Sam Smith is a rarity in the pop world, and not in the way you might think. He's young, with a soulful voice beyond his years, but that really only makes him the male Adele. No, what makes Smith different is that he's openly gay at just 22 – rarer in contemporary culture than you might think.
More than that, Smith is an openly single gay man in pop culture, which doesn't seem that surprising until you think of all those who came out before him. The Neil Patrick Harris and Matt Bomer types come out with secure partners, while the Jonathan Groffs and Zach Quintos generally keep their romantic lives very private. Not so for Smith; the young Brit is quite happy to spout his opinions about relationships and dating.
Unfortunately, those opinions have so far been poorly phrased at best, and boorishly wrongheaded at worst. The most recent of these involved Smith bashing dating and hookup apps like Grindr and Tinder, saying that they're "ruining romance" in a recent Metro interview. Smith found his current beau through more traditional means – so he wondered, why can't everyone else?
Your average 22-year-old gay guy shares plenty of half-formed opinions over brunch mimosas. But when Sam Smith dishes these hot takes out, he does them in an international media interview. If he wants to push forward on this path, he's certainly free to do so – but he should probably know what he's getting into first.
Coming Out as "Normal"
In May, after releasing the decidedly queer video for "Leave Your Lover" featuring a gay love triangle, Smith came out publicly. In an interview with Fader, Smith explained that his album In the Lonely Hour was about his unrequited love for another man, and described himself as "comfortable and happy" with his sexuality.
But then he continued:
I’ve been treated as normal as anyone in my life; I’ve had no issues. I do know that some people have issues in life, but I haven’t, and it’s as normal as my right arm. I want to make it a normality because this is a non-issue.
Today's show is brought to you by the word normal, folks. Used in a sentence: "Sam Smith desperately wants to be considered normal." Sam Smith would also love for you to think of him as relatable, if the rest of that same answer is any indication.
"I’ve made my music so that it could be about anything and everybody," he said, "and everybody can relate to that." Indeed, themes of unrequited love and love triangles are hardly exclusive ground for gays and lesbians. He's not exactly singing about trying to set up a threesome (and that's hardly a gay-exclusive experience, either).
The desire to be one of the many is common for fresh-out-of-the-closet gay men, especially introverted ones. The very act of coming out is such an attention-grabbing measure that downplaying it can become a knee-jerk reaction.
That said, judging by his other statements, Smith seems committed to this quest for normalcy. And when something stands in the face of that play of that normalcy, his first instinct is to try to change it.
They Can't Change, Even If They Tried
In June, Smith went on Fresh 102.7 and spoke about equality ahead of New York Pride. What did the singer-songwriter have to say about the hard battle for equal rights that LGBT men and women have been fighting for through the decades?
Don't make [your sexuality] an issue. If other's around you are making an issue, I understand. Fight for your rights, of course. But ... let's make it a normality. To make it equal, we kind of need to act equal.
Yikes. Is Smith really saying the equivalent of "they don't care if we do it, but let's not shove it in their faces"? That's not a good look on the grossest of casual homophobes, and certainly not on a 22-year-old gay role model.
To be fair, this is not a unique train of thought, even in contemporary times. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' "Same Love" espouses a similar philosophy – equality makes sense, because we're all the same. The response to this would, of course, be that "Same Love" makes a terribly simplistic argument meant to be digestible by the masses still warming up to the "sex" in homosexuality.
More than that, and as alluded to previously, Smith's statement discredits much of the work LGBT activists have done to advance gay culture. The Harvey Milks of the world didn't help create the better world young gay men and women live in now by not making their gayness "an issue."
Now, the safe bet is that Smith didn't mean to imply anything of the sort. Yet it's frustratingly naïve on his part – and it's that naïveté that prevents Smith from understanding why his comments will be ineffective. A relatively new recording artist of any gender or sexual orientation doesn't have the influence to urge for major social change. It's not about him being right or wrong – it's about understanding your position in the culture.
