Sophie — self-styled in all capital letters — a trans DJ and producer who died on Jan. 30, 2021 at age 34 from an accidental fall in Greece, sculpted and mixed beats that made you feel maniacally alive.
For almost 10 years, Sophie’s music has been a staple of queer nightlife, in Berlin nightclubs full of MDMA and leather and at LGBTQ student centers where newly out 19-year-olds timidly dance under fluorescent lights and rainbow streamers. The first time I heard a Sophie song was during my freshman year of college. Pouring from the speakers was a voice, somehow both flat and screechy, annoying and welcoming, repeating the anthem “We’re just immaterial girls, immaterial boys.” The song is a play on Madonna’s “Material Girl.”
In 2015, Sophie, who for years had no public identity, began to step into the limelight. Sophie (who preferred not to use any pronouns at all) worked with artists such as Madonna and MØ, lending the work an overproduced, full-throttle sound. On Charli XCX’s “Vroom Vroom,” Sophie spliced together audio from go-cart races. The song is about a girl feeling like a badass while driving around with her friends: “Lavender Lamborghini, roll up in a blue bikini/ All my friends are princesses, we keep it whipped and creamy.”
The artist also worked with rappers Vince Staples and Kendrick Lamar, as well as the subdued British synth artist Palmistry. “Yeah Right,” Sophie’s collaboration with Staples, has a phantasmagoric feel, completely changing direction three times, but so smoothly that you almost don’t notice, like a subtly shifting dream.
Sophie also worked with other trans artists. “1,2,3 dayz up,” Sophie’s 2019 collaboration with singer Kim Petras, imagined a 72-hour party that could bring ecstatic deliverance: “I wanna party with Jesus,” Petras sings. In all of the songs, there is a pulsating rhythm and bass so strong you can feel it in your bones.
It’s a sound that’s not for everyone. Sophie dealt in extremes: the vocals are auto-tuned to be helium high or Darth Vader deep, and the electronic beats are delicate, like the fizz of a carbonated beverage, or harsh, as if a ton of steel pipes fell from the sky and landed in the middle of the dance floor. It’s just as likely to make you dance euphorically as it is to give you a raging headache. But that’s what gives Sophie’s music its queer sensibility: pleasure and annoyance blending to push listeners’ buttons. Made entirely from software, the music treats listeners’ bodies like hardware, programming them to convulse and commune and get low.
A music video released in October 2017 finally ended Sophie’s anonymity (fans and critics had assumed that Sophie was a cis man). It showed the artist with bright orange hair, cutting cheekbones, and a naked torso. The song, “It’s Okay to Cry,” is a ballad, plaintive and pared down. The next year, Sophie released Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, which received a Grammy nomination for best dance/electronic album. It was the only studio album released during the artist’s short lifetime.
In that album’s songs, Sophie posits that the self — the personality, the soul, whatever it may be — is not immutable but constructed. “I can be anything I want,” the auto-tuned, chipmunk-high vocals sing in “Immaterial.” The self isn’t even confined to the body you’re born with: “My shop is the face I front/ I’m real when I shop my face,” sings Sophie in “Faceshopping,” which is about plastic surgery and appearance-altering apps like Facetune. The song is a tongue-in-cheek checkmate to discourse about whether queer, and particularly trans, people are “real.” Rather than providing an answer, it refuses the terms of the question itself. If selfhood is constructed, then no one is “fake” or “real.”
“That’s a running theme in my music — questioning preconceptions about what’s real and authentic,” said Sophie in a 2017 interview with Vulture. “What’s natural and what’s unnatural, in terms of music, in terms of gender, in terms of reality.”
This is complex stuff, but Sophie made it something to be understood on a deep and visceral level. As a college freshman, I didn’t take my studies very seriously — I never read about Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity, for instance — yet I found myself jumping up and down to the music of Sophie, hand in hand with the folks around me, sweaty and sticky and definitely a fire hazard, listening to the lyrics of “Immaterial” and, somehow, understanding: “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?”
The song is about transcending your body — a highfalutin concept — but it’s classic pop, catchy and as saccharine as Pixy Stix. Dancing to this song, I imagined my soul leaping from my skin, yet there I was, thrashing around, never so alive in my body. How can these things — embodiment and transcendence — coexist? Could they, in fact, be one and the same?
Sophie, who died climbing up a balcony to get a better view of the first full moon of 2021, was well on the way to providing us answers.
A playlist of music in this article is at tinyurl.com/x5679qyd.