Sophie’s Music Wasn’t the Future—It Was Necessary to the Here and Now

Sophie performs at Coachella.
Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Coachella

Sophie’s music was often tagged with labels like “otherworldly” or “futuristic,” but her tragic death at the age of 34 following an accident in Greece makes it so clear that we lost one of the few creatives in any medium who was truly up to the task of working in the very real present. Her work was not some sci-fi experiment in cool conceptual provocation—but rather, necessary, vibrant music full of life and exploding in beautifully messy emotions all fueled by the urgent possibilities of the moment. The label of “avant-garde,” while more than earned, tends to rob her music of the fact that it was the soundtrack to not only so many sweaty nights out, fitful nights spent alone in, but even a McDonald’s commercial with a clear, undeniable influence of Top 40 pop only just now coming into focus.

“I don’t want it to be this elitist, academic thing, with only people from a certain sect listening to it. That’s not my intention. I want it to interact and have a life in the real world, as I see it, and communicate within that context,” she once told the journalist Sasha Geffen in one of her earliest in-person interviews. “I think being completely authentic about the time you live in is something that I would view as a career-long objective—to find out what is authentically this moment,” she had said earlier.

The primal driving disruption behind Sophie’s work wasn’t necessarily about key changes or genre or instrumentation (though she was a truly masterful producer and sound designer, warping those standards with her work as well). It had to do with upending the idea that music in the pop format could only touch on one emotional journey at a time. Sophie’s music didn’t just have all the emotions at once, it thrived on them. Gritty industrial towers of sound more menacing than Throbbing Gristle on Genesis P-Orridge’s worst day came crashing down at the same time as candy-colored orbs of sound more synthetic and sugary than the soundtrack to a princess-themed video game for children. Lyrically, Sophie’s solo work was less interested in naming specific emotions than it was in the journey between them or the power of feeling them. Her debut single “Bipp” repeats the words “I can make you feel” over and over again. “Like We Never Say Goodbye” likewise fixates on the chant of “It makes me feel.” “It’s Okay to Cry” isn’t so much about crying as it is about giving yourself permission to feel the full spectrum of any emotion; the work wasn’t about delineating between and naming different feelings, but rather about the intensity with which we feel them. She took dance music’s genre-defining mission that any possible emotion can be worked out by simply tapping your feet along to a four-four beat in the dark—or working them out all at once.

Sophie first arrived on the music scene in 2013 shrouded in anonymity. Outside of her music, her public profile was only communicated through vibes and aesthetics (curating digital ephemera as a means of testing identity before fully achieving it in a real space is familiar to anyone who had a Tumblr account around the time). However, even before she came out as a trans woman in late 2017, her music had already attracted queer fans. The sort of “check the diversity boxes” mainstream attitude to representation is understandable and necessary, but nothing stirs quite like unbridled creativity directly from a queer soul. If the “love wins” rhetoric of allies grates on some members of the LGBTQ+ community, it’s because “love” wasn’t the only emotion being suppressed. Being kept from fully living out loud in love and joy and happiness, also meant that the anger, pain and sorrow of processing had to be kept secret and unnamed as well. The queer journey to bliss is on a road paved with potential fear, rejection, and danger. Sophie knew they were all interconnected. She once told Garage that she went years without crying, but at the time of the interview, could well up merely at the sight of a tennis match. She let all those feelings rip in her music all at once. Her maximalist pop resonated in the same way as Daniela Vega’s performance during the nightclub scene in A Fantastic Woman, the neon-tinged melancholy of a Hernan Bas painting, or even the Raven and Jujubee lip synch from RuPaul’s Drag Race: a spectrum of unapologetic queer emotion existing all at once and dialed up to 11. Sophie’s music wasn’t so much a salve to negative feelings as it was an antidote to numbness and suppression.

It’s fitting that Madonna, whose (often controversial) ear for underground movements that could be milked for pop appeal remains unmatched, was the first A-List act to enlist Sophie (she co-wrote and co-produced the 2015 single “Bitch I’m Madonna”—her contributions were easily identifiable). Sophie herself was never shy about her ambition to crash the charts and infiltrate the mainstream. Her 2015 track “Hey QT,” a collaboration with frequent co-producer A.G. Cook and artist Hayden Frances Dunham, was greeted by many critics as some sort of Warhol-ian commentary on pop music. According to Cook, however, Sophie really thought they had a potential top 40 hit on their hands. Sophie’s work with singers like Charli XCX and Kim Petras explored the more traditional pop applications of her sound. She produced a Kpop song for the band Itzy, and logged still unreleased sessions with the likes of Rihanna and Lady Gaga. It made sense. So much mainstream pop now is chasing the same sort of ear-catching maximalism and synthetic indulgence, but Sophie’s approach had a way of making it so much more. Her influence on Billboard-charting music will likely only continue to grow in the coming years.

It can be tricky to rhapsodize on the tragic circumstances of an accidental death, but many of Sophie’s fans have found comfort in knowing that she was climbing up on a roof to get a better view of a full moon. She was literally pulling herself up above it all to take in the full beauty of the present moment. Like a full moon itself, her legacy will continue to shine brightly and unobscured in the dark—bringing a transfixing, primal calming to her listeners.