It’s OK to cry – remembering Sophie

Sophie performs at the Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival in 2019. 
Sophie performs at the Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival in 2019. PHOTO: TNS
Weekend Mix music reviewer John Hayden looks back on the short life of pop pioneer and transgender icon Sophie Xeon.

Though no demise is ever deserved, the passing of electronica iconoclast Sophie Xeon on January 30 seemed almost fitting.

The pioneering DJ, producer and transgender icon’s accidental death while scrambling to see Athens’ first full moon of 2021 added to her otherworldly aura, enhancing the mythical legacy of one of modern music’s brightest beacons.

The 34-year-old Scottish boundary-breaker leaves an indelible stamp on 21st century music, one which transcends her Grammy nomination (for 2018’s Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides) and stellar array of collaborators including Madonna, Charli XCX, Flume and Vince Staples.

At the forefront of ‘‘hyperpop’’ — a pop offshoot marked by distorted, high-pitched vocals, twinkling keyboard lines and cavernous bass — Sophie’s aesthetic was at once unabashedly pop yet undeniably avant-garde, breathlessly blurring genre, gender, artifice and authenticity.

Certainly, the ubiquitous ‘‘deconstructed club’’ sound which has marked the past two decades is addled with her mercurial flourishes, most notably on 2015’s archly-named, whiplash-inducing Product compilation, where bubbly vivacity and abrasive, industrial glitchiness collided in a manner both kitschy and uncompromising.

Rapper Vince Staples (for whom Sophie produced 2017’s Yeah Right, an ear-popping barrage of gushes, clanks and distorted bubblegum pop) remembered Sophie thusly to Rolling Stone: ‘‘Sophie was different. You ain’t never seen somebody in the studio smoking a cigarette in a leather bubble jacket just making beats not saying one word ... she was never afraid. Not once. I think that’s the most important takeaway: You don’t have to be afraid — producers, musicians, trans people, people all over, no matter who you are — to be honest’’.

Such honesty and fearlessness imbued her status as an icon of liberation for the transgender community, encapsulated on her 2018 breakthrough LP. Whether gleefully twisting Prince’s back catalogue on the astonishing Ponyboy — where the bass detonates like a stun grenade over lithe, lascivious boudoir commands — or the breathy soprano of Is It Cold in the Water? (‘‘I’m freezing/ I’m burning/ I’ve left my home’’) whose ever-increasing synth swirls render it jaw-dropping, Sophie’s watchword was empowerment.

That album’s centrepiece, the Madge-referencing Immaterial, bursts with affirmation (‘‘I can be anything I want’’), speaking to how desire informs selfhood, inviting and challenging the listener to indulge their identity — a fact she reiterated to Billboard Magazine in 2018: ‘‘Transness 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’’.

Taking it one step further on that album’s lead single, a delicate ballad awash with glistening synths, Sophie unveiled her visage for the first time in the official video — nude from the chest up, with beguiling coils of crimson hair draped about her neck — introducing an element of vulnerability alongside her trademark envelope-pushing electronica. That track’s title? It’s Okay To Cry — a manifesto for her all-too-fleeting time on earth.


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