Sam Smith Is Not the New Face of Soul

In the coronation of Sam Smith, we should be mindful of soul music’s rich history. Just singing earnestly about romantic feelings does not constitute ‘soul.’

02.03.15 10:45 AM ET

Celebrated British singer Sam Smith has become one of music’s biggest stars over the past year. His 2014 debut album, In the Lonely Hour, was the third-best selling album in the U.S. last year, and he leads the pack with six Grammy nominations this year. He’s become a household name on the strength of monster hits like “I’m Not the Only One” and the inescapable “Stay With Me.” And this month, he’s featured on the cover of GQ magazine, heralded as “The New Face of Soul.”

The decree was met with scoffs from many music fans. On Instagram and Twitter, the declaration was dismissed as preposterous—and it is. If the guy who took home the award for Favorite Male Artist in the Pop/Rock category at the American Music Awards also gets to be crowned the king of soul, does that mean that any adult contemporary singer who performs without choreography can be considered representative of soul music? Cultural appropriation has become an extremely hot-button topic in recent years. With Miley Cyrus becoming the “Twerk Queen” 15 years after the booty-poppin’ dance had become the norm at black nightclubs all over the south and Midwest, and with Iggy Azalea becoming a superstar by mimicking her idea of how black Americans rap, this conversation is absolutely necessary.

Sam Smith as “The New Face of Soul,” seems a bit misplaced—both because of soul music’s history and because of Smith’s music itself. Does In the Lonely Hour evoke Marvin Gaye or Michael Buble? In the GQ interview, Smith revealed a current devotion to the iconic Frank Sinatra and he bemoans the lack of “class and romance” in current pop; one can’t help but feel that the middle-of-the-road is where the young singer’s heart truly lies.

“I’m going through a little bit of an obsession at the moment with Frank Sinatra; 2015 is a hundred years since Frank was born,” Smith observed. “Yeah, I did “Come Fly with Me.” I was, like, 10 years old. Then, the first album I ever bought was Amy Winehouse’s Frank. And my label is Capitol Records, where Sinatra used to record.”

Smith seems to be more of a disciple of ‘50s pop singers than he is soul shouters of any era. The tuxedos-and-cocktails of the Rat Pack era stand in stark contrast to even the more impassioned style of ‘60s singers like Otis Redding and Percy Sledge. The 22-year-old isn’t just a Sinatra fan, obviously, (he references Chaka Khan and Mary J. Blige in the same interview), but his presentation certainly seems to be more in line with what Ol’ Blue Eyes represents in the public’s collective consciousness.

Soul music is decidedly bolder, with one foot in a proud tradition and the other planted firmly in a spirit of innovation. Soul singers didn’t just make romantic records—they made revolutionary ones, as well.

This weekend, famed singer-songwriter D’Angelo performed as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. D’Angelo’s comeback Black Messiah, received widespread acclaim when it was released as 2014 came to a close, hailed as the album of the year by outlets such as Pitchfork and The Village Voice. For an artist who hadn’t released an album in 15 years (2000s murky masterpiece Voodoo), D’Angelo’s resurgence has been fairly remarkable. And his SNL performance, with his band dressed in shirts that declared “Black Lives Matter” and “We Can’t Breathe,” served as a reminder that great soul music isn’t just background noise for dinner parties—the best soul music is soul-stirring and reflective of a specific point-of-view.

Besides D’Angelo, another soul singer has made a well-received comeback in the past few weeks. Vocalist Jazmine Sullivan’s third album, Reality Show, has received widespread raves from critics and fans and is her first album in five years. Its mix of scorned heartache and personal triumph isn’t all that different from Smith’s typical themes, and it’s delivered with as much craftsmanship as In the Lonely Hour. But where Smith seems to play it safe musically, Sullivan often swings for the fences creatively and vocally—never relying on craft alone to carry the project.

Soul music was originally viewed as R&B with the emotional fervor of traditional black gospel, and artists like Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, and James Brown laid the groundwork for the genre in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. At the beginning of the ‘70s, soul was the dominant voice in black music—and it had come to showcase an unapologetically black perspective. Artists like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Curtis Mayfield were crafting topical songs and albums that reflected their feelings on war, urban blight, and drug addiction. Aretha Franklin gave voice to a generation of women seeking to dismantle oppressive traditionalism. Romance was always a part of the sound—as epitomized by artists such as Al Green and The Stylistics—but the spirit of the times was one of sonic variety and creative expression.

In the coronation of Sam Smith, music fans and press should be mindful of soul music’s rich history and recognize that just singing earnestly about romantic feelings does not constitute “soul.” Michael Bolton sold millions of albums performing R&B covers and adult contemporary pop songs, but you would be hard-pressed to find a serious music fan today who considers Bolton’s catalog to be a part of the soul tradition.

With Smith, so much of his music is pristine and clinical; an inoffensive aural salad that doesn’t really trouble itself with taking musical risks or evoking sincerity. That’s not just in comparison to the fiery passion and rueful heartache of Sullivan or the artistically bold stylings of D’angelo—that’s in comparison to virtually any music that you would consider “soul,” past or present. A genre that is known for being spiritual should never be this generic and eager-to-please. Sam Smith is a formidable talent and is rapidly becoming a major star, but maybe calling what he does “soul music” does a disservice to both him and that genre. And the true heirs to the musical thrones of Donny Hathaways and Chaka Khans are hiding in plain sight.

Perhaps the new faces of soul look a lot like the old faces.