Sophie. Courtesy of Transgressive Records

Remembering Sophie the pop genius

Music blog Pitchfork reported Scottish pop composer and producer Sophie had died in a tragic accident in Athens, Greece on Jan. 30 at the age of 34. Sophie—whose name is stylized mononymously—was reportedly climbing up an unspecified incline to get a better look at the full moon before slipping and falling.


It’s tough to overstate Sophie’s influence on pop music and culture from the past decade. You can hear it in the high-octane, technicolored sheen of contemporary radio pop and TikTok-core; you can sense it in the innumerable eulogies that swept over social media on the day she died, both from exalted publications like The New York Times and indie musicians who spoke of her inclusive spirit and tremendous generosity. 


Sophie rose to prominence as one of many performers associated with the PC Music collective in London in the early ’10s, alongside producer A.G. Cook—who has been described as something of a modern analog to Motown’s Barry Gordy—and artists such as Planet 1999 and Hannah Diamond. The collective’s aesthetic was a type of modern pop art that repurposed corny millennial ephemera instead of Campbell’s Soup cans. That kawaii and self-reflexive jokes about terrible old word processor fonts are now considered a cornerstone of youth culture is a direct result of PC Music. They walked so we could run—or at least, so we could get away with putting Comic Sans on our album covers.


Toward the middle of the ’10s, Sophie’s career reached new heights. She was among the producer credits for “Bitch, I’m Madonna,” a song off Madonna’s 2015 album Rebel Heart. She frequently collaborated with Charli XCX, co-writing and producing the entirety of the artist’s 2016 EP Vroom Vroom. More recently, she worked with Vince Staples on the rapper’s critically acclaimed 2017 album Big Fish Theory


Sophie’s co-writer and producer CV is buttressed by her extremely consistent and impressive solo output, beginning with a collection of singles issued by the Glasgow based label Numbers. Among these are 2013’s “BIPP”—which helped dispel the noxious pall cast on electronic music by Warped Tour adjacent EDM bros like Skrillex at the end of the ’00s—and 2014’s ultra-iconic “LEMONADE,” an unofficial PC Music statement of theme, which was ingeniously scooped up by McDonald’s for some ads. These early singles were neatly repackaged for Sophie’s first proper full-length album, 2015’s Product. She would follow this up with 2018’s Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, one of the catchiest and most sonically jarring pop albums of the decade. 


It sounds pretentious and hyperbolic, but Sophie’s penchant for fusing dour and avant-garde euro-electronic headiness with gooey, irresistible hooks really only has one parallel in the pop continuum—and that’s the Beatles, the little rock band from Liverpool whose later recordings made Stockhausen-esque tape loops palatable to the masses. So many artists aim to make music that is both experimental and catchy, yet somehow end up with neither. Sophie, on the other hand, was truly of two musical minds.


She was also ahead of her time, a cultural and musical outsider who inadvertently defined a zeitgeist. A Fader article from 2014—which was passed around on Twitter yesterday before being expunged from the publication’s archives—revealed a tepid contemporary response pretty different from the unanimous praise inevitably heaped onto an artist following their death. The article accused Sophie of merely capitalizing on 2014’s biggest electronic music trend: “feminine appropriation.” Grimes made a similar charge in a 2015 interview with The Guardian: “It’s really fucked up to call yourself SOPHIE [sic] and pretend you’re a girl when you’re a male producer.” To be clear, Sophie was a trans woman.


Though we’re a few years removed now from the disingenuous, finger-wagging, woke-scolding, virtue signaling, subliminally transphobic bullshit that was so prevalent in pop culture discourse in the middle of last decade, a percentage of the population still seems unwilling to give a trans pop star her due. The New York Times Twitter thread about Sophie’s death, for example, is riddled with countless transphobic replies and predictable “hyperpop—never heard of it” sneers from the classic rock dads scrolling from their deathbeds. We’ve come a long way, but the divisive response to Sophie’s death—revisionist adulation from publications like the Fader and dismissive taunting from old men who only listen to guitar music made by even older men—is proof that we have further still to go. 


Sophie’s musical chops were matched by her painstaking intent and a shameless intellect. In interviews, she mused at length on music—its role in the world, its perceived boundaries and crucially, its future. “I want to live in that strange, amorphous zone of discomfort, when it’s facilitating exactly what I want to make and achieve with my music,” she told the music publication DJ Mag in 2019, hinting at the sort of creative restlessness that plagues all great artists. She won’t be around to live it, tragically, but when the future of music finally arrives it’ll owe a great deal to Sophie.