Ben Woozy as Sophie at Hudson Mohawke's Boiler Room
Among a certain subset of clubgoers, the song of the summer was “Lemonade,” by Sophie, the London-based producer who, much like the songs he creates, seemed to form in an act of spontaneous combustion. “Lemonade” felt like J-Kwon’s “Tipsy” as interpreted by Kyary Pamyu Pamyu with an entire pack of pop rocks stuffed in her mouth—which is to say, it wasn’t quite like anything else out there. A follow-up to his singles “Nothing More to Say” and “Bipp/Elle,” “Lemonade quickly caught on as one of those buzz tracks that au courant DJs started dropping in both their mixes (Diplo in his April 19th BBC1 Diplo and Friends Mix) and sets (Trippy Turtle at HARD Summer), while fans waited months for its official release. On July 28, Sophie finally posted “Lemonade” to his Soundcloud and quietly rebranded, changing his avatar from an air balloon to a water slide. As cryptic as Sophie would like to appear through imagery that suggests he is some sort of inanimate object or even a tweenage girl, invariably, these images double as a reflection of his sound: bright, slick, alien, the idea of “cute,” drawn to the ultimate end.
It’s impossible to talk about Sophie without his relationship to PC Music, a forward-thinking sound collective from the UK, comprised of an unknown number of mostly anon acts who share the same inherent hyper-real, hyper-pop qualities of Sophie, an unofficial but heavily involved member. Among them is angelic popstress Hannah Diamond, who is also responsible for the high-gloss virtu-real aesthetic of digi-trend media hub LOGO Magazine, and the visuals for “QT,” the joint project between Sophie and PC’s founder A.G. Cook. Rendered as an energy drink, the duo describe themselves as “a sparkling future pop sensation—albeit one who is set to warp and stretch the notion of what a pop star actually is.” This concept was brought to life when neither member of QT, who were set to make their live debut performance on Boiler Room, graced the stage, instead having the same model in their photos lip-synch a highly affected performance of their song “Hey QT,” which the audience heard for the first time in its entirety.
In two rare email interviews, Sophie defined his music as “Homemade Molecular Cooking”—taking sounds and breaking them down to their simplest elements, and, as he told Pitchfork, “Using raw waveforms and different synthesis methods” to create new forms, referring to his output as “sculptures” (Billboard). In both interviews, Sophie emphasizes the importance that his work to derive from ideas before style: “The music or image should be built outwardly from conceptual core to aesthetic appearance in order for the conceptual roots to be present and visible in the final product,” he told Pitchfork. Within this context, Sophie starts to make a lot more sense. The synesthesia between sound and vision he aims for can be seen in the hyper-realistic imagery used for his cover art: shiny, colorful, cute but altogether alien objects that not only reflect the infantile nature and youthful exuberance of Sophie’s music, but the otherworldliness of his sound, and the sources from which they are taken. This is seen in the hot pink air balloon used for “Say Nothing More,” with a female vocal that sounds like she just sucked helium out of one, and a collection of various helices play slides such as on “Bipp/Elle,” which sounds like drops of acid rain swirling down a funnel. In Sophie’s own words: "Lemonade”—a yellow plastic waterslide, much like a curly soda straw—“is made out of bubbling, fizzing, popping,” and "HARD"—a steel one—“is made from metal and latex,” he told Billboard. Even the way he composes his name, using distinct typefaces to spell out “SOPHIE,” straight lines that melt, curve, twist, and bend, reflect his dexterity in manipulating sound.
The most ambitious undertaking of Sophie-as-conceptual-art-project was explored during his Boiler Room performance, livestreamed from Los Angeles this past August. Sophie sent out a skinny, light-skin black drag queen in a skimpy blue bodysuit tucked into a black leather miniskirt, complete with leather fingerless gloves, a clear spiked choker, matching clear Polo Sport backpack, and neon pink headphones over his wig, an orange curly bob, to stand-in as “Sophie” and “play” a recording of his music, most of which was new, unreleased material. He’d enlisted Ben Woozy, a rapper/drag artist and former fixture of San Francisco’s underground gay club scene, a familiar act at the High Fantasy party at Aunt Charlie’s in the Tenderloin, who made a cameo at the opening reception for Sandy Kim’s solo show at the Ever Gold Gallery last year.
During his set, the actual Sophie—who had bleached his hair from red to blonde—stood on the side of the stage dressed in a suit as a security guard holding a stern look on his face, pulling girls offstage in such an exaggerated way that could be read as a deliberate skit. This was in stark contrast to Woozy, who maintained an air of pep, sass, and cuteness, jerking his hands across the DJ equipment, pushing buttons, and spinning knobs in synch with the beat, seemed natural and effortless. His motions were like that of a sentient metal spring, hopping up and down, thrusting side to side, flailing his arms, hair bouncing with every beat. Though he was simply pantomiming the act of DJing, the performance was the perfect embodiment of Sophie’s music, and, judging by the crowd’s reaction to the set, the bait-and-switch had worked. After the set, members of the crowd approached Woozy under the assumption that he was, indeed, Sophie. Watching them unload accolades over an imposter revealed the brilliance of the ruse: what the audience had just experienced was no different than most events where famous DJs of monolithic proportion play pre-recorded sets for fans who pay to see them.
In its own way, Sophie’s Boiler Room performance was an opportunity to build even further upon his basic ideas, reminding dance music of its superficialities through seemingly innocent acts. EDM culture has built itself around this idea that the audience isn’t seeing to pay someone DJ but instead being in the presence of celebrity. Sophie criticized EDM’s cult of personality by his own, allowing him to subvert the traditional notions of the DJ, forcing us to look deeper in order to find true authenticity.
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