In the aftermath of SOPHIE’s death last week, Matt Bluemink has written a really nice essay for Blue Labyrinths entitled “Anti-Hauntology: Mark Fisher, SOPHIE, and the Future of Music”.
It’s a great essay, emphasising why SOPHIE’s death hit so many so hard. Simply put, she had become the face of the future of music — something that felt most apparent in clips shared again and again after her death, specifically those taken from the endlessly endearing conversation she had with Sophia the Robot.
There’s this wonderfully uncanny energy to the conversation, but not from Sophia herself. Sophia is very much of the present — certainly new, but janky and a little bit dysfunctional, like a self-service checkout. It is SOPHIE who speaks like a being from the future, telling Sophia of all the things she might have to look forward to if she ever manages to join her on the pop plane.
Most obits and essays have said something similar. This aura of SOPHIE’s is unavoidable. What feels so tragic to many fans — who will, of course, be mourning her differently to those who knew her personally — is that when we think about SOPHIE and her impact on contemporary sound, it is hard not to think of the future that we have lost, or the sounds we wouldn’t have otherwise heard had she not been propelled to a seemingly unlikely stardom.
Bluemink charts this rise wonderfully and uses Mark Fisher’s work to highlight just how contrary to his infamous mid-00s pessimism her output was. Indeed, each wave of 12″s, and then the impact of her debut album, engendered a pretty intense futureshock that we’d previously been told (by the likes of Fisher) had long since disappeared.
Drawing on Mark’s futureshock thought experiment, which he uses to critique the “retrospection and pastiche” of the Arctic Monkeys’ “I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor” — a video that, in both its sound and visuals, could have been produced at any point over the last thirty years — Bluemink writes:
When we listen to an artist like Sophie, regardless of our personal opinion of her music, it’s hard to imagine that she would fail to induce ‘future shock’ in listeners from 20 years ago. Sophie’s music exists on the boundaries of what could even be considered popular music. We might say that blend of the abrasive and the angelic exists solely to subvert the expectations of the listener.
He highlights the music video for “Faceshopping” and, watching it even now, it is impossible to disagree. I can imagine if late-90s XG saw this, it would blow “Come to Daddy” clean out the water as the most terrifyingly addictive thing I’d ever seen.
However, I also don’t think this notion of “futureshock” is quite that simple. After all, when I think of SOPHIE’s music, I must admit I also enjoy it because it has a certain nostalgic undercurrent.
When I first heard SOPHIE back in 2015, my girlfriend and I danced around our Cardiff flat countless times to “Lemonade”. This was underlined by a certain sense of nostalgia. It was a song that captured the energy of a sort of sickly sweet hyperpop sugar-garage that we’d previously bonded over and associated with our youth. Think 3 of a Kind’s “Babycakes”; Shanks & Bigfoot’s “Sweet Like Chocolate”.
SOPHIE’s music doesn’t sound like those songs, but it felt part of a hyperpop continuum. Her PC Music collab “Hey QT” upped the ante on this even further, with the non-album single rendered as a sort of promo tie-in for a semi-existent energy drink. And, indeed, the PC Music crew in general turned a sort of 90s/00s hyperpop into a 21st-century phenomenon, aping the innate association of sugar addiction and capitalist hype machine and force-feeding it to a then-stagnant pop chart roster. They literally synthesised a elixir for now, and we all laughed and rejoiced when our immaterial girl forced the original material girl to drink her own Kool-Aid.
None of this is to deny or undermine the novelty of SOPHIE’s approach, of course, but it is worth noting how her newness was an intensification of that most recently derided and discarded pop trend. And, even beyond that, there was a very strategic and cunning relation to the past on display. It wasn’t pure futureshock but a modernist strategy to make pop new again. And that’s what’s most important to emphasise, I think. With “Lemonade”, SOPHIE un-popped the bubbles of pop, reweirding what had at that point become very familiar and even cliché, and she ran with it.
But there was still precedence for this. The “anti-hauntological” turn that Bluemink christens, no matter how valid his appraisal, is arguably already well-established. In fact, I’d like to argue that “anti-hauntology” already has a name, and it’s a name worth remembering (or at least reminding ourselves of) because, without a better appreciation of its purpose, we run the risk of mourning SOPHIE only to retread old arguments and take the shine off of what she was doing.
We should remember that anti-hauntology’s first name was accelerationism.
