Cry was a ballad, Faceshopping is aggressive, muscular, industrial, as a low voice intones: “I’m real when I shop my face,” over music that cascades from distorted sonic warfare into effervescent house.

The album that contained them, Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, is even more far-reaching, containing ambient drones, two more yearning ballads about change and attempts to see ourselves and others, and a classic hyperpop banger Immaterial, which imagines every listener – “boy”, “girl” or otherwise – as immaterial icons seeking a body. It somehow finds bubblegum joy in a track that contains the lines: “Without my legs or my hair / without my genes or my blood / with no name and with no type of story / tell me do I exist?”

In the end, Sophie answers: “I can be anyone I want.” For LGB and especially transgender people, this was the ultimate rejoinder to a million idiotic discussions about whether or not we were “real”. Sophie’s music makes the entire question a joke. We were real because we shopped our faces; we were real because we made it so. This music rejects hierarchies of polyphony and harmony to set sound free – and, in turn, it sets our bodies and genders loose as well. It compels us to dance into a future where life is worth living.

Sophie’s death is crushing, an impossible loss, but that future has been left for us in this music. As the final track of Sophie’s only album insisted endlessly, we have found a Whole New World. It is fraught, terrifying, sad, joyful and intense, and it is ours. Fake or real – it didn’t matter. We could be anything, and will be.

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