What’s the Best Way to Honor Sophie in Song?

When the producer Sophie died at 34 in 2021 after an accidental fall, it felt like a singular loss, as well as the end of a nascent era in electronic music. The innovative Scottish artist, who worked with Charli XCX, Vince Staples and Madonna, was a linchpin of the U.K.’s experimental scene in the 2010s and advocated for a radical reframing of the way creators and listeners think about music. “The language of electronic music shouldn’t still be referencing obsolete instruments like kick drum or clap. No one’s kicking or clapping,” she said in 2014. “It makes more sense in my mind to discard those ideas of polyphony and traditional roles of instrumentation.”

Sophie provided a new vernacular, as well as great inspiration, for a generation of acolytes, but her own body of work was relatively small and she rarely spoke to the press, making it hard to imagine where one of pop futurism’s leading lights may have gone next. While many artists, such as the avant-garde pop duo 100 gecs and the German experimental musician Lyra Pramuk, have drawn clear inspiration from Sophie, few have captured the perilous, cutting-edge newness of her work, which reinterpreted pop music codes in disorienting, physical, textural ways.

On “Lemonade,” an early calling card, she seemed to craft melody out of the sounds of popping bubbles and hissing gas canisters; “Faceshopping” turns ideas of constructed digital identity into what sounds like a construction site, whirring with the sounds of tearing metal and heavy machinery. Sophie felt that music should be a tactile, unpredictable experience — she memorably said a song should feel like a roller-coaster ride, ending with the listener buying a key ring — but a lot of attempts to reference the “Sophie sound,” like Kim Petras’s 2023 track “Brrr,” reduce the producer’s philosophy to an aesthetic of bulbous bass and scraping synths while still fitting conventional pop forms.

Four recent songs by Charli XCX, A.G. Cook, Caroline Polachek and St. Vincent seem to suggest that the best way to pay tribute to a modern titan is not to emulate her at all, but to reinterpret strands of her DNA in hope of alluding to a bigger picture. These tracks reckon with Sophie’s legacy in emotional, rather than technical, ways, acknowledging the humanity within a figure who is often remembered in flattening, counterintuitively rigid portraits.

The most trenchant of these songs is “So I,” the wounded core of Charli’s volatile, clubby new record, “Brat.” Over shuddering laser-beam synths — a nod to her past work with Sophie on records like “Vroom Vroom” and “Number 1 Angel” — Charli sings about regretting putting distance between herself and Sophie, whose talent awed her, while she was alive. The song is nakedly vulnerable, almost power ballad-esque in the way it builds, resembling one of Sophie’s best-known tracks: “It’s OK to Cry,” the song with which she came out as transgender and revealed her face to the public for the first time. Charli makes the link explicit on the track’s chorus: “I know you always said ‘It’s OK to cry’/So I know I can cry.”

Like Charli, Cook was one of Sophie’s closest collaborators; he has written at length about how much his artistry and musicianship was influenced by her ideas about production and artifice, and the pair were often positioned as the leading forces of what’s now known as hyperpop. “Without,” a song paying tribute to Sophie from his recent triple-LP “Britpop,” sounds little like anything the pair made together — it’s a raw electric guitar-and-vocals song that recalls the hushed intensity of Midwest emo (“I’m tired of never letting go,” he sings, “I’m living with/Without your wit/An emptiness”). Toward the song’s end, he interpolates Sophie’s breakthrough single, “Bipp,” focusing on the anthemic chant at its core: “I can make you feel better/If you let me.” Cook uses it as a pure expression of feeling and desire, channeling the deep warmth running through much of Sophie’s work.

Both of these songs sketch out an image of Sophie not just as a superproducer, but as someone whose distinctly emotional side — one that was realized most fully on her sole album, “Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides” (2017) — was as key to her music as the sharpened, technical one. Polachek, another friend and collaborator of Sophie’s, zeros in on another facet of her music: her embodiment of the twisted pop star, refracting elements of diva worship and spectacle into something strange and magnetic.

“I Believe,” a song from Polachek’s 2023 album “Desire, I Want to Turn Into You,” is implicitly addressed to Sophie (“I believe we’ll get another day together”) and explicitly addresses the circumstances of her death. It welds together signifiers of ’80s and ’90s pop — chintzy, euphoric synth stabs; a hypnotic two-step beat — and uses them as padding for Polachek’s soaring voice. While she is typically a controlled singer, Polachek unleashes an unrestricted, ornamental vocal on “I Believe”; her contortions and wails feel like a homage to Sophie’s fondness for chopping and distending the voice into pieces that could serve as backbone for entire tracks.

“I Believe,” while mostly well-received, has also drawn ire from some fans for an opening line — “Look over the edge, but not too far” — that references Sophie’s death (the producer slipped while observing a full moon). St. Vincent pushed further in her own recent Sophie tribute, “Sweetest Fruit,” which begins with a verse that imagines Sophie’s final moments: “One wrong stair/Took her down to the depths/But for a minute, what a view.”

St. Vincent also sings the lyrics “My Sophie,” laying claim to an artist she didn’t know personally; the backlash was swift. But Clark’s invocation is also a sign of her admiration for an artist whose music was fearless and risk-taking, who understood that “the sweetest fruit is on the limb.” (It also fits into a growing canon of St. Vincent songs about queer people seeking to find ways of living outside traditional structures.)

The song itself, a piece of sugary art-rock, sounds nothing like anything Sophie would produce. But shallow emulation of the producer’s “sound” feels like more of a pitfall than simply sticking in your own lane and trying to capture the striking human appeal of her music and her stardom. “Sweetest Fruit,” like all these songs, understands innately that it was Sophie’s attitude that was most powerful — not the pots-and-pans clatter of her synths, but the idea that, rather than continue to fall down a black hole of retro-mania, music could, and would, one day move into a bolder and braver future.

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