Back in the first blogosphere of the mid-2000s, “hauntology”, as a living discourse, reached its peak in 2006. It was all downhill from there.
The best critique of it, at that time, came from Alex Williams on his Splintering Bone Ashes blog, since shuttered and deleted from the internet. In a post called “Against Hauntology (Giving Up the Ghost)”, published in the summer of 2008, he fatally skewers an argument that had come to dominate the music press, writing:
A fashionable current in the territory where critical theory touches pop culture is a renewed, expanded, and re-oriented notion of the Hauntological. This philosophical concept originates in Derrida’s Spectres Of Marx, but in its current formulation it is applied to a particular aesthetics of pop music, whilst carrying with it the echoes of its original political context. In a sense Hauntology’s ghostly audio is seen as form of good postmodernism, as set against the bad PoMo of a rampaging retroism. Beached as it seems we are at the end of (cultural) history, it is certainly a seductive argument. By foregrounding the processes at the material level (sampling, versioning, deliberately invoking buried/false childhood memories etc) it is contended that such music comes to terms with the deadlock which we face, the inability to properly think the new as such, and makes of this condition something positive.
That “something positive”, for Williams, was a sort of counter-intuitive punk approach. What he saw as potentially positive was “an explicitly nihilist aesthetics of pop music”, which could remain as angry and deconstructive as much of what had become known as “hauntological” music, but which “would be crucially bereft of the quality of mourning.“
This is what stuck in most people’s craw about hauntology then — and continues to now. As Williams continues, “hauntological musical works are frequently acts of reverent mourning for some better time, for some golden age forever foreclosed to us (be it the Ghost Box label’s pre-Thatcher era of socialist government from 1945-1979, or Burial’s rave-necromancy).”
A more generous reading, Williams offered, and which Fisher had repeatedly made the case for, was that hauntology “is not merely an act of mourning for a non-reclaimable past, but rather a way of redeeming time, of reaching across possible universes towards parallel utopias, thereby showing us the possible, rather than just the dead-end intractability of our present socio-cultural situation”. But this salvagepunk reading never quite made it through the discursive dominance of Burial’s proto-doomer atmosphere.
Williams’ final critique is damning:
Hauntology is a cowardly move, lusting after utopias that never were, or which are now unreachable, a retreat into childhood/youth, just as trapped in the endless re-iterative mechanistics of the postmodern as the lowest form of retroism, merely in a hyper-self-aware form. In summary, hauntology cedes too much ground to what it attempts to oppose, because of an a priori assumption: that there is nothing else, (at this moment in time at least) that nothing else is possible, and as such we are to make the best of this (and that the best we can do is to hint at the possible which remains forever out of reach — with all the pseudo-messianic dimensions this involves).
The alternatives that Williams offers up essentially paved the way for accelerationism. He writes that, on the one hand, “we might think a more nihilist aesthetic which seeks not merely to foreground the processes of postmodern audio-necromancy, but rather to accelerate the system to its ultimate demise, to speed up the rate of fashion-flux to a point of irredeemable collapse.” Alternatively, we could develop “a more strategic examination of precisely where the pop-musical evental sites and historical situations exist within our current time: those regions which appear, from the in-situational point of view, to be marginal, and properly undecideable.”
I’m already retreading too much recent ground here so, for more on this, check out my talk at ADH last month. Suffice it to say that what’s worth emphasising, and which is all too readily forgotten in our online sense of cultural history, is that Williams’ argument was very persuasive. Indeed, Mark Fisher went from the arch-hauntologist of 2006 to perhaps the most vocal supporter of accelerationism — a position he would openly support and promote until his death in 2017.
But that’s not to say that Fisher outright rejected hauntology. His last book, The Weird and the Eerie, demonstrates a continued engagement with its stakes. I’d argue, then, that Mark was very much aware of hauntology’s flaws, but it was precisely those flaws that interested him.
Since his youth, he had been a champion of what he would later call “popular modernism”. As Phoebe Braithwaite summarises it for Tribune, popular modernism was
a kind of culture — most often found in music — which straddled the experimental and the mainstream. While popular, it required work to be fully understood, doing away with past forms, following a modernist make it new imperative.
But it also “embodied a sense of possibility which never fully recovered from the thoroughgoing attack it underwent in the 1980s.”
