By Remington Jensen
For a sizable portion of modern music culture, transgender artists have had to work harder than cisgender artists while receiving less recognition and praise for similar performances of their skills and talents. Yet in 2018 and the years that now will follow, artists such as Scottish DJ, singer and producer SOPHIE (stylized in all capitals) are attempting to take a commanding hold on the industry and orient their power into a new realm of acceptance.
In an interview with PAPER magazine for their Pride edition, the artist spoke on the difficulties and freedoms of being transgender:
“…coming out as trans is ultimately a reclamation of your identity, it means there’s no longer an expectation based on the body you were born into, or how your life should play out and how it should end. Traditional family models and structures of control disappear.”
It doesn’t help either that the artist began to publicly transition in the uptick of her musical career. In the years following her 2014 cultural breakthrough – with singles like “Hard” or “Lemonade” landing on websites like Pitchfork, Complex, and even the Washington Post – SOPHIE’s fame was rising in parallel to the growing challenges with her gender transformation in a steadily focused limelight.
In the years following 2014, she produced for the likes of Madonna, Charli XCX, Cashmere Cat, MØ, Vince Staples, Let’s Eat Grandma, and Gaika. These production features (listed in chronological order) add up into the follow-up to her 2015 debut album, “Product.” Her new 2018 record, “Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides” is SOPHIE’s debut record since officially transitioning, and it couldn’t have come at a better time for the artist. After a colossal wave of profile pieces by publications like the New York Times or Billboard, reception to the record was overwhelmingly positive, with ratings exceeding 85/100 from websites like Metacritic, Pitchfork, and Vice. This avant-pop record proved that being an openly transgender artist in a more accepting landscape is an entirely possible career path, and a well-respected one at that.
The title of the record – “Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides” – sounds like “I love every person’s insides” when said out loud, and is where the key component to SOPHIE’s music lies: her acceptance as an artist. Her style at times transcends the conventional sounds of pop, with her complicated blend of older electronic genres – like IDM (Intelligent Dance Music, pioneered by Aphex Twin and Autechre) – or newer genres like Bubblegum – the genre of which the PC Music crowd that her music initially thrived in, canonized. In a response to these difficult-to-listen-to sonic onslaughts, SOPHIE expertly contrasts her discordant art with her harmonious recognition of their fans.
In an interview with “Interview Magazine” in October of 2017, on the topic of revealing her transition, SOPHIE says she never thought of it in the way of it being an eventual thing, but rather as a continuous action of morphing comfortability. She continues:
“The intention has always been to be how I want to be and how I’m comfortable in the world, never to be anonymous. Right now, I’m just going with my instincts, and this is what I feel like doing. I don’t see any difference. It’s just expression. I’m always honest in what I put across.”
This sense of musical comfort has been the backbone of her work since the early days, finding comfortability in being herself through music that challenges listeners as much as her identity challenges the current climate of the music industry. Her music aims to scatter the minds of listeners while simultaneously bringing together groups of people that normally wouldn’t coincide, save for the intervention of an explosive transgender pop artist. Later in the interview, she states that she had only ever wanted to be referred to as just SOPHIE, because before she became a producer for top 40 charters, or an international DJ sensation, she had always wanted to feel comfortable being herself, in her name.
The honesty in her work echoes throughout the sounds. SOPHIE makes her music for herself, and whomever agrees with or enjoys the content of the music can join her in fanship. Since the styles she incorporates are so brash and hectic, they are uniquely defined by their counterparts. At times her music can sound harsh – like the Japanese electronic experimentalist Merzbow – or serene – like United States ambient composer Oneohtrix Point Never – but in all of this lies the reason for her seeming success.
An informal interview with i-D – the VICE Media affiliated ex-Vogue director startup – focuses around the unconventional career path that SOPHIE has blazed, and a quote from this article in her own words explains the artist’s intentions in creating an understanding and emotive parade that aims to break free from the norms that Europe has been entranced by. She states:
“I’ve never really been particularly into karaoke-style performance or a drag race style thing. That’s not an influence on me. I’ve always dreamt of creating some sort of community atmosphere, which is queer, fluid, diverse, genderless, dynamic… I guess I felt like a lot of the culture around club nights in London was very macho when I started doing music. I did want to bring something different, to try and open up a different space for people.”
SOPHIE’s music sprawls across genres rarely attempted to be combined, while trailblazing in industry standards that have yet to be widely explored. The career trajectory for such a progressive and bold artist should only point upwards, because with this most recent album only introducing more of the public to the 31 year-old, she is sure to become the most well-known transgender pop star since Kim Petras. But for now, she is making strides, producing for big names in the modern music scene with a style that is not only unconventional, but an apt dissonant response for the discrimination that trans artists have felt in the business for the years before SOPHIE jumped into the scene.
Cover art for SOPHIE’s “Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides”