Review Summary: of our time
In hindsight, it's clear that PRODUCT
was a significant statement on gender and identity. In 2015, six months before it dropped, Sophie Xeon and her friend and co-producer Alexander Guy Cook (A.G. Cook) were interviewed by Simon Vozick-Levinson for Rolling Stone. When asked about accusations of gender appropriation (at the time, she had not come out and was referred to publicly with he/him pronouns by friends), Sophie expressed dismissal of the idea of gendered music, saying, "I'd rather collaborate with my friends who are whatever gender they please, or have very fluid ideas about gender. I don't think that falling into those pre-defined roles helps anything … What do they think is a constructive way to play this situation?" Thanks to a brief mention of Madonna, the subject soon changed, but this brief quote from one of her rare interviews is perhaps the most important pre-Oil Of Every Pearl's Uninsides
hint to PRODUCT
's purposes. Unfortunately, not enough people paid attention, and Sophie was, along with PC Music and most of the bubblegum bass scene, widely considered irrelevant at best. Hopefully by now, everyone who misinterpreted it as just pop music making fun of pop music can now understand that it is pop music praising and attempting to elevate pop music. In doing so, PRODUCT
hones in its razor-sharp tongue on a deeply intersectional form of feminism, violently tearing apart the lines between gender roles.
Historically and disgustingly, public understanding of music has always been very gendered. Pop music is considered easy to understand, simplistic, lowest-common-denominator - thus usually associated with emotions, luck, and most of all, femininity. On the other hand, genres like IDM, electronica, noise, and basically anything weird or harsh made by producers on a computer is painted as complex, meaningful, deep, and therefore often thought of as masculine. To the average listener's unconscious mind, men are the ones capable of making important music about real issues, and women are capable of looking and sounding pretty. Xeon takes every single opportunity she can on PRODUCT
to put these assumptions on blast. As a result, she ended up being one of the most controversial artists of the decade. But for every >her, for every thinkpiece putting her on blast for appropriating femininity, for every comment claiming it as a disgrace to music, there was someone who listened and started to question their assumptions, someone who felt better about themselves, someone who used it as motivation to push comfort zones. So, how did she do this? What themes carried PRODUCT
from niche compilation to the best project of the decade? If "I can make you feel better," then how? What is feeling better all about?
"ELLE": Trans Rights
Above all, everything in PRODUCT
can be connected to the trans experience. "I can make you feel better." This message, optimistically universal, is reflected throughout the path of many contemporary trans artists. From Kim Petras's "I just wanna do it every day, all the time" to Shamir's "the feelings were right, the fun always lasts." While many of these musicians focus much of their work on the darker emotions and harder times, the happier songs and lines seem to be almost relentlessly positive at times. My interpretation of this pattern is that it shows a deep, deep grief. Sugar-rush style joy, in my experience, comes from a denial of a much harsher reality than a person can take, at least at that moment. And for Xeon, who was at least publicly closeted at the time, it's difficult for me not to speculate that her sorrow revealed itself through these perfect moments. Other examples of these lyrics demonstrating an unreasonably flawless world throughout include "It's just that when I'm with you … everything's okay" and "I've got everything I could ever need." This may be a knowing denial, but that is how denial often works.
Unhappiness-shaking brightness is not the only way that Xeon hints at her identity. There are production techniques that make it clear. Listen to the way "HARD" plays with the concept of gender - GFOTY's distinctly feminine (warped beyond normal) voice sings about getting hard in numerous ways. The act of a high-pitched voice using specifically sexual linguistics, owning them in a way we typically only allow men to, is already enough to defy gender norms. But to make it even clearer that this is not only feminist but trans-inclusive, the modified vocals represent change from the "natural" and her voice directly contrasts with the words, which are not only pelvic but specifically phallic. Put blatantly, our cisnormative society is not used to hearing a woman singing about her penis. Another way the songwriting is clearly connected to trans experiences is the sheer construction of all these tracks. Every song here is polished to an incredible degree, clearly the work of someone who believes in creating a version of her work that presents itself in a very specific way, highly edited and direct. It would be a stretch to say this applies to the creation and presentation of a body, a gender performance, if it were not for "Faceshopping" off her next LP, which makes it explicitly clear. Thankfully, Oil
helps illuminate just how focused and meaningful PRODUCT
In music, polish represents wealth. High-quality production is only accessible to the richest musicians. One only needs to look at the onslaught of Bandcamp noise projects, hip-hop YouTube channels, and every teenage garage band you've never heard of to see how low budgets directly correlate with imperfection. Even if you disagree with the direction she took, it's hard to argue that anything Xeon did on PRODUCT
did not achieve its exact purpose. Each track is concise, arguing its point as quickly as possible and then getting the *** out immediately. Even though Xeon is clearly an expert in ambience, based off her work not only in Oil Of
but across PRODUCT
- the subtle build-ups in "JUST LIKE WE NEVER SAID GOODBYE," the bridge in "MSMSMSM," and, most obviously, the drill/insect/nails-on-the-chalkboard buzzsaw synth in "L.O.V.E." - she doesn't allow it to get out of hand. These are clean, brief, and meaningful songs. The thing is, like any producer worth her salt, Xeon made plenty of music before releasing her statement piece. And yet, this is the first project she allowed out publicly (the only reason we know of any of it is due to stans scouring the internet). That says something about her intentions and the message she wanted to send - only perfection is acceptable.
