Originally published as part of the Digestable newsletter
The world lost a beautiful human and a visionary queer voice this weekend when 34 year old musician and producer Sophie Xeon died in Athens. SOPHIE’s uncanny hyperpop has been associated with the London experimental pop label PC Music, but her notoriety and the depth of her vision and artistry has always eclipsed that of the label.
In this strange way of grieving her loss, I want to write about SOPHIE in conversation with materiality. The materiality of an object is the relationship between its physical material properties – its softness, fluidity, heaviness – and the constellation of interactions and uses that surround it. As an example, sociologist Mimi Sheller discusses how aluminum is sometimes called packaged electricity, referring to the incredible amounts of electricity required to manufacture the metal. Aluminum’s high embodied energy manifests in its material properties, namely lightness and strength, and these material traits create and reinforce a societal infrastructure of aluminum use patterns. Basically, the electrical energy that makes aluminum light and strong allows airplanes, cars, and packages to move faster and more efficiently. This societal coupling (i’m sorry y’all, grad school changed me, I just talk like this now) incentivizes the manufacture of more aluminum, and the use of more fossil energy to move even more things even faster.
Every aspect of SOPHIE’s music engages materiality. Her calling card as a producer is/was the incorporation of electronic instruments that evoke banging pots and pans, whoopie cushions, whistling tea kettles, and more. Though these instruments sound like recordings of objects, like they have a material origin, SOPHIE created them by manipulating electronic waveforms – coaxing a synthesized tone into the shape of something seemingly material. SOPHIE’s physical packaging also evokes and interrogates materiality. Her first album PRODUCT, could be purchased as a CD, a puffer jacket, platform shoes, sunglasses, or a Silicon Product – showing that the thing for sale is not any particular physical object, or even a set of recordings, but the idea that underlies the material. Lawrence Weiner wishes. The cover of SOPHIE’s second album shows her in a gown made of crinkly/flowing iridescent plastic and latex gloves the same color of her skin: materials you can hear and feel with your eyes, and that exist between fabric and packaging, soft and hard, natural and artificial. Even the title of the album OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES transforms from when you read it on a page to when you say it out loud – go ahead, try it!
SOPHIE wasn’t the first artist to engage with materiality in sound and consumer products. Queer electonic duo Matmos’s albums Ultimate Care II and Plastic Anniversary create soundscapes and dancey tracks entirely from manipulated recordings of, respectively, a washing machine and plastic waste. PC Music project QT (co-produced by SOPHIE) is a song, music video, and series of performances promoting a soft drink that cannot be purchased and is instead consumed by listening to the song. However, SOPHIE’s work gains deeper traction by linking this interrogation of materiality to Trans identity.
Prior to coming out as Trans, SOPHIE was reclusive with her physical self – masking her voice and using surrogates in live performances. OIL OF EVERY…, whose lead music video It’s Okay To Cry functioned both as a coming out and SOPHIE’s first fully embodied appearance, revolves around the relationship between who you perceive yourself to be and how others perceive you – a relationship mediated by your material body. It’s Okay to Cry promises “I think your inside is your best side,” Faceshopping intones “my face is the real shopfront / I’m real when I shop my face,” Infatuation asks “Who are you deep down? / Who are you out there?” and the climactic Immaterial proclaims “I can be anything I want… I don’t even have to explain… I can’t be held down.” By uniting this interrogation of the physical body as a mediator between gender identity, performance, and perception with images and sounds of manufactured materials that transform from rigid to flowing, dissolve into electronic noise, and exist between familiar and unfamiliar states – SOPHIE sought to create a Whole New World / Pretend World where gendered bodies and manufactured objects can transcend the constellations of use and perception that surround their material properties and become something else entirely.
I choose to read this Whole New World / Pretend World as an attempt to escape the material world created around oil – the Plastisphere as Matmos would call it. If you’re going to talk about materiality, oil is the material to talk about. Oil’s dense chains of hydrocarbons, literally the residue of millions of ancient lives lived and lost, allowed for the exponential growth in global (but mostly global north) energy use. Its fluidity allows it to be pumped out of the ground and shuttled across continents in leaky pipelines without involving pesky labourers who have the unfortunate tendency to unionize. And the ability of oil’s hydrocarbons to be broken down and rearranged into different plastics, each with their own material properties, creates a dense network of societal uses and expectations that equate oil with hygiene, sex, safety, mobility, and even sustainability by way of recycling.
From the Silicon Product of her first album, to the plastic waterslides adorning her singles, to the OIL in the title of her second album, SOPHIE’s material questioning has always centered on the oil/plastic material regime. This is what continues to tickle my brain about SOPHIE, that her instruments sound like rubber and metal, but they’re not. Her persona is/was one of a plastic materialistic popstar, but she isn’t. SOPHIE’s Whole New World evokes the commodity fetishism, speed, and lightness of oil, but it dissolves just before you can touch it and what remains is the quivering question of who you are “deep down.” By teasing us with uncanny images and sounds of oil’s material world, SOPHIE’s work tricks us into imagining a new one.
Writing this piece I’ve struggled on what tense to use, past or present. Sophie Xeon has died but her work still acts on me and sits in my body. I mourn for those who knew her, deep down her, those that knew the touch and presence of her body. And I mourn for all the life she can no longer live, all the words unsaid, conversations cut off mid-sentence, and worlds uncreated. But at the same time, Sophie was an alchemist – she could turn electronic vibrations into whoopie cushions and soap bubbles, and through her work was able to distill an uncanny elixir of life. Sophie Xeon was always mortal but SOPHIE is an immaterial girl, a self beyond herself, someone who’s waves still ripple out – even now taking on new and unfamiliar shapes.