Smith seems to have decided that if you can't beat 'em, you should judge 'em.
This past Tuesday, Smith gave a rather boneheaded interview to Metro about his distaste for dating/hookup apps like Tinder, Grindr, and their ilk.
"No offense to people who go on Tinder, but I just feel like it’s ruining romance, I really do," he said. His reasoning? We're losing the ability to talk to one another – it's all about swiping back and forth on an iPhone screen. "Stop Tinder and Grindr!” he moaned.
Dating apps are obviously not for everyone, and to his minor credit, Smith isn't taking the simple position of 'because I don't like them, they're terrible.' Instead, he's arguing that they've had a negative impact on gay culture as a whole. That's a decent position to take, and one he's not alone in taking. But Smith's problem is in his tone, which most generously would be described as 'prudish schoolmarm.'
"From my experience, the most beautiful people I’ve been on dates with are the dumbest," he continued in the interview, perhaps not quite able to hear himself making such basic observations. "So why would I swipe people who are ‘unattractive' when I could potentially fall in love with them?"
Question for Smith: Where is he meeting guys where physical attractiveness doesn't come into play? Is he purposefully only talking to "unattractive" men at bars? Meeting people in the real world isn't free from first-blush aesthetic impressions. Passing by someone we don't find cute at a bar is the swipe-left on Tinder made manifest. For Smith to pretend otherwise is to romanticize dating in a way that's totally unrealistic.
Smith's whole attitude about this part of gay culture feels off. He doesn't personally consider Tinder and Grindr to be normal? Fine. But why tsk-tsk them, especially from the lofty perch of already being in a relationship? It's only going to piss off those who do make connections – both sexual and romantic – on the apps.
As a gay singer, it's not a stretch to imagine much of Smith's potential fanbase does use Grindr, Tinder, etc. Sure, he shouldn't pander to them if he doesn't agree with what they're doing, but to essentially wag his finger and say "naughty, naughty" seems like bad PR.
Knowingly or not, Smith's word choices also distance him from LGBT culture. "We’re losing the art of conversation and being able to go and speak to people," he said, "and you’re swiping people.” It changes the tone from one of self-critique to a criticism of a culture he wants no part of. Don't blame Smith for this modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah. You're the one on Tinder.
To reiterate, there is nothing inherently wrong with Smith sharing his worldview about a culture he belongs to, even if it's a controversial point of view. And in a better world, Smith's statements about Tinder (or anything else) would be among dozens by young gay celebrities. But we're not there yet, unfortunately, and if Smith is going to be outspoken, he needs to be ready for others to disagree.
http://t.co/8wokp9c34m "I found a boyfriend the proper way!" Sam Smith says, shoving down the red hanky in his right back pocket.— Jonno (@CiaraVEVO) August 19, 2014
In that interview with Fresh 102.7, Smith said with a laugh that listening to his album would help with "acting equal." To a certain extent, that doesn't feel like a joke. Smith pretty clearly considers his own brand of homosexuality correct. Being confident in how you live your life is certainly laudable, but such an absolute opinion doesn't allow for differences between gay men. What works for one man may not work for another.
The truth is there is no normal when it comes to gay culture. Being a minority group means there's no such thing as an established status quo – it's still being formed as we speak. Now, if Smith is just forgetting the prefix "hetero-" in front of "normal" and would like gays to model their relationships after dominant straight culture, he's welcome to feel that way. But he's going to meet a great deal of disagreement on that point.
"Let's make it a normality. Let's wring our hands and piss a little on our thighs when discussing causal sex in pop songs." - Sam Smith— Rich Juzwiak (@RichJuz) June 28, 2014
Smith is 22 years old. He has plenty of time to grow and change his views. Perhaps one day, he'll find himself swiping through dating profiles online. Or maybe he'll stick to his guns, hoping that the perfect "normal" husband will be right around the corner. That's his right.
But an awful lot of people have fought for LGBT men and women's right to be different. He'd do well to respect that while we may all want to be equal, we don't have to be the same.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.