Of note in almost any discussion of innovative music in the early 2010s is vaporwave, the genre of choice for theorizing blogs post-Hype Machine. The most commonly understood meaning behind the looping Muzak was a critique of capitalism, a satire of the way music is represented commercially. In comparison, most of Xeon's works and those of her peers in PC Music can be understood as a reversal of that trend. Musically, it is almost the exact opposite. Where the works of artists like Vektroid (another trans artist, probably not coincidentally in that they both face commercial and societal cisnormative pressure to adapt and create musical works that defy this coercion) and James Ferraro tend towards slow loops, unrelenting doldrum and rough edges, Xeon's work is quick, precise and entertaining. They both, to one extent or another, are making a critique of the commercialism within music and the issues that causes. After all, they each took pop music and abstracted the accessible parts into something new. The difference is, PRODUCT
is hopeful. Vaporwave is a satire, cynical and understandably bitter. What Xeon does is not an attempt to make fun of everything wrong about music but instead to make it better. So it's still an attack of sorts, one still on the financial homogenization of popular music, one that grows more relevant every day in the streaming era, and one that chooses to change it from within. And she has. Her work and production style have only grown ever more popular since. This is no small feat for someone whose primary inspirations as mentioned in interviews are Leroy Burgess and Autechre.
Facial. Amateur. Gang. Oral. Hardcore. Affair. Workplace. Cheat. Singles. These words are so uncomfortable to read because they're all porn keywords, all words that are not necessarily sexual but are recognizable from sexual experiences. Xeon uses the same technique to express sexual themes. The clearest example is "HARD."
"Patent boot, yank so hard. Silicon, squeeze so hard. Ponytail, yank so hard. Do I make you proud? I try so hard. Rubber doll, bang so hard. PVC, I get so hard. Latex gloves smack so hard."
Boots, silicon, ponytails, yanking, pride, effort, rubber dolls, banging, PVC and latex are all BDSM topics, but not exclusively. By naming them all in a row, and especially by not explicitly making it clear what they're about, they become significantly more sexual. "VYZEE" does the same thing, with lines like "let it drip all over, now give the spoon a lick" and "shake, shake, shake it up and make it fizz" implying fellatio but never quite saying it. This is musical flirting, never quite expressing clear intentions but making it obvious what it really wants, which carries through the other songs as well. Many of them are full of yelps, squeaks, and moans. These effects help both “HARD” and “VYZEE” be among the best on the compilation, two absolutely stunning balances between glitter and earth-shaking drums. They're warped to be higher, lower, longer, shorter, harder, and most of all wetter. It's not a coincidence that so many of the "Homemade Molecular Cooking" covers for these singles (visible if you look closely at the font for this compilation) are themed around waterslides. Moisture is coded as sexual - think of how "I'm wet" is a completely innocent phrase in the right context but is seen as almost a come-on otherwise - but especially so for women, of whom Xeon is and was. The trans coding continues even within the visual elements.
Dance music has long been used to help people heal, from house music's origins with the Black and Latino LGBT community in Chicago to all the teenagers locking their doors to "Dancing On My Own" and doing the same. It's a tradition. The LGBT community, frequently oppressed, especially those who are trans, has used music and dancing as a refuge for decades now, probably longer. So it's not surprising that a project all about the trans experience is full of rhythm. This is music to get lost in, music to forget your troubles to, music for people who don't fit in, music to "make you feel better." Lyrically, these are repetitive mantras, easy to get stuck in your head, and simple enough to never lose you. More importantly, they're weird enough that not just anyone can relate to them, but they're vague enough that just about anyone trans can. As Terre Thaemlitz said in her seminal album, Midtown 120 Blues
, "house is not universal, house is hyper-specific." While they are still enjoyable to some of the general populace, with their queer undertones, the lines of PRODUCT
may affect the everyman but are generally more effective to the trans populace.
