Those of us who inhabit bodies that do not align with societal expectations are at risk of falling prey to those who seek to enforce them. There is a long and storied history of queer fans finding strength and power in identifying with the Monster. Tied in with the above is the societal fear of the artificial body: the idea that humans can be constructed in part or wholly. From Altered Carbon to The Fly, popular culture is rife with anxieties about what technology can do to humanity, to our very definitions of what humanity is. It’s easy to see why: so much of the media we consume has been tweaked and enhanced, from CGI superheroes to tightly autotuned pop songs. And it’s in this intersection of artificiality, horror, queerness and pop culture that we find SOPHIE and her debut album, Oil Of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides. (The title is important, but I’ll get to that later.)
(I recommend listening along while reading. I also recommend using headphones for full immersion.)
The album welcomes in listeners with the genuinely beautiful and affirming “It’s Okay To Cry”. Released as an early single in 2017, it marked the artist’s introduction to the world, both as a living, breathing person (previous releases and live appearances had hidden SOPHIE’s identity) and as a transgender woman. The song in isolation acts as a powerful ballad of self-actualisation and mutual support – “I think your inside is your best side”, she sings; “I accept you, and I don’t even need to know your reasons”. The theme of a hidden and beautiful truth within us is something that resonates with a lot of queer and trans people, especially those of us who are not fully “out” yet. Through this song we are encouraged to be true to ourselves: she gives us permission to open up.
However, in the new context of a full album, there’s something more explicit and psychological promised here, and I see it as a thesis statement, a promise for the album’s contents. SOPHIE sings, “There’s a world inside you – I wanna know what it feels like – I wanna go there with you – ‘Cause we’ve all got a dark place”. OOEPUI is an exploration of that dark place, and the fear and uncertainty that dwells within. The gentle whispers and distant thunderclaps in the mix are interspersed with jags of garbled vocals that only intensify as the listener is pulled to the brink of the soundscape SOPHIE has constructed. The song ends, the sound drops out and we fall.
We land with a crash and a shock in the dark, queasy, abrasive “Ponyboy”. For the unprepared the sudden tonal shift is jarring, and as the song progresses its sonic elements only get more unsettling. From the distorted, barked commands to the keening vocals by collaborator Cecile Believe, the track is relentless in its mission to destabilise the listener. The swampy bass synths and harsh metallic percussion enhance this submersion, and (if you’ll excuse the pun) play well with the themes of masochism and power exchange in the lyrics. Dehumanisation in the context of BDSM roleplay is one of the aspects that can look the most worrying as an observer, and lines such as “put the pony on all fours” and “spit on my face” exemplify the harshness. But the psychosexual realm SOPHIE explores here is consensual: the pleasure in rejecting one’s humanity, and crucially, one’s gender. As the lyrics continue, we learn “He is just a pony, She is just a pony, They is just a pony”. Gender is muddled and made irrelevant as humanity is given up, and the most exciting thing about it is the dark, tempting pleasure of rejecting the labels that come with one’s humanity.
“Faceshopping”, the next track, is one of the most important and angriest statements on the album. The distorted ultra-bass vocals from “Ponyboy” are even less intelligible here, and on a first listen are difficult to discern as individual words or phrases. A dark, hidden force threatens from all sides as the plain narration describes the importance of selling oneself, of appearing “real”. On subsequent listens one might be inclined to look up the lyrics or music video, to discover the slogans belched out: “Synthesise the real / Plastic surgery / Social dialect / Positive results”; “Scalpel, lipstick, gel”. The beauty industry is laid bare and personified as a dark, malevolent force; the pressure to be real and perfect and presentable through technology and instruction. These are concepts very familiar to anyone who has been bombarded with pop-culture images of perfection and desirability, but that SOPHIE as a trans woman is articulating these pressures with such diabolical energy really cements the queer horror narrative at play. “Oh, reduce me to nothingness”, pines Cecile Believe in the euphoric bridge section, before being pruned back to an increasingly robotic-sounding refrain. Whirring, high-pitched noises and metallic clangs give the music an ever more industrial feel, conjuring mental images of saws, scalpels, angle-grinders. For a song ostensibly about being made artificial, the sonic implication is one of full cyborg conversion, of becoming a monster.
