Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Sam Smith: singing and sexuality

by Melissa Scott

Nominated for six Grammy awards in December (Best New Artist, Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Pop Solo Performance, Album of the Year, and Best Pop Vocal Album), Sam Smith is rapidly creating a notable name for himself in the music industry.  His debut album, In the Lonely Hour, hit big worldwide--number one in the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Sweden, and number two in Australia, Canada, Denmark, Ireland, Norway, and the United States.

At only twenty two years old, the British singer-songwriter’s voice alone establishes him as unique. Innately traditional-sounding (Smith beautifully covered Judy Garland, Whitney Houston, Frank Sinatra, and Chaka Khan in the early stages of his career), he blends R&B and soul genres into pop. When asked about his “virtuosic vocalism,” in an interview with Fader magazine, Smith replied, “I want to make the music that’s not there anymore. I’m so passionate about the singing voice.”
Photo by Kevin Kane/Getty Images for iHeartMedia
And in answer to today’s enthusiasm for “different”-sounding music, Smith supplies wholly. But for a singer with such a dynamically established voice, and known for tragic love songs, Smith intentionally left his pop-star image and song inspirations fairly vague. Shortly before In the Lonely Hour’s release in the UK in May, Smith publicly came out, and confirmed that the album was about his unrequited love for another man. “It felt like a brave thing to do [and] I wanted to do it before because if I did it afterwards people probably would have thought I was lying just to sell records,” Smith explained in December during an appearance on the Ellen DeGeneres Show. DeGeneres agreed, “The most important thing is talent and this just happens to be who you are.”

Despite making his sexuality clear, Smith purposefully chooses not to emphasize his sexual orientation in his songs. Instead, he focuses on his music quality and universal message. In addition to his song-writing ambiguity, Smith even changed references to “a boy” and “he” in his cover of Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know,” by singing lyrics in the second-person. Instead of singing Houston’s lyrics of “There’s a boy I know / He’s the one I dream of,” Smith crooned “Oh it’s you I know, you’re the one I dream of.”  “How will I know if he really loves me?” became “How will I know if you really love me?”

“I've tried to be clever with this album, because it’s also important to me that my music reaches everybody,” Smith admitted. “I've made my music so that it could be about anything and everybody— whether it’s a guy, a female or a goat—and everybody can relate to that. I’m not in this industry to talk about my personal life unless it’s in a musical form.”

By taking a rather conservative slant to his public image, Smith tries to prevent the cliché of “being gay” from changing perceptions of his music. Featured on the cover of, and interviewed in, Out magazine’s annual “Out100,” a list that celebrates the biggest personalities in the LGBT community, Smith explained his approach. “That’s been my whole motive — to not make it a talking point,” the interview quoted him. “My music should be a talking point. My voice should be a talking point.”

Smith takes an interesting position. Any artist has the right to express himself or herself in music—whether conservatively or otherwise. If Smith chose instead to promote his sexual orientation boldly throughout his music, that would be both equitable and effective. But by curbing the attention of his homosexuality, and valuing his musical talents and art more, Smith in fact strengthens his foothold in the pop industry as a leading artist. He does not hide who he is, nor does he appear to. He simply reminds his audience of the importance of appreciating music as it stands, rather than associating musical quality with musician’s personality attributes.

In a subtle and unassuming way, Smith’s caution to portray his sexuality through his music addresses equality goals and issues. He promotes the idea of normalcy through his music, showing that the same themes of love and heartbreak apply whether one is gay or straight. “Just be yourself,” Smith advises when asked to address someone struggling with his or her sexuality. “And don’t make it an issue, do you know what I mean? If others around you are making it an issue, I understand, fight for your rights of course. But also let’s make it a normality. To make it equal we need to kind of act equal.” 


  1. That's exactly right..no issues just be yourself.


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