Brooklyn Steel; Brooklyn, NY

Photo: Instagram

I stared into my closet. I’m not one to obsess over outfits or looks. My style skews toward the “jeans and band-shirt” aesthetic of my indie rock and punk forebearers. I examined my black nail-polish: my right hand adorned with silver glitter and my left subtly infused with rainbow sparkle only visible at the right angle and in the right light. My polishes are gifts from my friend Terry, a way in which I have them close even when I fail to be in touch.

I first painted my nails the summer before my senior year. Having never worn makeup, I was hesitant, but embraced the opportunity when a friend from the summer program I was attending offered. I kept the polish only for a few days, washing it off upon returning home and sensing my parents’ confusion. Standing in the bathroom, hands dripping with remover, I thought very little of the act.

SOPHIE’s insurrectionary energy has challenged the stagnancy of pop and electronic. Embracing glamour, SOPHIE charts a course for elegant experimentation, one in which the headiness of atonal synth lines and body-stretching rhythms seamlessly coexist with the club’s sweaty sexuality. Throughout queer twitter, SOPHIE’s music serves as the aesthetic complement to challenged identities and self-experimentation.

SOPHIE makes things weird. Her collaborative EP with Charli XCX, Vroom Vroom, offers a vision of pop music unrestrained by Spotify’s sameness algorithm. Her production on Vince Staples’s “Yeah Right” pushes explosive bass to the disintegrating limits while layering warped noise into an encompassing banger. On OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES, the sandwiching of a potential pop classic “Immaterial” between the sublime drone “Pretending” and the dystopian “Whole New World/Pretend World” demonstrates a curatorial boldness.

These over-activated adjectives are just to say SOPHIE is pushing Music forward through offering a space for experimentation.

Against this background of eclecticism, SOPHIE’s performance at Brooklyn Steel feels confused. Standing in the crowd, the energy of anticipation coursed through the room before SOPHIE took the stage. SOPHIE is a star, her adoring fans waiting to lick her boot.

Or, at least, this is the kinky affection tracks like “Ponyboy” would imply. In practice, there is a much different energy that pervaded the SOPHIE show. As she descended from an enmeshed VIP section, the crowd exploded with excitement. Wearing a gorgeous dress, SOPHIE confronted the audience and began her set.

She ran through house and pop, injecting the level of experimentation one would expect. From the VIP section, predominately white models danced, cultivating an aura of exclusivity and a concern about who is excluded. The predominately white audience absorbed SOPHIE’s tropically inflected hits, dancing to the songs and remixes she provided. A sea of white skin — myself a small drop — this current of whiteness, the overprivileged and overindulgent beneficiaries of the black pioneers of Detroit house and techno.

It is marvelous that “Ponyboy” elicits such a sense of glee within the crowd. The jagged song punishes its listeners as bodies collide on the chaotic dance floor. The success of “Ponyboy” exposes a larger issue within SOPHIE’s performance. Her sonic eclecticism can be read as embracing clashing aesthetics, or it can be read as uncertain. In her noisy musing, SOPHIE masterfully subverts audience expectation. As Snapchat and IG stories grasp at these moments, their operators await a drop that never comes. SOPHIE utilizes noise to undercut the club’s continuity, opening up a space beyond dance’s immediate pleasure.

The issue emerges in the unfinished juxtaposition of styles. These sweeping drones and harsh detours never fully integrate with the pop-informed moments led by the MCs that float in and out of her performance. The high-glamour models draw from the iconography of elite party culture, but SOPHIE seems unsure if she wants to embrace or undercut these images. Sonically, this amounts to a strange back and forth between throttling abstraction and pop decadence. Unlike the transition from “Pretending” to “Immaterial” to “Whole New World/Pretend World” on the album, the live seesaw between experimentation and pop fails to overtake the masses. While the crowd exploded during “Immaterial,” exploratory moments of harshness elicited confusion and rustling in my immediate vicinity. These sections were filled with flasks and contorted nostrils, as the energetic party reached the part of the night where your friend delivers their treatise on POWER and SOCIETY. In SOPHIE’s case, her closing words before leaving the stage (before her encore) echoed this sentiment, as she remarked through a clipping microphone, “I don’t like governments or religions that oppress people, but I love all of you.”

Back at my closet earlier in the day, the embarrassing question that floated through my mind was, “How do I dress gay enough for this show?” I discovered my bisexuality later in life, this year at 23, and I still struggle with how to embrace myself. I looked through my closet to figure out how to present in a way that communicated how important SOPHIE was for my self-understanding. From the stan SOPHIE twitter that exposed me to more of gay twitter to the self-acceptance and love of “It’s Okay to Cry,” SOPHIE has offered me pathways to better understand myself. Moreover, as someone who thoroughly enjoys experimental and harsh music, I love SOPHIE’s boldness in genre hopping.

My closet and SOPHIE’s performance both embody an indecisiveness about identity. For me, it took those moments of standing in front of my wardrobe to realize the ludicrousness of the question, that anything I would wear would be “gay enough,” because that is part of me. I may not perform a specific type of gay masculinity, but I don’t have to to be who I am. In the case of SOPHIE’s performance, she seemed unable to decide if she wanted to be a pop star or an experimental provocateur. Certainly, there is a path forward that synthesizes the two, but last night reflected a conflict within her talent. Able to pull off everything, SOPHIE refused to decide what to be.

There is an immense amount of power within this refusal. As so many artists succumb to one current or another, SOPHIE represents a singular artist in this moment. My disappointment in this performance will not take away from my respect for her work. But the more powerful moment for me occurred in her DJ set at Elsewhere in Brooklyn on February 8. In the middle of a lively set, SOPHIE dropped “Pretending,” letting the entire song reverberate through the venue. While some began chatting, by and large, the crowd didn’t wait with their phones poised for the drop. They let the music wash over them, patiently allowing SOPHIE to rearrange their minds before transitioning to warped techno.

Such a moment of openness was not allowed to breathe at Brooklyn Steel. Instead, the impatience of the party overtook the mood. It is lovely to be swept up in the moment, but SOPHIE has the potential to complicate our desire to be swept up, to show the contradictions embedded within our passions. In this performance, SOPHIE admired the surface. I wish she had plunged us all in headfirst.

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