Sam Smith’s Radical Centrism
Sam Smith’s music defines the word inoffensive—so why does the singer inspire so many arguments? For more than a decade, Smith’s distinctive voice has soaked through the collective consciousness like the syrup in a rum cake. But that success has also triggered annoyance from across the cultural spectrum. As a nonbinary person, Smith has been treated as a punch line by right-wing media. Earlier in their career, they also ticked off the queer commentariat by misstating gay history and tsk-tsking about Grindr. All along, critics have made sport of Smith for formulaic songwriting, mannered vocals, and a tendency to hire church choirs as if they’re available on Taskrabbit to install soul on demand.
The latest round of sniping against Smith has been particularly vicious, and telling. Late last year, Smith donned two very standard pop-star outfits: a sparkly bodysuit at a concert, and a skimpy bathing suit for a series of Instagram photos taken on a boat. Whereas the Harry Styleses of the world had been ogled for doing the same, Smith received waves of mockery on social media for how they looked. That nastiness, Smith’s defenders quickly noted, provided an example of the double standards that queer people face. But it also demonstrated the ridiculous body standards that basically everyone, in one way or another, must navigate. After all, Smith had been singled out for flaunting proportions more common than those of a slender Styles or a sculptural Kardashian.
Here is the paradox, and appeal, of Sam Smith: One of the world’s most prominent queer entertainers is also a normie, both in style and in sound. Though they’re equipped with special vocal talent, and have made a gutsy journey with gender while in the public eye—see the mammoth pink frills they sported last weekend on SNL—Smith thrives at playing to the middle. Their new album, Gloria, which is out tomorrow, is a reminder that oft-disrespected figures of commerce and compromise can, in their way, nudge society along.
When Smith first drew attention in the early 2010s, their voice seemed genuinely unusual in its contemporary context. Tacking and billowing like the curvaceous sail of a yacht, Smith’s singing had a fluctuating beauty that contrasted with the explosiveness of an Adele and the conversationality of an Ed Sheeran. Really, the closest vocal contemporary was Anohni, a legend of 21st-century art pop. But while Anohni made experimental music about gender dysphoria and imperialism, Smith found global fame with a love ballad that echoed a famous Tom Petty melody. On other hits, Smith sang over retro-chic dance beats. Smith’s remarkable voice, it became clear, would be used not to disrupt pop but rather to provide variations on mass-market flavors.
Smith’s latest smash, “Unholy,” is a fascinating example of such flavor-tweaking. With a chorus that brings to mind a monastery choir and a beat made up of robotic buzzes and clangs, the song sounds not quite like anything else on the Billboard Hot 100. But that is not to say it came out of nowhere: The track pulls from the style known as hyperpop, an underground, queer-dominated brew that has percolated for years without bubbling into the mainstream. The song presumably took off thanks to Smith’s preexisting fame as well as the nagging familiarity of the chorus, which sounds like Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River” as covered in a Verdi opera.
The lyrics of “Unholy”—celebrating a dirty “Daddy” stepping out on “Mummy”—are debatably subversive, and likely hit different listeners in different ways. People tuned into hyperpop will hear the song’s Sophie-inspired beat, recognize the featured vocalist Kim Petras—a trans singer beloved in gay bars for years now—and imagine that the song is about queer sex. But the words can also be received in a more vanilla light. At Vulture, Jason P. Frank complained, “The most ‘unholy’ act that two queer artists could come up with is a straight man cheating on his wife.”
That’s the Smith trick, though: irritating the edges, lightly stirring the middle. Gloria—Smith’s fourth studio album—is a similarly mild statement piece. Many of the songs are mid-tempo fare recycling various radio fads of the past 10 years: tropical pop, nu disco, The Weeknd–style R&B. Smith gasps and pants about lust and liberation, and one track samples RuPaul delivering his famous slogan: “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?” No one who’s browsed T-shirts at Target during a Pride month in recent years will have their mind blown by any of this. But at a time of anti-queer backlash in the U.S. and abroad, who can doubt that some listeners will continue finding Smith’s music a lifeline?
Perhaps the best song on Gloria is the final and sappiest one, a duet with Sheeran, called “Who We Love.” With a gentle melody that moves in the manner of meditation breathing, the track casts a potently sentimental spell. Sheeran’s verse references the most familiar kind of happily ever after: a wedding. Smith, meanwhile, lays out a more modest dream, the kind that many queer people still cannot take for granted: “holding hands in the street, no need to be discreet.” Perhaps years from now, as the song drifts across the food courts and school dances of a more enlightened era, listeners may wonder what need for discretion Smith was singing about. Or perhaps they’ll notice nothing about the song, other than that it was pleasant.