Xeon built this project with movement in mind. The whole compilation relies on EDM and vogue clichés in the best way, hitting us with some of the best drops this side of Skrillex, along with extremely prominent bass and ballroom MC-styled vocals. It would be difficult not to feel and understand that this is music for dancing to, which is at least part of why these songs and overall style received such disdain. Dancing is seen as feminine - base, hysterical, random - and therefore bad, hence, the popular synthesizer sounds were eventually only canonized as important when it could not argued otherwise, i.e. Wendy Carlos (a trans woman, not coincidentally, as she too used the synthesizer as a way to modify the voice from an otherwise gendered form) and Kraftwerk. On the other hand, IDM artists received success since they either rebranded or were rebranded by others to be directed towards home listening, seen as masculine - complicated, important, profound. There's nothing wrong with these artists, and some of them obviously inspired the sounds of this album. But Xeon does no such posturing and was absolutely indefensible to the average listener as "intelligent." Due to each songs' brevity, it feels like a DJ set, never letting anything settle for too long. Even the weirder tracks (read: "L.O.V.E.") use fun bubblegum pop hooks, when they're not too busy going insane. Plus, even when “L.O.V.E.” is, the lyrics are still focused on dance - with a Kris Kross-sampling yell of "jump!" every few seconds. Because of this focus, “L.O.V.E.” ends up being the best track, a perfect tease between grating noise and perfect pleasure. Like any good club, PRODUCT
rolls through idea after idea quickly, always leaving you thirsty for more. There's even a slow song at the end. Even in her later works, Xeon keeps this philosophy. Oil Of
was more of a clear statement piece, officially her debut album, but it was soon followed by a remix album which was focused much more on danceability. As a longtime DJ and producer, she knows exactly how to keep you excited, distracted and entertained.
Part of the trans experience is, of course, the contrast between male and female, the areas between, and for many trans people, the dysphoria of feeling the contrast between who you are and what you have. This is demonstrated in various conflicts throughout the compilation. One way is through the tracklist. For the first half of the tracklist, a bright, fun pop song is immediately followed with a darker, more experimental and harder track. The second half, in yet another switch-up, swaps the order, with each harsh song followed by an easier listen. This, I would argue, is a representation of female archetypes versus male ones, followed up by a representation of male versus female. It's telling that the album ends on its sweetest (and, by patriarchal logic, its most feminine) song, "JUST LIKE WE NEVER SAID GOODBYE." With how intentional each song here is, it's hard to believe there wasn't meaning slipped into this as well. Any longtime music fan has spent time pondering the reasoning behind their favorite artists’ song placements, and given how much of an obsessive Xeon is, she certainly would have put the same thinking into her first major project.
Going from a macro to a micro perspective, individual songs also feature this contrast. Although they tend towards dark or shiny aesthetics overall, there's certainly variation within. "L.O.V.E." has obvious disparity, swapping from very unpleasant droning to an overtly chipper bit so fast it'll give listeners whiplash that's potentially more irritating than the dentist drill noise present throughout the rest. Other tracks do it too, with "HARD" giving a full sparkly outro after the main song finishes, with a bright buildup that ultimately leads to a return to the crushing bass of the rest of the song. It's not all light vs dark, with some tracks maintaining a feel throughout - "MSMSMSM" finds that in most of its midsection, which is a bleak ambient compared to the spooky, banging trap of the first and third segments. "ELLE" has a unique strategy for showcasing differentiation here with a dim, creeping synth lead that masterfully takes the back seat to another one, and then another one, ultimately coming back to the forefront at the very end. These conflicts tend to parallel with their accessibility - the major key, glimmering segments tend to feel more commercial, and the sharper or gloomier sections more avant-garde. Similarly, women are pushed towards being desired and acting in ways that lead to that, and men tend to be portrayed as more weird, pushing the bill. By forcing these stereotypes together constantly, throughout song and project, Xeon takes yet another stab at gender norms, giving listeners something great to dance to along the way.
"JUST LIKE WE NEVER SAID GOODBYE": Love
When Sophie Xeon came out through her "It's Okay To Cry" video, there was a wide mix of love and hate. Despite that, a few months later, she released an album with a title translating to "I Love Every Person's Insides." Note that this is not every trans person, or even every LGBTQ+ person's insides. This was every person. Just like the way these lyrics and sounds don't cater to any one person or group in particular, Xeon has always focused on trans inclusivity within a larger sphere. This may seem overly faithful, but I think that's the power of love. The sheer act of believing in something is an act of love, and PRODUCT
believes in everything. It believes in the power of dance music to soothe the broken spirit. It believes that mere art can demonstrate and change the world, leading to a less corrupt society. It believes that sex and love both matter. It believes that the difference between two things can be the factors that bring them together. Most importantly, it believes those of us with different identities than those given to us at birth against our will, and, as such, as the best music tends to do, it is there for us when nobody else is.