Across the next tracks, “Is It Cold In The Water?” and “Infatuation”, we take tentative steps into the world, on a voyage of self-rediscovery. “Infatuation” is sung in artificially high, pitch-shifted warbles before a growing chorus of voices joins the repeated chorus, and wet, crawling sounds near the start transition into a wailing, not-quite-in-key synthesiser buzz. While this section of the album is constructed of beautiful vocal melodies and hopeful lyrics, but the undercurrent of synthetic noise brings an unease that implies that the questions being asked are ones with dangerous answers.
As if to confirm this, the interlude “Not Okay” brings back the deep, bubbling bass synths and chops up pitch-shifted bubblegum pop vocals into half-thoughts and almost threats. It is the sonic transition into darker, wider caverns that “Pretending” ushers in, with distant whale-song sirens and a soundscape that feels as if it is being played at half speed. After rejecting and altering themself, SOPHIE’s protagonist explores their inner world, with all the pitfalls and precarity that come with it. Screeching, nonverbal voices start to appear, far off in the distance: other inhabitants? Other monstrous selves? After wandering this dark, forbidding sonic environment, a spluttering, coughing “engine” sound brings us to a peppy nightmare of a pop song.
“Immaterial” is another shock to the system after the slow dread of “Pretending”. Up-tempo and ostensibly cheery, the exaggerated treble and 4/4 clapping percussion are almost a parody of danceable pop. The mantra “Immaterial girls / Immaterial boys” carries unpleasant implications: lacking materiality, lacking tangible form, lacking importance. These are frightening concepts to grapple with in what has become a story of self-discovery. But SOPHIE is able to twist that immateriality into an infinite potential: “I could be anything I want…Anyhow, anywhere, anyplace, anyone that I want”. The possibility becomes manic, tunefulness abandoned for a scream of excitement. At once the idea that one can be anything is empowering, but frightening, and the vocals here capture that dichotomy perfectly.
The final and longest track, “Whole New World / Pretend World”, is a final gauntlet of noise. SOPHIE begins ebbing and flowing between stabbing synth patterns and the return of that demonic bass voice from “Ponyboy” and “Faceshopping”. The promise of a “whole new world – for you and me”, borrowed from the classic Aladdin love song, is here perverted into a jagged, electronic mess, and revealed (as the title implies) to be as artificial as the persona SOPHIE’s monster has constructed over the course of the album. As in “Pretending”, voices flow past, wailing and indistinct, each a cry of frustration or hope or pleasure. The ethereality of the sound is like a camera zooming out further and further to reveal a world full of monstrous SOPHIEs, each one uncertain, heard through filters and distortion and pitch-shifted and tweaked and as lost as every other. The initial horror of OOEPUI is one of self-annihilation, of reconstruction imposed from within and without. After finally breaking through to discover their true self and her true potential, the protagonist is confronted with the reality that we all must face. We are not the only ones going through this, and we all struggle together.
A pearl is a singular, beautiful object, grown from a discomfort inside an oyster. The oil that surrounds it within the shell – the un-insides – is what influences the pearl to grow as it does. SOPHIE’s visionary album reminds us in its title as well as in its unpleasant, euphoric, frightening narrative: every pearl grew up with its oil. Every monster has an origin story. A visceral metaphor for self-discovery that makes for a shuddering and unforgettable listening experience, full of tension and anticipation and release.
The first time I listened to OOEPUI, I was shocked, repulsed, and utterly enraptured. The second time, able to anticipate the sharpness, I felt indulged, empowered. In understanding the monsters and making out their voices in the violence and gloom, I found a strength in my own monstrosity.
Thomas Hale is a queer, cis guy and ex-PhD who lives online via Manchester, England. He is chronically fascinated by the things human beings create for themselves and for each other, and won a poetry prize at school when he was nine. He occasionally blogs at Media Gluttony, tweets at @gertrudeprkns, and is one half of the Flash In The Pan podcast.