Late on Sunday night, stumped on how to begin this concert review, I did what any truly great music critic would do in a time of need–I got on the internet.
I found myself on YouTube, watching (for what I believe is the 3000th time) Madonna’s 1990 MTV performance of Vogue. In what would become one of her most iconic moments, Madonna appears onstage, dressed as Marie Antoinette in full Rococo paint and ball gown, surrounded by a cavalcade of dancers wearing cravats and hot pants.
It doesn’t seem like anything wildly inventive or interesting, and in some ways it’s not. But consider that it’s also one of the most famously self-made white entertainers in the world co-opting a subculture created by impoverished gay men and transwomen of color, dressed as an 18th-century French noblewoman. I love this performance for a few reasons, but it’s particularly important for our purposes because its glaring exaggeration expresses a fundamental truth about pop music: it’s all fake. All art is fake. The best pop, and the best art, is that which is the most convincing fake, which feels most true.
But what happens when an a work of art isn’t a convincing fake–when it advertises its artificiality to the world?
To answer that question we turn to SOPHIE, the pseudonym of London-based producer-DJ Samuel Long, who performed on Thursday at the Crocodile Lounge in Belltown in one of his two U.S. tour stops.
Unless you spend a lot of time in the bowels of Soundcloud or religiously read music blogs, you may not be familiar with the name SOPHIE. Emerging out of the London EDM scene in 2013, he has steadily released a trickle of A-side/B-side tracks into the far corners of the internet. Just last year, he gathered his earlier releases and new material into a playlist/pseudo-LP entitled Product.
Despite his age and relatively small output, SOPHIE has garnered a substantial amount of critical attention. His singles have appeared in “Best Of” lists in Pitchfork, The Village Voice Pazz and Jop poll, and The Washington Post. He’s also collaborated with some fairly high-profile musicians. He produced Charli XCX’s latest release, the Vroom Vroom EP, and has also collaborated with Le1f and yes, even Madonna.
SOPHIE is a question as much as he is a person. Can pop music be viable if it’s not pretending to be real? If something is obviously artificial, can it actually move listeners enough to be commercially and artistically viable? Surely a live performance would help me decide.
I arrived at the venue somewhat late. The first opener, Warlokk, whose set I caught the last half of, is a thin white guy with a mop of brown hair and oversize glasses. He played actually-very-good jungle house and even though my favorite part of his performance was his background graphic that featured Microsoft screen savers and skulls, I’m still planning on finding one of his parties. Seiho, the next DJ, is tall and Japanese, with severe bone structure and a ponytail. At one point he poured a bottle of milk into a vase containing a single calla lily and drank the whole thing. He also used a sample of Janet Jackson’s Someone to Call My Lover. I had mixed feelings.
The crowd skewed young and white–the under-21 section was packed and it seemed like everyone was wearing platform creepers and a kitschy holographic purse. Overall it seemed to be largely made up of a young, internet-savvy millennial crowd, which isn’t surprising considering who SOPHIE is.
SOPHIE took the stage at around ten. A key component of his persona is anonymity (he once hired a drag queen to mime performing a set while he stood on as a security guard) so in some ways seeing him in person is jarring.
Part of me had sort of assumed that, in person, he would look like a knock-off Diplo–toned and groomed and aggravatingly Scandinavian. In actuality he’s slight, with delicate features and bright red hair that flops over his face.. He wore all black and vivid red lipstick which seemed even brighter against his almost-translucent skin. He very much looks like a man who spends a lot of time indoors, which I suspect is probably the case.
Trying to describe SOPHIE’s music is exhausting because it sounds like every pop song you’ve ever heard, but also, simultaneously, like nothing else. It tends to feature plastic-y, chipmunk vocals over heavily synthesized back beats, but just as often it utilizes metallic percussion, or mosquito buzzing, or the squeaky sounds of synthesized bubbles popping. SOPHIE’s songs are every pop-music signifier blown grotesquely out of proportion and ogling back at you. The MIA-ready track Lemonade features the repeated chant “Lemonade, candy boys,” which periodically cuts out to make way for a saccharine chorus. On Bipp, amidst glitchy pings and beeps, a shiny synthesized voice promises that “I can make you feel better!”
Despite critical misgivings about his viability, in a live setting SOPHIE’s music hits hard. There’s a physicality to it that’s hard to find in the recordings. It’s less controlled, less shiny and perfectly contained in its sugary packaging. The sound has a feral edge to it that reminds you that, for all of his treacly vocals and cyber-gloss synths, SOPHIE’s world is not a place for the faint of heart. It’s easy to forget when listening to Product that this is a guy born of the edgy London underground, but listening to it all in person you remember.
As I walked out, I tried to decide whether SOPHIE’s live performance answered any of the questions his music seems to pose. Even now I’m not exactly sure. He’s certainly a commercially viable act, but I’m not so sure that everyone quite gets the irony, which is sort of the point. The performance was slick, and SOPHIE is a singular talent who’s existence is warping the pop landscape, but I’m still left with so many questions.