Celebrating SOPHIE’s Singular, Unapologetically Queer Legacy

Celebrating SOPHIE’s Singular, Unapologetically Queer Legacy

It only takes a scroll through your timeline to understand the influence, the genius, and the unmatched creativity of game-changing producer SOPHIE, who passed away at just 34 years old last weekend. As news of her tragic accident spread across the Internet, so did the heartfelt tributes: from poignant stories of kindness to celebrations of her artistic brilliance, the world collectively mourned a genuine pioneer.

More than a musician, SOPHIE was a sonic sculptor. Instead of relying on existing samples, she used synths and waveforms to craft squelchy, electronic soundscapes drenched in euphoria. In 2017, she built on this blueprint by stepping out from underneath a long-standing veil of anonymity, featuring her own vocals for the first time in her tender, ethereal ballad, “It’s Okay To Cry.” As lightning crashed around her halo of auburn curls in the song’s timeless video, a superstar was born.

For years beforehand, publications were feverishly determined to learn more about SOPHIE. Amidst a culture obsessed with social media, her refusal to create an account or put a face to her work was refreshing, an implied statement of confidence that she didn’t need to follow the rules to stand out. Anyway, the glitchy, saccharine bangers she released spoke for themselves, sparking key conversations around consumerism (“Lemonade” even made it into a McDonald’s ad) and authenticity.

But lingering in the background of this press coverage was speculation around SOPHIE’s gender, which soon snowballed into articles not only misgendering her, but misreading her work entirely. (The most notorious example, published in 2014, was deleted permanently days after she passed away). In this sense, “It’s Okay To Cry” wasn’t just the beginning of a new musical chapter, it was read by many as a clear attempt to reclaim her narrative and identify herself publicly as a trans woman. “Initially, I was quite alright with letting the music speak for itself,” she clarified in a 2019 DJ Magazine long-read. “But then the problem is, people start filling in the gaps for you.”

By that point, SOPHIE had already racked up an enviable list of production credits: from Madonna and Nicki Minaj to Charli XCX and Vince Staples, pop’s heaviest hitters were clamoring for her slippery, high-octane beats. Through these different lenses, her textural production warped its way into quivering, industrial trap and bouncy, pitch-shifted pop, showcasing her versatility and building on her already loyal fanbase.

When it came to crafting her own debut, the stellar OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES, the direction was laser-focused. Musically, the production varied from ethereal, ambient electronica, to the kind of balls-to-the-wall, glow-sticks-in-the-air rave the Euphoria kids would lose their shit to — but a few tracks emerged as stone cold classics. They fizzed with electricity on their own, but the album’s tour saw SOPHIE transformed from an introverted, hoodie-clad DJ into a bona fide star. “Ponyboy” is maybe the best example; the sledgehammer beats are elevated to new levels when fronted by a latex-clad SOPHIE, who writhes around the stage as her twisted, distorted voice commands: “Crack down the whip / Make the pony bite the bit.”

“Faceshopping,” another album stand-out, is an ode to the limitless potential of shape-shifting. An accompanying visual sees SOPHIE’s distinctive, angular cheekbones and piercing blue eyes replicated in CGI silicone, her features exploding and contracting as the surgical, drill-like beats swoop in and out. Then there’s “Immaterial,” a slice of sheer EDM bliss driven by a character (Cecile Believe lends her sugar-sweet vocals to the track) in pursuit of identity: “Without my legs or my hair / Where do I live? / Tell me, where do I exist?” These questions are never answered, but the answers ultimately don’t matter; instead, the ear-worm refrain reads as a joyous celebration of whatever it means to be “immaterial,” free-floating.

When I laid in bed and scrolled through my own timelines last weekend, one collage kept popping up: on one side was an image of SOPHIE laid out, naked apart from a pair of pink latex gloves, a coy smile on her face; on the other side was a short, punchy interview response: “God Is Trans.”

Trans and non-binary people are constantly told we have to explain or justify our existence, even when our rights are being rolled back. Mainstream media disingenuously turns any call for trans rights into a dogwhistle “debate” on the validity of our identities, which can make it feel impossible to have nuanced discussions on the complexities of what it even means to be trans.

SOPHIE exploded these conversations entirely. With tracks like “Immaterial,” she created colorful, effervescent worlds that turned gender, expression, and identity into playgrounds of potential. This ethos bled into her interviews, too. “For me, trans-ness 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 said in the aforementioned interview, part of PAPER Magazine’s 2018 Pride coverage. “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… It’s somehow more human and universal, I feel.”

In a world which still pathologizes trans identities so ruthlessly, it’s nothing short of life-saving to read words like these. Trans becomes more than a category, more than a condition; it becomes a super-power, a limitless way of viewing the world and moving through it on your own terms.

Notably, SOPHIE’s star-studded discography features a handful of lesser-known names, too: Quay Dash, Kidd Kenn, Lunice. No matter how busy her schedule, she focused her time and energy into nurturing the potential of emerging artists, especially queer artists of color. In fact, when she finally did make an Instagram account, she posted sporadically, before scrubbing it in June last year, leaving just one post: a fundraising link for Black trans protestors marching to end the horrific, disproportionate violence leveled against their communities.

Her musical legacy will always live on in the shiny, crystalline gloss of hyper-pop and her completely new approach to electronic production, but every tribute to SOPHIE underlines her compassion, warmth, and kindness above all else. As well as a back catalogue brimming with bangers, she leaves behind a worldview that centered innovation and acceptance, as well as a vision of social progress.

“The places that our imaginations can take us are so far away from what we’re presented with,” she summarized in a rare, on-camera interview, released in late 2018. “I can’t get too excited about anything happening now. I’m really excited about what should be happening in the future… what hopefully will happen.” It’s up to us — fans, collaborators, friends — to meet this potential, and to keep honoring the core values that SOPHIE held so close to her heart.

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