I was always going to be too old, too conservative, and too boring to make a good audience for hyperpop. (After the Jukebox reviewed “Thos Moser”, I listened to it and found it neither as compelling nor as obnoxious as the reviews suggested.) Vice ran an article (linked to in Justin Sayles’s posthumous tribute to SOPHIE for The Ringer) in which one artist states that “queerness and hyperpop are inseparable.” I’m not sure whether they meant “queer” solely in terms of not conforming to traditional gender expression and sexual orientation, which is what the article implies, or in the broader sense of queer theory, challenging all the normal assumptions about pop songs. Either way it was very easy to convince myself that hyperpop was not for me, and pretending otherwise would be a transparently pathetic bid for youthful cred I hadn’t earned. I’m only okay at questioning things, pretty much nil at queering them.
The queer (in the first sense of the word) joining the realm of the conventional and acceptable was always going to be a challenge to queer theorists: if you’re trying to challenge restrictive norms, and the response is, “Oh, okay then, sure,” how restrictive were those norms to begin with? But it has its fairly obvious benefits otherwise. SOPHIE got nominated for a Grammy, worked on all sorts of interesting projects, was working on a new album, and received tributes from contemporaries all over the music industry. (As someone not familiar with SOPHIE as a person before this week, Vince Staples’s tribute was the most endearing.) You have to look for about ten seconds to find people online posting heartfelt, heartbroken testimonies. Whatever you think the situation should be for the gender non-conforming, I’d rather live in the world that gives SOPHIE lots of opportunities than in the past one in which Klaus Nomi died in pain and obscurity.
I’ve spent some of the last week listening to SOPHIE’s music, and trying to appreciate the ideas behind without liking it, exactly. Sometimes I can’t make up my mind whether the sentiment being expressed is witty or just sarcastic—the whispers of “It’s Okay to Cry” or the voice being pitched higher and faster in “Immaterial,” for example. Sayles describes “Ponyboy” as “intensely erotic”; Philip Sherburne, writing for Pitchfork, says of “HARD,” “It’s safe to say that chipmunk vocals have never sounded quite so sexy as they did here”; in both cases I find myself distinctly not turned on. (“Vroom Vroom” is appealingly witty, though I feel like Charli XCX let SOPHIE down with the pedestrian lyrics.) Probably my favorite would be “Just Like We Never Said Goodbye,” which feels like a riff on bubblegum dance; you almost expect a deep-voiced Scandinavian rapper to come in, before the song turns wistful.
And also “UNISIL,” now permanently SOPHIE’s last song, which had apparently been included in live sets for a while. It doesn’t sound like it was meant to be a single; it sounds like a prelude. It sounds like getting the party started; it sounds like SOPHIE must have had a blast performing live, and the audience must have had a blast chanting “Hey! Hey! Hey!” along, blasting the sound right back. It sounds as if there would have been room in the audience even for the conventional and the conservative folks. I’m sorry the journey ended so soon.