UK pop star Sam Smith is on blast.
Fat, camp, and yet happy to bare all, people are describing him as a threat to our children. Many of these attacks are mean-spirited, and undoubtably homophobic.
But the rage is encouraging. In this case at least, popular music is serving its highest purpose again – of infuriating the staid and encouraging the youthful quest for individuality.
For decades identity politics was tied to music. If heavy metal floated your boat, it demanded your total and unequivocal submission to the aesthetic.
The print on your T-shirt. Your jewelry. Hair. Footwear. It dictated your friends. The people you fucked. You would speak like your favorite artists and aped all their sins.
Your parents didn’t get it, and some may’ve tried to intervene. This was good: Had they accepted or warmed to it, you likely would’ve traded it all in for Hip Hop or The Smiths.
When I was in a working band, around the age of 21, I delighted in the wan faces of parents when I would turn up at the house to collect their daughters.
On more muted days I would wear cowboy boots and maybe torn raspberry-colored jeans over fishnet stockings, with canary yellow hair down to my elbows.
This was the early 90’s – the glam-metal era – and we were giving Smith a run for his money in the gender-bending department. I had my own makeup bag back then, and never left the house without first applying eyeliner.
Looking back, this period was about exploring my sexuality, measuring my appetite for risk (I’d haunt a booze-soaked, late-night Queen Street in this get-up), and my capacity for excess.
I was journeying to the outer boundaries of my being. I didn’t want a parent’s approval: I wanted to reach the darkest, most troubling corners of myself, and had to do this independent of my minders.
I’m talking about a rite of passage, a ritual of understanding and becoming, and rock n roll was that doorway.
Today, many of our youth are searching for identity through politics, which is a reductive rather than an expansive pursuit, especially if their chief intoxicant is a victim narrative.
A rock n roller never viewed themselves as a hostage to any system; rock n’ roll was about extending a middle finger to the system and taking a dump on the white rug in the foyer on the way out.
Rock n’ roll was the voice of God telling the Hebrew slaves they we were in fact free, and that our masters were ant-like in the face of this throbbing cock of an art form.
Sam Smith is one such prophet, dragging our kids into the wildness and toward their very own promised land.
The rage against him is well practiced. Short of the chunkier frame, what they’re selling isn’t a great departure from Marc Bolan (T-Rex) or David Bowie. And they, in turn, weren’t a great departure from Little Richard, whose pancake and eye makeup captured on early television saw pipes drop from agape primetime mouths across 50’s America.
In fact, was rock n’ roll ever not about gender-bending? The prototype is likely Greek demigod Dionysus, whose wine, music, and ecstatic dance freed his followers from fear and care and subverted the oppressive restraints of the powerful.
The problem with Sam Smith is there really isn’t enough of them, even though he tried to address this with his twin-genders.
Smith’s persona isn’t politically neutral. Declaring themselves non-binary, they were responsible for collapsing the female category at the 2022 Brit awards.
This is not to say marginalizing women isn’t rock n’ roll, but it normally happens through sexual objectification, not by diddling them out of an awards show.
Imagining myself a rock manager now, was Smith’s declaration nessacary? Rock n roll is a show-don’t-tell business. The whole point of the androgynous rocker is the rejection of labels.
For myriad reasons then, people are pissed at Sam. But the howl of “What’s the world coming to?” is one of the sweetest sounds in all rock n’ roll.
And therefore, I would urge you to stay mad at Sam Smith. Our world will be far healthier and blissfully chaotic when more kids start to view music as the primary waka towards identity.