Hauntology, then, was interesting because he showed a genuinely innovative and novel approach to modernism that, like capitalism itself, had begun eating its own tail. In 2006, Mark had even referred to the hauntological sound of the Ghost Box label as a kind of “nostalgic modernism”. It was a nostalgia for a make-it-new imperative that had precisely been lost, and what was clever and twisted about the likes of Ghost Box and Burial was that their nostalgia was strangely paradoxical. It was a sound that longed for a previous moment of creative vitality that nonetheless sounded like nothing anyone had ever really heard before. (Well, maybe just a little bit… Or rather, just enough…)
This is what I hear in SOPHIE. Her sound does reference a hyperpop continuum, following on from the ’90s pop-modernism of garage with pop vocals — experimental and mainstream; at home in the club and in the charts. But she didn’t mourn that moment. She updated it with contemporary sensibilities. Indeed, she uncovered that “pop-musical evental site” between the best and worst of recent pop, occupying a space that was arguably the most maligned (and therefore “marginal” and therefore “undecidable“) and made it into a productive space for interrogating the values of the recent pop past, pop present and pop future.
What is most interesting about this, in hindsight, is that I’m not sure many of the late-00s accelerationists would have predicted this brand of hyperpop to be such fertile ground. Robin Mackay, of course, was an ardent supporter of PC Music’s project and his comments on pop over the years have been wholly in line with their sort of pop abstraction. In a conversation with Lee Gamble, for instance, he once said:
Pop has to continually innovate and open up new kinds of sensation. For a while I was absolutely obsessed with Dr. Luke’s work with Britney Spears, and the early Ke$ha songs; he’s really creating some extraordinary abstractions. We instinctively recognize these songs as “Oh, that’s a girl singing with some guitars and drums, but the internal mechanics of it are crazily complex. There’s this sealed, polished, artificial skin that makes it seem like a simple pop package, but on the micro scale, its construction is incredibly dense and tweaked in every possible way. I’m sure that takes a lot of thought.
This kind of abstraction was something that SOPHIE became best known for, and many remembrances on Twitter championed her absolute mastery of electronic synthesis, producing sounds in the studio that sounded so perfect many assumed they were just samples.
This sort of abstraction has always been central to accelerationist aesthetics. Following on from Williams’ rallying call against hauntology, we might note that Benjamin Noys was the first to respond. He recognised Williams’ heretical tandem thrust towards the evental sites of the emergence of the new as something he had begun calling — in his then-unpublished book The Persistence of the Negative — “accelerationism”. Noys writes:
I find a lot to agree with in [Williams’] critical remarks concerned with hauntology, and can certainly see the jouissance of the nihilistic embrace of capital qua accelerator. Much of the shock of Detroit Techno in its initial phase (to show my age) was its choice to embody the robots of the production lines of Ford (which had obviously been a factor in the devastation of Detroit), rather than the “humanism” of Motown.
Detroit Techno is a particularly good example of the sorts of encounter the accelerationists were trying to deal with. It was an affirmation of a kind of two-fold bodily abstraction that was otherwise seen as the latest imposition placed upon working class black lives. In fact, Noys’ example is particularly poignant considering the sorts of music that are often disregarded when we have these conversations.
We should remember, of course, that Noys, whilst sympathetic to its nihilistic embrace of abstraction, is broadly critical of his own coinage. Nevertheless, writing for &&& in 2015, Noys summarises accelerationism as follows:
Accelerationism refers to the engagement with forms and forces of technology and abstraction that must, selectively, be accelerated to punch through the limits of a stagnant and inertial capitalism.
Though contentious to some, this is a really great summary of the sorts of cultural-political engagement the first blogosphere was interested in. Accelerationism was, like hauntology before it, an attempt to conjure cultural conjunctions that contained fruitful echoes of political philosophy. Ergo, talking about Detroit techno and the tandem abstraction taking place of Fordist production lines, where black bodies meet the latest developments in automation, creates a potent mix of dys-utopian affects. “Good” modernism (technology!) and “bad” modernism (the urban disenfranchised and, in particular, inner city black populations) combine to produce culture that pushes through the abstraction innate to both good and bad modernisms, finding joy in the abstractive excess that results.
Did PC Music achieve something similar? Absolutely not. Though they embodied the “only way out is through” gesture of hyper-commodifying themselves into hyperpop stars, hollowing out the postmodern subject and affirming the radicality of the capitalist mask as a way to both insert themselves into and ridicule the whole pop apparatus, their ultimate failure was to let their irony slide into mindless complicity.
