It’s fashionable to hate Sam Smith.
If you didn’t know this, a recent New York Times profile of the singer certainly paints him as the victim of cruel taunting on social media. Is it true? Perhaps. But take a stroll through the mentions of a pop star like Rita Ora or Katy Perry or even Taylor Swift and you’ll see similar rude jokes about their music, their opinions, and their circumstances. It’s hard to greet Sam Smith with anything other than derision. His music, till now, has mostly been less dynamic Adele fare manufactured to sell at coffee shops. His biggest hit ripped off Tom Petty. His soulful, at times dulcet voice has been used in the service of music that hardly sets the world on fire or opens itself up to further examination, so it’s easy to understand why the focus is generally on his blunders.
There have been many. Like the interview where he slipped into respectability politics and pandered to his straight fan base by decrying the use of Grindr and other dating apps among gay men. “No offense to people who go on Tinder but I just feel like it’s ruining romance, I really do,” he said. “We’re losing the art of conversation and being able to go and speak to people and you’re swiping people… From my experience the most beautiful people I’ve been on dates with are the dumbest, so why would I swipe people who are ‘unattractive’ when I could potentially fall in love with them? Stop Tinder and Grindr!”
Or when he mistakenly referred to himself as the first openly gay man to take home an Oscar after winning Best Original Song for “Writing’s on the Wall” from Spectre. The Times refers to the response Smith received as “an assassination’s worth of ridicule,” which is about as melodramatic as naming your Smith profile “The Tear-Stained Confessions of Sam Smith” and opening your piece with a passage of how many times Smith cried during the interview. It’s particularly hard to be on the internet if you’re a celebrity people have directed their ire toward, but to imply that the response to Smith’s uninformed comment was like an assassination is really pushing it.
It also furthers the narrative that Smith is somehow a shielded, coddled child who doesn’t live in the real world—like a twilight years Michael Jackson, clinging to his childhood at Neverland Ranch. The very idea that you wouldn’t make fun of someone for mistakenly calling himself the first openly gay man to win an Oscar belies the human condition. If Smith has real friends, he should have received a barrage of texts lightly dragging him for his error. He should still have pals bringing it up in jest at brunch. Look at the amount of jokes piled on the La La Land cast and presenters Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty after their Moonlight snafu. Do you think Ryan Gosling doesn’t still joke about the time he didn’t really win an Oscar?
But anecdotes like Smith growing up as gay and not having many gay peers (none of us did before Glee, relax) seem to paint him as a tortured soul, rejected by the world for simply being who he is. Who he is, apparently, is someone who constantly decries being single and announces that his albums are about unrequited love. Smith actively engages in parodying himself at times, and the Times profile plays a large part in that. It threatens to obscure his music—which, as noted, is hardly flashy and demanding of critical thinking on its own. Most of our pop stars demand some degree of reflection about their intentions when it comes to music, but for Smith, it’s just “here’s some love songs.” That’s perfectly fine, but a white man with a soulful voice accompanied by a choir singing blackgrounds isn’t particularly novel.
I’m not quite sure how to feel about Smith. Exhaustion from his persona? A kindred spirit when he opens up about his childhood in the Times by saying, “Some kids were mean to him about his sexuality, but it was the making fun of his weight that bothered him. His sexuality was not a negotiation; his weight was.” Ridicule for public snafus? All of that has been an attempt to think about Smith, to consider him intellectually when there’s very little to parse beyond the image of a Jane Austen character weeping on a fainting couch.
Smith is often compared to George Michael—probably because they’re both gay and British, but the comparisons end there. Michael’s music had an upbeat urgency and felt political most of the time. Smith is like Michael in the way that Adele’s somber cover of “Fastlove” at the Grammys stripped a winking song about Michael’s sexuality of its context and made it an event for people to sob over. Smith adopts a similar approach on The Thrill of it All, which doesn’t have many particularly exciting thrills on it but does finally see Smith moving in the direction of meaningful music.
At its best, The Thrill of it All finds Smith at war with religion and homosexuality. He told Billboard that its second single, “Pray,” was inspired by a visit to Iraq, but in the context of the album it seems to be about more than that. Perhaps because it follows the song “HIM,” where he tells the story of a boy coming out to his father and also to God. Smith doesn’t talk much about church, though he did feature a gay marriage in one for his “Lay Me Down” video, and it can often appear as if he’s only using religious imagery because what else are you going to draw upon when you’re marketing yourself as the white, male, gay version of a Motown singer?
Though if Smith were truly invoking Motown, it would do him wonders to dust off the melancholy. Singers have crafted careers out of sad pop songs whose intentions are masked due to their upbeat nature. The best song on The Thrill of it All is “Midnight Train,” about a man Smith realizes he has to break up with because he’s not in love with him. It’s a beautifully crafted song, and one of the first of Smith’s that seems to be reaching beyond his public persona.
Perhaps he ought to follow in the footsteps of another British singer, Dusty Springfield, who, when she wanted to get in touch with soul music, traveled to Memphis to rustle up some inspiration. “Son of a Preacher Man” was born from that—a frothy and buoyant single that is also dripping with soul. Smith would do well to learn that soul music isn’t always misery business.