Plastic. Elastic. Pop.

by Jericho Cerrona


At its very basic level, pop music seeks to give the listener a comforting feeling; incorporating current sounds into an accessible package by using medium to short song lengths, verse-chorus structures, and catchy hooks. However, this is a fairly reductive description since there's real craftsmanship in making an exemplary pop tune. While many artists simply copy and paste a formula, the very notion that pop music is at the center of the culture means experimentation is essential in redefining the rules.  Los Angeles-based Scottish producer/singer/songwriter Sophie Xeon (aka SOPHIE), who has spent the last few years working with everyone from Madonna, Charli XCX, and Vince Staples, understands the contours of pop music very well. In fact, with her debut album OIL OF EVERY PEARL'S UN-INSIDES, the former recluse opens up both lyrically and musically; using the foundations of pop and then warping it to her own ends. The results are thrilling, disorienting, pleasurable, and brilliant.

Utilizing elements of bubblegum pop, R & B, EDM, drone, ambient, industrial, and noise, SOPHIE's take on pop music is both transgressive and subversive. Thematically, the album revolves around gender identity and feeling loved inside your own skin. Sonically, it takes accessible song structures and chews them up inside a latex-crunching pop machine. Opening track "It's Okay To Cry" is a bit of a curveball right away based on what's to follow; with twinkly piano, warm synths, and clean vocals setting the stage. Clearly, SOPHIE wants the listener to open up and trust her intentions. There's a wounded vulnerability here; a soaring invitation to allow one's anxieties, fears, and pain to be enveloped within the auditory journey. It's a surprising opening salvo, and one that SOPHIE will build upon, often in unpredictable fashion, for the remainder of the album.

For a record about self-empowerment and reclaiming one's identity, OIL OF EVERY PEARL'S UN-INSIDES often unfurls like a schizophrenic war of contrasts--pairing jarring kick drums, abrasive noises, and vocals which sound buried inside a digital processor with tender balladry, gorgeous synth-scapes, and genuine emotion. "Ponyboy" is a filthy BDSM-inspired dance track full of herky jerky rhythms, humorously affected vocals, and a driving metallic beat. "Faceshopping" takes the deliciously simple line My shop is the face I front/ My face is the real shop front and makes a discordant banger out of it; all squealing keyboard, clanking percussion, and propulsive basslines. Some of the more melancholy tracks, like the absolutely beautiful synth-arpeggio backed "Is it Cold in the Water?" and the warped R & B ballad "Infatuation", showcase SOPHIE's smart incorporation of pop styles with mind-bending production. Truthfully, nothing out right now sounds quite like OIL OF EVERY PEARL'S UN-INSIDES. Even when we get an infectious dance-pop tune like "Immaterial", which inverts Madonna's "Material Girl" into a giddy Chiptune blast, there's a strange detour such as instrumental "Pretending", which rumbles along like a lost Brian Eno B-side. 

Obfuscation is a central theme in SOPHIE's work (both in terms of creating a public persona and the actual ways in which the songs flirt with pop accessibility), and this contrast is at the heart of identity never finding a fixed station. Though she covers consumerism, obsession, sexuality, and body mutilation, SOPHIE never pigeonholes herself here (tellingly, there are no lyrics specifically mentioning the words queer or trans), instead allowing the music itself to speak volumes. For example, when guest singer Cecil Believe sings I don’t even have to explain/just leave me alone now/I can’t be held down on "Immaterial", there's a direct link to the feminine/masculine dichotomy trans people live with every day. SOPHIE, like everyone else, simply wants to love and be loved. To exist. To be.

By the time closer "Whole New World/Pretend World" comes rumbling along at just over 9 minutes, SOPHIE has engendered so much good will that the glitchy, atonal weirdness she conjures as her exit strategy feels more than simply cathartic; it's the journey of pop music writ large. The highs and lows. The comfortable pleasure oozing into squelching waveforms. Bombast as sentimentality. The Disneyfication of pop star branding reverse-engineered. A whole new world, as it were. If the future does indeed reside in our ability to transform, then SOPHIE is making the case that being yourself (in whatever gendered or non-gendered form that takes) is the true aim of pop music.