Sam Smith has now been in the music industry, and therefore the public eye, for over 10 years now, collecting numerous awards including 5 Grammys and an Oscar for best original song. Even though they were almost universally adored at the start of their career, why has public opinion on Smith changed so drastically in the last few months?
Despite being openly gay since the start of their career, it was only in 2019 that Sam Smith came out as non-binary, stating “I’m not male or female, I think I flow somewhere in between. It’s all on the spectrum,” in an interview with actor and activist Jameela Jamil. It was also around this time that Smith was releasing singles ahead of their third studio album Love Goes. These singles had a new, pop-like sound that differed greatly from the ballads that had featured on Smith’s first two albums. Smith later confirmed that the that the majority of their new album would be sonically similar to the singles and feature fewer ballads and slower songs.
Then, in August of 2022, Sam Smith released Unholy, a synth-pop collaboration with transgender German popstar Kim Petras. Despite both artists proclaiming their love for the song, Smith came under fire for the sexually charged lyrics and burlesque-style dancing and outfits in the music video. This argument was, rather predictably, reignited when Sam Smith and Kim Petras performed the song at the 2023 Grammys, with Smith wearing a red top hat adorned with horns, leading tabloids to describe the performance as “satanic”.
Smith’s tour for his latest album “Gloria” has also sparked controversy for the extensive use of bondage and fetish gear in the dancer’s outfits, as well as Smith themselves performing a burlesque-type number during the show.
Overall, it seems that most of the backlash Smith has faced has stemmed from their desire to be who they want to be in their music and their personal expression.
As true as it may be, it still feels paradoxical that Smith faces so much criticism for their self-expression in a society that claims to value individuality. Could this, perhaps, point to a different reason?
In contrast, Harry Styles has been credited with normalising men wearing feminine clothing, jewellery and nail polish, and yet he doesn’t face this type of
The main differences between Smith and Styles are the things that Smith has always admitted to – their identity as part of the LGBTQ+ community, and their struggles with body image issues.
Effectively, the hatred that Sam Smith receives is derived from transphobia and fatphobia, whether that’s intentional, or unconscious bias against non-binary individuals and larger people that has been conditioned through media.
What we can ultimately learn from this is that freedom of expression is only deemed acceptable if society sees you as acceptable in the first place, and with anti-trans laws on the rise (especially those in The USA that seek to prevent trans people from wearing gender-affirming clothing) it is not surprising that someone like Sam Smith, who expresses themselves to their heart’s content and is also very successful, is the target of such venom, perhaps if not only for causing people to reassess how they view non-binary people.
The antidote to this, I think, is to simply continue as before. The more we see non-binary people and people who go against society’s rules for expression in media, the more normalised it will be, something I can only hope will happen sooner rather than later.
Image Credit: pitpony.photography via Wikimedia Commons