But SOPHIE did manage to break through the collective’s controversies and produce something that was genuinely future-facing and radically queer.
What is “Faceshopping”, after all, if not a song all about the perverse joy of wearing the mask of the gendered hyperpop commodified object-subject?
My face is the front of shop
My face is the real shop front
My shop is the face I front
I’m real when I shop my face
It is a rallying cry to “get out of our faces again” — Mark’s cry also. It plays on the most obvious association of “shop” with the commodity form, the vacuity of consumption and makeup, but also the creative strategies innate to branding and also the most recent sense of “‘shop” as an abbreviation of Photoshop. Shopping, then, becomes the perfect cross-pollinating accelerationist metaphor for both commodifying and transforming yourself. Hyperpop as supernormal stimuli. It is an accelerationist and xenofeminist anthem. “Our lot is cast with technoscience, where nothing is so sacred that it cannot be reengineered and transformed so as to widen our aperture of freedom, extending to gender and the human.” SOPHIE affirms the fact, just as DJ Rashad did for Mark, that “we might still be able to dance our way out of the time-traps and identity prisons we are locked in.”
And that’s what’s also worth emphasising: SOPHIE wasn’t alone in channeling this kind of radical pop futurity. There are so many black and queer artists who are producing music with ample futureshock and they have been for some time. That is my own bone to pick with Bluemink’s article. He asks, “what if Mark had been alive when Sophie was gaining popularity?” But he was. And Fisher was rightfully convinced of the power of these vectors by his own friends and peers. When we forget that, we do him and ourselves a disservice.
Of course, he may still have been a bit cynical but not of what many countercultures were currently achieving. Mark didn’t believe in a lack of new as such. What he mourned was how integral the experimental and the avant-garde had once been to the pop landscape. As we wrote in an interview with Crack Magazine — notably picked up on in a PC Music restrospective in Dazed —
I think what’s also missing is this circuit between the experimental, the avant garde and the popular. It’s that circuit that’s disappeared. Instead what we have is Experimental™, which is actually well established genres with their own niche markets which have no relation to a mainstream.
People perhaps mistake this as a swipe at their favourite artists. But we only need consider the current fervour around End of Year charts, produced by the likes of The Wire or Boomkat or whoever else. These charts are huge events and I always enjoy reading them personally, but that doesn’t mean these charts aren’t wholly distinct from the charts that otherwise define mainstream music culture. Experimental™ music, then, is like a set of very successful cottage industries, but their outsideness is, in this instance, not something to celebrate. It’s a sort of compartmentalisation of the new rather than its full integration into popular culture.
This isn’t to undermine the in-roads made, of course. It is a comment on the lack of conjunction between these various spaces. SOPHIE might have produced a song for Madonna but that hardly makes her David Bowie or Bjork. And that’s not her fault. Indeed, Bjork is a good example of someone who has channeled the production talents of a new generation, only to absorb them into her own continuum. This is to say that I’d rather SOPHIE hadn’t produced a song for Madonna. I’d rather she was Madonna — a Madonna for now. A proper immaterial girl, rather than the old girl’s secret weapon. Not a pop cultural footnote, a production credit for a legend past their peak, but a transwoman on Top of the Pops shopping her face to school kids on a Friday night, bringing futureshock to living rooms, not just the hip and well-informed few. (Credit where due, FKA Twigs is a better example of an artist of that stature today, albeit still snubbed by the broader critical apparatus of the pop machine.)
Of course, none of this is to deny that, for many, SOPHIE was that person already. And who knows how more widespread her impact could have been. Comparatively speaking, she was still so early on in her career. It is a travesty that she still had so much promise but that promise has been cut so short.
As I continue to write, I hear feathers ruffling. The point is that we should, by all means, hold SOPHIE up as a visionary, letting it be known that another popworld was possible. But there is a whole other conversation here — and a very recent one at that — that we have stripped of its broader relevance and forgotten. Anti-hauntology is right — but let’s not forget accelerationism either. The fact we have forgotten how far the “hauntological” conversation developed is a hauntology quandary in itself. Accelerationism has its own lost future, and we might be right to abandon it because of that, instead searching for something properly new, but declaring our opposition to an argument that precedes it isn’t the answer, especially when we consider that many of accelerationism’s questions regarding how our counter-cultures and pop-cultures are structured and kept conveniently apart from one another remain unanswered.
SOPHIE is the answer, in many ways. But we must make sure we’re still asking the right questions.