Ode to My Least Favorite Article from 2014 — On SOPHIE and Nonconformity

photo from SOPHIE’s shoot with Eckhaus Latta

When I started my first and currently only Twitter account post transition, in 2018, I threaded briefly about an article that has sort of preoccupied my mind for a long time. On December 31st, 2014, Fader published an article entitled “Feminine Appropriation Was 2014’s Biggest Electronic Music Trend,” the first paragraph of which I will excerpt in full:

“Sophie. Karenn. Georgia Girls. Neana. Millie & Andrea. What do these electronic music artists all have in common? They’re all men. During a set at LA Boiler Room (watch below), the most famous of the aforementioned clumsily underlined his nominal gender play by employing a trans woman to stand in for him, and more recently has risen to prominence with QT, his collaboration with PC Music boss A. G. Cook that is fronted by a soda-pushing, hyper-stylized performer purportedly called Quinn Thomas. On their debut single “Hey QT,” Thomas’ heavily distorted voice squeals, I feel your hands on my body/ Every time you think of me, boy! over the upward arc of a pounding beat.”

If you’re unaware of the artist named first in this list, musician Sophie Xeon is a trans woman best known for her frantic, maximalist production under the mononym SOPHIE, where she has several singles in a compilation album and a full record under her name, along with an extensive list of production credits for artists like Charli XCX, Madonna, Le1f, Vince Staples, Let’s Eat Grandma, and Kim Petras. SOPHIE’s chops as a forward-thinking producer in the pop sphere are credible, and her debut album, the roughly 40-minute-long OIL OF EVERY PEARL’s UN-INSIDES, was released to an enthusiastically positive critical engagement. “Best New Music,” if you care about that sort of thing.

SOPHIE wasn’t always publicly trans, and that is an important fact about the conception of an article like this. There was a presumption of SOPHIE’s gender innate to music reporting for years, and this informed discussion of her music’s aesthetic. The pitch-shifted vocal clips, the engagement with pop music tropes, the desire by music journalists to describe music as “bubbly,” “sugary,” “hyperkinetic,” describing music like you would Coca-Cola with Ritalin and Pixie Sticks stirred into the glass. We get this perception of early-career SOPHIE’s music, along with that of A.G. Cook’s and PC Music’s writ large, as inherently and intentionally engaging with this prescribed hyper-femme aesthetic.

Maybe you buy that, maybe you don’t. I, for the record, don’t think I am smart enough (or perhaps reckless or foolish enough) to make the determination of whether talking about sonic aesthetics in terms of having gender is a useful avenue of music criticism. What I do think, however, is that this article did not prepare for the eventuality that the artist they took the most umbrage with was a woman. I don’t know much about the author of the article, and this isn’t about who writes articles like these, and it’s not about who publishes them either. Fader has had some excellent writing in the past (several cover stories have been very worthwhile reads, in my opinion). The how of an article like this isn’t important, the micropolitical considerations of “how” don’t accomplish much on being raked over, and they, chiefly, don’t matter to me. What matters is what this does, I think.

For me, this is the language with which we talk about aesthetics. Talked about them, rather. Art, and how we talk about it, often consists solely of comparatives and categorizations, especially when they don’t quite work. Coincidentally, there was another moment where this tension was addressed in 2014. Early that year, The Guardian published an interview with FKA Twigs where she overtly rejected the label of R&B being applied to her music:

“When I first released music and no one knew what I looked like, I would read comments like: ‘I’ve never heard anything like this before, it’s not in a genre.’ And then my picture came out six months later, now she’s an R&B singer. I share certain sonic threads with classical music; my song Preface is like a hymn. So let’s talk about that. If I was white and blonde and said I went to church all the time, you’d be talking about the ‘choral aspect’. But you’re not talking about that because I’m a mixed-race girl from south London.”

“Fuck alternative R&B!” she then says. And yet we, meaning Wikipedia, still identify her as an R&B artist on her page, and the pages of each of her releases (I pulled that link from Wikipedia, by the way).

