For Context: I study something called Literary and Cultural Analysis at the University of Amsterdam. Sometimes it feels like the program is about everything and nothing at the same time. I’m the humanities student in the family that relatives worry about. “What can you do with this degree? Will you become a teacher?” and so on. It’s also really hard to explain to your family what it is that you study. So, when strangers ask I usually say “I study literature” or “I do cultural studies”, even if my studies are way more complex than that, but it makes it easier for people to understand what it is that I do and it’s a way to avoid usual questions. I joke with my friends that the course is made up, especially when we compare our study load with the ones of our friends who study “real things” like political science, economy, psychology… The truth is a year into LCA (Literary and Cultural Analysis) I still don’t fully understand what this program is about, I just know that I really like it. In the second semester we had a class called Key Concepts, a course title that is equally non-telling as the program itself. In Key Concepts we discussed among others trans issues and delved very deeply into the concept of gender. At the end of the course, we were asked to write an essay and so I chose to write about something I love and am deeply passionate about: Hyperpop. And here’s an adapted version of this essay that I want to share with the world, so excuse the academic language.
Through the rise of Hyperpop over the last 10 years we are experiencing a transhumanist music genre that breaches the boundaries between the human and technology. Hyperpop emerged in the early 2010s from a predominantly queer subculture and is strongly marked by the trans people that shaped it. The avantgarde genre is an eclectic, overexaggerated expression of pop music filled with sharp distorted glitchy sounds, often inspired by trance music and EDM. Referencing 2000s bubblegum pop, while pushing it to the absurd, Hyperpop constructs a musically and visually hyper consumerist world. The 2018 record Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides by the Scottish artist SOPHIE is a prime example for how the genre challenges the gender binary. Both musically as well as visually and lyrically, SOPHIE pushes femininity to its extremes. I will focus on the songs It’s Okay to Cry and Ponyboy to illustrate my arguments, however I believe that these concepts can be applied to the album as a whole.
I will repeatedly refer to Donna Haraway in this article so here’s a short introduction into her work for those who are unfamiliar. Haraway is a world renowned contemporary ecofeminist and postmodern philosopher most famous for her Cyborg Manifesto. In her manifesto she introduces the concept of the cyborg as a solution to the binary system our world is built on. The fusion between human and machine is a metaphor for the fusion of gender, nature, sexuality…
In her Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway defines the cyborg as “a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction. Social reality is lived social relations, our most important political construction, a world-changing fiction.” (Haraway) The merging of boundaries between the organism and the machine can be seen in direct relation to any other boundaries, such as the socially constructed gender binary. Haraway describes these binary relations as a “border war” (Haraway) and argues for “pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction” (Haraway). With this album, SOPHIE creates a hybrid image; a reality-bound fiction that changes the political construction of what western society largely considers to be male and female. The merging of the organism and technology becomes particularly visible in the vocal production on the record.
Hormonal therapy and gender affirming surgery often fail to adapt one’s voice to one’s gender identity, which can be a great source of gender dysphoria for trans people. (Ringtone Magazine). What makes Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides and interesting object to dissect, is the wide range of vocal performances delivered throughout the album, ranging from hyperfeminized high pitched vocals to highly androgynous unprocessed vocals. SOPHIE relied both on modular technology as well as other vocalists and her own unprocessed voice to produce this record. It is this mix of different gender performances throughout the record that catch the listener’s attention. She presents both her unprocessed voice as well as highly processed vocals. Additionally, she borrows other vocalists’ voices – such as Cecile Believe on the track Faceshopping – to create a record that is both hyperfeminine and androgynous.
SOPHIE, who had mainly been active as a producer for different musical acts, first revealed her body to the public in the music video accompanying her single It’s Okay to Cry (2017). In an interview with Arte TRACKS SOPHIE talks about “hang-ups people have about requiring an image to be attached with music.” She says: “I felt like I could use my body more as a material as something to express through and not fight against”. In the video, SOPHIE presents herself fully naked while her delicate unprocessed voice sings emotional melodies. With her visual image being confined to an online space, SOPHIE uses this space to abstract the preconceived idea of a female gendered body, using it as a tool to augment her musical expression rather than something that defines her. Towards the end, the song builds up into a more electronically charged bridge, where her vocals shift from being unprocessed and at times whispery to high pitched modulated sounds repeating the line “it’s okay to cry” (3:25). The instrumentals also become more metallic and sharper in tone. This shift feels like liberatory act to the listener as we move from an intimate melodic verse into an eclectic and energetic bridge. The entire song feels like a celebration of her own self, both in the intimate verses as well as in the bridge part. She celebrates her unmodified, physical self as well as the technologized, cyborg self, illustrating that both are equally authentic. Technology doesn’t change her, it augments her. With this song being the opening song to the album she sends her listeners off into a digital and transhumanist experience for the tracks that follow.
