Pop music — and specifically pop music stardom — has an incredible power to transform people into things they are not. The pop sphere enjoyed by my generation as teens transmogrified Morrissey into a sex symbol, Neil Tennant into an intellectual and Simon Le Bon into a surrealist poet.
More recently, pop’s alchemical potency has made Ed Sheeran someone people like to look at and Adele someone people want to hear from describing her emotional upsets at great length. But there are limits, and the singer Sam Smith has done us a favor by smashing into them.
In his new video — let’s not be detained discussing the song, a painfully generic flimsy soul confection — Smith cavorts with a gaggle of bum-twitching, writhing sexy dancers. That sounds ordinary enough, you will say. What I’ve kept back is that Smith himself is attired in a lacey basque and displaying full décolletage surmounted with silver nipple caps. That’s a bold move when you’re a hefty, hairy thirty-year-old bloke who’s built like the Pillsbury Doughboy. As the owner of a bulky male frame, I can confirm this is not the best way to present it to the public.
Occasionally the video cuts to another outfit, a silver sequined creation (with accompanying headdress) which I think is intended to suggest the timeless glamour of the mysterious east, but which unfortunately comes over more as a tribute to the durability of Bacofoil.
The coup de grâce of this sizzling presentation is when Smith is simultaneously sprayed from several different directions by what is clearly intended to represent streaming urine.
It is a spectacle designed to provoke reaction and it certainly has. I’ve been sifting through the responses on social media and there are three main categories. First is a kind of morally dumbfounded disgust, second is high amusement, and third is what I want to talk about here, which I think I can fairly summarize as: “Oh, it’s just kids being kids and really no different to our day.”
I have a twinge of this myself at such moments, because not understanding pop music is a potent sign of old age or being out of touch. We are terrified of sounding like we’re saying “Kids today!” (At this point I would just like to remind everyone that Sam Smith is thirty years old.)
My generation flinches at the memory of Bill Grundy interviewing the Sex Pistols, of Principal Skinner decreeing that it’s the children who are out of touch, of tacky DJ Mike Read banning “Relax” by Frankie Goes To Hollywood from BBC Radio 1.
And this is a healthy check — as far as it goes. It is always worth considering if you are missing multiple layers of irony or playfulness. But the widespread fear of not “getting it” also allows bad ideas and bad-faith easy access to the cultural bloodstream.
There has always been an element of deliberate goading in the art form I suppose we must call “rock ’n’ roll.” My point is that this by itself was not enough of a dish to satisfy the palate in earlier times.
Forgive me while I wind the clock back again to my own adolescence as a pop listener. Shocking and upsetting the middle aged and elderly back then were my favorite group, Soft Cell, whose singer Marc Almond’s androgynous and exotic appearance caused raised eyebrows and occasionally raised fists in living rooms across the land whenever he appeared on television.
I was fifteen when Soft Cell released an album tastefully called This Last Night In Sodom. That certainly provoked a reaction. But here’s the big difference. It is also an intelligent, inventive record, full of musical surprises, wit and an original voice. It covers a wide variety of unseemly subjects — censorious tabloid culture, the numbness of succumbing to a life of prostitution and abuse, drug addiction, losing control, the perverse attractions of sleaze, the grinding nihilism of life in pre-clean-up Manhattan. It is like a Gothic cathedral to Sam Smith’s garden center.
Or for a closer match, we could take Divine, the corpulent female impersonator and (briefly) chart sensation. Divine was not for one second expecting or demanding that you found him sexy. His act, much like the John Waters movies from which it originated, was a satire on the very idea of beauty, sexiness and bad taste.
Nonbinary Smith has more of a feel of Mad King Ludwig than Divine. He has decided he is, in some mysterious way, a cross between male and female, and a damn hot cross at that. His performance of this song on the Graham Norton show the other night culminated with him flashing his betasselled moobs to an audience whooping and clapping like seals.
For fear of seeming out of touch, people will now applaud anything — anything at all — they think is the funky new thing. That covers many much more disturbing and unpleasant things than Smith’s busty display, from racial division to self-harm in the guise of self-discovery.
This is my real issue with Smith. He is the perfect representative of contemporary “LGBTQIA++” culture — embarrassing, stupid and rubbishy, terribly thin stuff. We have come full circle and then gone backwards, because what we have here is a freak show of painful clichés, a carnival booth of ancient music hall stereotypes. It is the equivalent of a modern black singer performing a minstrel cake-walk with sincerity.
It is not Smith’s sexuality that is worthy of critique. It is his belief he is somehow beyond male and female, that he is not a man. Because as is manifestly and horribly apparent, he very much is. No doubt his defenders will say I’ve missed the point. But my point is that maybe Smith has — and maybe he’s too tone deaf to realize.
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.