Talking about genre in terms of race is not inherently useless and it remains an important way of addressing music’s history and culture; conflating race with genre, meanwhile, is, for Twigs, as well as others like Frank Ocean and Moses Sumney, an unproductive endeavor that minimizes the artist, the work, and the language with which we can accurately assess, critique, and develop dialogue surrounding music.

Apparently, 2014 was a big year for this, and for other sweeping assumptions about how we should talk about music in terms of the identities of musicians. It was peak waning Obama years, maybe there was comfort in the neoliberal confidence of the age to just go for the bad takes. Fader’s SOPHIE polemic is absolutely a nadir, and here is an illustrative as to how:

“To this degree, PC Music and Sophie’s high-pitched celebration of everything girly and cute represents a social leveling that should be encouraged: serious electronic music can finally be pink and sparkly. On the other hand, by appropriating and objectifying stereotypically feminine identities while obscuring their own, the men of PC Music and Sophie are literally colonizing the female body and using it as an instrument for projecting their own agenda. Sounds familiar.”

Right, so, it should be immediately obvious that “colonizing gender” is a popular point of transphobic rhetoric, regurgitated by people such as director Nina Paley, of “white woman talks about her uninteresting divorce by hijacking Ramayana” and “if a person has a penis he’s a man” fame, so the bigotry inherent is palpable. This isn’t a call-out, I don’t care if the writer is “problematic,” and assuming intent in a five-year-old article is as worthless as the article’s own assumptions, but rather, this is the level of cultural awareness that was publishable.

In 2014, I was very much in the closet, junior-then-senior in high school. I read this article, maybe didn’t internalize some parts as much as others (I completely glossed over the “colonizing the female body” bit, and it was a laugh to see it now). I had previously been enamored with a few SOPHIE cuts, like “Lemonade,” the artifice of their pop-experimentation and novelty of sounds and samples really catching, but something about this article affected me. Guilted me, primarily. How dare I enjoy the “appropriation” of “femininity,” how dare I begin to think about doing so myself. At that point in my life, I had very little exposure to transness, so what I heard is what I learned. This isn’t to say that it changed how I approached transness as a concept, or what few trans people around me, the “lessons” were internalized on a personal scale rather than externalized and repeated. So, instead of embracing the transphobia that circled around the language, I embraced the closet. Just to be safe.

There is a weaponized shame to the suggestion of correct ways of being when it comes to aspects of identity, like gender, race, artistry. Imposing an idea of what constitutes feminine music, and then suggesting who can create within this artificially imposed space, requires a level of cultural arrogance that we are comfortable flinging around even now. It is more than a useless intellectual pursuit; it’s a harmful one. It is not necessarily a harm that comes with intentionality; you’ll see “jokes” about those Faceapp or Snapchat “gender swap” filter, and yes, I am confident that the majority of the time they come not with malice but a complete neglect of the context in which they are being thrown about. The rhetoric of identity matters beyond the confines of cultural objects. Because when a person faces distantiation from self acceptance by the language our culture is described and dissected with, it begins to dissect, involuntarily, the individual. Pigeonholing of genre, and of aesthetic, or at bleakest, gatekeeping as to what gender ‘sounds’ like, is an expression of this desire to endless categorize the Other, sifting them fine enough into nothingness. Because if there can be no nonconformity, no refusal to perform to expectation, well, then there can’t be the nonconformists.

Further reading ─ Liz Ryerson’s piece on FKA Twigs is well worth a read! Personally revisited it it a few weeks ago and it sort of influence my revision of this article, also old enough as a piece of writing to be a sort of contemporary to the primary article of interest here: https://medium.com/@ellaguro/away-from-being-told-who-i-am-f38fbc3fa9db

In a similar sense, this 2017 article in Pitchfork does a good job outlining some of these grievance on racial lines (albeit, nearly everyone referenced in the article is listed under R&B on the site, interestingly enough): https://pitchfork.com/thepitch/black-musicians-on-being-boxed-in-by-randb-and-rap-expectations-we-fit-in-so-many-things/

“Immaterial” remains SOPHIE’s uncontested best banger: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bbsNInbydGQ