In the following song on the album, Ponyboy, SOPHIE expresses her queerness to the fullest by presenting the listeners with a “bone-quaking fetish anthem” (Line of Best Fit). The song is filled with bass-heavy synthesized sounds and sharp metallic noises. The vocals on this track are at times pitched down to beyond human low notes with interjections of extremely high-pitched tones. Pushing the concept of gender to its extremes in both directions, with lower voices being associated with the male end of the gender binary and higher pitched voices with the female end. “The cyborg is a creature in a post-gender world” (Haraway). By using technology to modify her voice, SOPHIE creates a post-gender hybrid creature, like Haraway envisioned it. In a 2017 interview with Interview Magazine SOPHIE revealed: “I’m always trying to encapsulate how we, as emotional beings, interact with the world and the machines and technology around us — being able to emote through those things. They’re not antithetical or mutually exclusive.” (Interview Magazine, 2017), directly feeding into Donna Haraway’s idea of the cyborg. Ponyboy perfectly illustrates how the artist expresses herself through the machine. Beyond blurring the borders between the gender-binary, SOPHIE also challenges the opposition between vocals and instrumentals, which adds to the cyborg image. Unlike in most popular music the vocals partly function as part of the instrumental track rather than overlaying or adding to it.
The visuals that go along with Ponyboy seem to make a case for both freedom of sexual and gender expression. In the video accompanying the song, SOPHIE can be seen in front of a big LED screen in hyperfeminine attire. She’s wearing long pink ponytail, hotpants and a crop top, her lips and cheeks are exaggerated. She is playing with the dominant/submissive imagery of the BDSM fetish scene while performing a sexually charged choreography with two dancers. Throughout the video the words “Ponyboy” appear on the screen in a pink bubbly font creating a direct opposition between the title and the traditionally feminine visuals.
Roberto Fillipello, a Gender Studies professor at the University of British Columbia writes: “The very creation of knowledge consists of an ever-evolving performative reconfiguration of knowledge itself, which needs to coincide with the subject’s modus vivendi”. (Filippello) Applying this to SOPHIE’s Ponyboy, her visual, lyrical and musical hyperfeminine performance can be read as an “ever-evolving performative reconfiguration of knowledge itself” (Filippello). The performance aspect of the piece actively works against the socially constructed heteronormativity that often leaves no space for gender-queerness. Fillipello writes about the Italian queer activist Mario Mieli that cross-dressing “can thus be seen as a strategic tool, against the political regime of the heterosexual patriarchy, for revealing the absurdity of such a norm, which imposes gender and sexual roles and capitalizes on them” (Filippello). Even if Mieli specifically references the political amplitude of cross-dressing, I would argue that the same can be said about any other form of queer performance. The performance of hyper-femininity by a trans woman, equally serves as a political tool and is an active act against the status quo. Through both, musical and visual expression, SOPHIE presents a complete break from established gender norms using technology and modern media.
SOPHIE’s Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides serves as a prime case study for the subversive and hyperbolic nature of Hyperpop. Not only does it challenge contemporary pop music through experimental production, it also re-evaluates the gender binary. Through the extensive use of voice modulation, pitch shifting, and collaborations with other artists, SOPHIE constructs a gender-defying hybrid of human and machine, a cyborg. Her hyperfeminine self-expression proves that gender is fluid, by offering an alternative representation to the cis-gender, heteronormative patriarchy. SOPHIE presented us with the blueprint of a new kind of pop star, who is not afraid to disrupt established norms – both musically, and socially.
Filippello, Roberto. “On Sequins and Shit: The Epistemoligy of Radical Dress in Mario Mieli’s Transsexual Utopia.” Third Text, vol. 35, no. 1, 2021 https://doi.org/10.1080/09528822.2020.1857552 Accessed 1 June 2022.
Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto.: Science, Technology and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” University of Minnesota Press, 2016. ProQuest eBook central http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/warw/detail.action?docID=4392065 Accessed 1 June 2022.
Johnson, Nic. “How Hyperpop Gives Trans Artists a Voice”. Ringtone Magazine. 13 August 2020. https://www.ringtonemag.com/2020/08/how-hyperpop-gives-trans-artists-voice_13.html Accessed 4 June 2022
SOPHIE. “Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insided”. Transgressive Records, MSMSMSM INC, 2018.
Pasori, Cedar “Pop wunderkind SOPHIE synthesizes human and machine voices”. Interview Magazine. 19 October 2017. https://www.interviewmagazine.com/music/sophie-its-okay-to-cry-interview Accessed 4 June 2022
“SOPHIE: the producer taking pop to the future (English Version/ Interview)”. YouTube, Arte TRACKS, 16 October 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ifh0tDrwBA