First, some perspective: The British singer Sam Smith has more admirers than he could possibly meet if he decided to quit singing today and become a full time meet-and-greeter. He has sold millions of records, he has collected piles of trophies, he gets to do his art full time without having to take a side gig as a barista, people listen to him when he talks. He’s doing great!
Nonetheless, Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s New York Times profile of the 25-year-old pop star is called “The Tear-Stained Confessions of Sam Smith.” It strikes a strange tone that is self-consciously, almost eye-rollingly melodramatic while seeming to argue that melodrama is justified (it opens with an inventory of the things Smith cried about during their interview). The piece focuses a mostly on Sam Smith’s sexuality and the backlash triggered by some of his comments about it. Who could forget when he proudly and incorrectly said he might be the first openly gay man to win an Oscar while accepting his trophy in 2016 and then after incorrectly corrected himself with: “I think I’m the second person to win it”?
He had been trying. Lord knows he’d been trying. He wanted to be open with the world; he wanted to share his truest self. He wanted to be known. His only goal with his music is to get closer and closer to who he really is, even though that’s sometimes hard when you’re in your young 20s. He’s 25 now. He is trying to bare his soul.
This sidesteps or perhaps gently refutes an argument I made about Smith in a Gawker post that is referenced by Brodesser-Akner in her piece (though it was published about a year and a half before that Oscars ceremony, not the day after, as is implied in Brodesser-Akner’s placement, and I take issue with lumping it in with “ridicule,” as I may have disagreed with Smith’s words and actions but took him and them seriously enough to dissect them).
My original point was that, in toning down his sexuality by doing things like shifting the gender-specificity to an ambiguous second-person mode in his cover of Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know” (“There’s a boy I know...” became, “Oh it’s you I know...”), and distancing not just himself from hook-up apps like Grindr (which he was using at the time, per Brodesser-Akner, to arrange dinner dates) but also prescribing that no one should be on them, Smith was in fact not sharing his truest self. By reducing visible signs of his sexuality, he was covering, miring himself in respectability politics to the comfort of straight people.
This is a strategy, and an effective one, but that doesn’t make it necessarily admirable, especially if you value honesty (soulfulness, even) over fame. The lengths some queer people will go to in order to be accepted in the mainstream, in my view, are a fascinating indication of the compromises under progress’s surface. Worth talking about, I think.
While Brodesser-Akner does provide details that help the reader understand Smith a bit better—he came out at 10, though his mom figured he was gay when he was as young as three and pretending to have long hair; in his post-Oscars despair, he was taken under the wing of some older gay guys who familiarized him with gay-culture staples and threw him in drag—her profile is, overall, patronizing, as it casts Smith as the victim of mean internet culture.
“It feels to him like every time he opens his mouth, he gets tased,” Brodesser-Akner writes.
“People loved his music, but they were turning on him. He couldn’t bear being thought of as a traitor to his people — he was so open about everything!,” she writes later.
“The only thing I’d like everyone to know is I’m really sorry if I say the wrong things,” she quotes Smith as saying. “I don’t want to offend anyone and my intentions are genuinely pure and good. I’m still trying to figure [expletive] out and I’d like to be treated like a human. If I make mistakes don’t kill me.”
Wah wah wah. No one’s killing you, Sam. Things come out of your mouth, people respond. Sometimes they do this by buying your records, sometimes they do this in rude tweets, sometimes in stern essays, sometimes in glowing reviews. Sure, there’s something to be said about investing a little too much in the intellect of our pop stars (“I’m not the most eloquent person,” Smith admits), in the way pile-on culture can render reasonable arguments ridiculous as the takes amass into a collective shriek, in the shitty ways gay men speak to each other online. All are nuggets of truth implied in this piece.
But, really, Sam Smith is doing okay—opposing opinions may hurt in the moment, but the affirming ones have made him rich. The idea that he’s somehow put out or disenfranchised by less than complete and utter mindless acceptance of his every public act is infantalizing and way more dramatic than anything he’s committed to record.