How ‘boring’ Sam Smith became the most divisive singer of the 21st century
The music videos for Sam Smith’s early singles were decidedly dull affairs. The promotional film for 2014’s Money On My Mind – Smith’s international breakout hit – saw the singer wandering the streets of Las Vegas in a blue overcoat. The follow-up ballad, Stay With Me, had Smith walking the streets of London and – for variety – sitting forlornly in a bedsit in a navy hoodie. That year, Smith had the UK’s second biggest-selling album in a top five that also comprised Ed Sheeran, George Ezra, Coldplay and Paolo Nutini. The era of sensible and inoffensive pop stars was firmly upon us. Their output was the sonic equivalent of a shopping trip to Next. Some called the genre “normcore”. Others called it boring.
Which makes Smith’s latest music video all the more astonishing. Released eight days ago, the video for I’m Not Here To Make Friends shows the 30-year-old dancing at a sexually-charged house party wearing a low corset, a tiny glittery codpiece and nipple pasties (covers). At various points the non-binary star swings from a chandelier, dons killer heels and is showered, tongue out, in arcing jets of liquid. Buff dancers writhe in leather pants while tied to beds. There are buttocks galore. Smith has swapped Next for Agent Provocateur, and then some. The video has polarised viewers, delighting some but horrifying others.
“Iconic” and “amazing” are typical of the positive comments under the YouTube video, which has been viewed five and a half million times and was released the same day as Smith’s new album Gloria. “Ooh, the costumes! It’s like Mercutio threw an afterparty following the Capulet shindig,” one enthralled viewer called ThunderGod wrote. Others were outraged. “This has to be the most disgusting music video ever made,” wrote Marie Jones. “What the hell has humanity turned into?” said an anonymous user. Others took exception to Smith’s full physique while many complained that there were no age restrictions on the video, meaning children could watch it. “God help our kids,” was one blunt assessment.
Hailed as one of pop’s most boring stars, they have fast become the most-divisive singer of the decade. But there is more to Smith’s transformation than simply swapping an overcoat for a corset. And there is more to the indignation surrounding the video than people just taking offence at its eye-popping content: the four-minute film has become something of a lightning rod for one of the most controversial issues in the ever-broiling culture wars – that of gender identity. So how did we get here? And what does this all mean?
Smith was raised in the Cambridgeshire village of Great Chishill by a City trader mother and a former greengrocer father. He attended St. Mary’s Catholic School in Bishop’s Stortford. So far so normal. What wasn’t normal was Smith’s soulful falsetto. Aged nine, the aspiring musician started taking singing lessons with jazz singer-songwriter Joanna Eden. Smith had a manager by the age of 13. Success initially proved elusive. But in a canny career move, and after a spell cleaning lavatories in a London bar, Smith provided guest vocals for electronic dance duo Disclosure. That voice was on the map. Debut album, In the Lonely Hour, followed in 2014 (“nice but cloying” was the Telegraph’s review) and it was a smash, selling 12 million copies. Then Smith’s life changed forever in February 2015 when the singer won four Grammy awards. An Oscar followed in 2016 for Writing’s On The Wall, from the Bond film Spectre. Newly-released Gloria is the musician’s fourth album.
Smith is gay and has never hidden this. In 2019 the singer came out as non-binary – a person who doesn’t identify as either male or female – and asked that people used the pronouns they/them instead of he/him. The decision followed “a lifetime at war with my gender,” they said. To many, such distinctions remain baffling. Last week, Good Morning Britain presenter Richard Madeley apologised on air for misgendering Smith as “him” not “them”. However, there are 30,000 people in England and Wales who identify as non-binary, according to the 2021 census (and 3.1 per cent of the UK’s adult population – aged over 16 – identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, according to the Office for National Statistics). At the same time, UK attitudes towards the LGBTQAI+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersexual, asexual and others) community are split. An Ipsos survey in 2020 found that while 25 per cent of Brits think LGBQT+ rights have gone as far as they should, 27 per cent think they haven’t gone far enough. This rises to almost half among Gen Z, or people in their teens and early twenties.
A vocal LGBQT+ advocate, it’s therefore little wonder that Smith would use their fame to promote their beliefs and provoke a reaction, perhaps even an excessive one. If a rock star’s role is to live life on mere mortals’ behalf, as writer David Hepworth states, then Smith is doing this in spades for many of his fans. The singer has also recently overcome lifelong body dysmorphia, a condition under which people obsess about perceived flaws in their appearance. “I look fabulous,” the coy-no-more star said recently. “I’m finally getting a tan. I’m burnt in places I’ve never been burnt.”
With Smith’s growing confidence, they seem to have doubled down on being themself. While still containing plenty of soul, the music has become harder, clubbier and edgier. Last year, Smith released the single Unholy with transgender German singer Kim Petras (she was assigned male at birth but underwent gender reassignment surgery at 16). The pair became the first publicly non-binary and transgender artists to top the US Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. Milestones matter for minority groups. It’s how change comes about.
And so Smith’s most recent video is as much about what it represents as what it looks like: freedom, acceptance, body positivity. Smith is clearly using their position to attempt to change attitudes. “Music videos are all about branding these days, so I’m Not Here to Make Friends is doing just that,” says Emily Caston, professor of screen industries at University of West London and one-time producer of over 100 music videos and TV commercials for the likes of Madonna and U2. “It really reminds me of George Michael’s Outside, that is a brilliant video in which George and director Vaughan Arnell set out to let George reclaim his identity from the negative stories being put out in the press after the toilet scandal [in 1998 Michael was arrested in a Beverly Hills restroom for engaging in a lewd act with an undercover policeman]. Smith’s video has the same pride and ownership – and that too is a long legacy of the LGBTQIA+ community, to reclaim with pride those aspects of dress, performance and behaviour that other groups deride.”
Public discourse around being gay has always been disproportionately shaped by pop culture. Caston says that “positive change” in how gay people were viewed came about after Bronski Beat’s video for Smalltown Boy in 1984 (in which singer Jimmy Somerville was beaten up by homophobic thugs) and experimental band Coil’s video for Tainted Love in 1985 (which showed an Aids victim’s last days). By being so open, Smith is also trying to challenge public biases. “Yes, the video is caught up in the culture wars, but that’s a role that artists and directors have relished for decades – because it's largely been through music video and music photography that gender representation has been pushed and progressed,” says Caston.
As in all wars, culture wars have their casualties. Social media is littered with people who say they’re no longer Sam Smith fans. There’s collateral damage, for sure. Yet it doesn’t seem to matter. The Grammy Awards are on Sunday 5 February and the Brit Awards are next Saturday 11 Feb – but right now everyone in the music world is talking about Smith. Meanwhile, the album charts has just unveiled a new number one. The artist in question? The divisive Sam Smith.