Photo: Instagram (@samsmithworld)
Love him or hate him, Sam Smith is currently the biggest gay pop star in the world. With five top 10 hits under his belt (and that's only in the US), the 25-year-old singer is coming into his own, and while he could've easily distanced himself from the LGBT community after being mercilessly (and deservedly) dragged for his Oscars faux pas, he's embraced it even more.
Smith is currently on a worldwide apology tour. He's hit up Zane Lowe, James Corden, and even Ellen DeGeneres to show that he's grown up. He's apologized for claiming "no openly gay man had ever won an Oscar." He brushed up on his gay history. He's given up The Notebook in favor of Weekend. And he even announced that he's genderqueer.
"I don’t know what the title would be, but I feel just as much woman as I am man."
But many people—especially gay men—just aren't buying it. Gay Star News recently posed the question "Why do gay men hate Sam Smith?" and the Facebook comments were instantly a battleground.
"How could we hate the first gay man to win an Oscar (sarcasm)?" wrote one commenter.
"Just don’t like his music and he comes across as a bit of an annoyance and try hard," said another.
The article sites the infamous 2014 Gawker takedown, "Sam Smith's Fucked-Up Gay Conservatism," alleging that Smith de-gays his entire public persona for mainstream—and heterosexual—acceptance. The writer, Rich Juzwiak, took Smith's ambiguity as a personal attack on queerness, claiming the pop star took the "be gay, but don't shove it in our faces" route to fame to be more palatable for the middle-aged moms who still actually buy albums.
To a degree, that is true. Even if it wasn't his intent, he certainly profited off of a conservative gay image. He was open about that fact in 2014, telling The Fader "I've tried to be clever with this album, because it's also important to me that my music reaches everybody. I've made my music so that it could be about anything and everybody— whether it's a guy, a female, or a goat—and everybody can relate to that."
It's a pretty genius move from a marketing standpoint. LGBT folks are only 4.1% of the population and to be successful in the music industry, you're almost certainly going to need the support of straight people. But did Smith purposefully stumble into an "I'm not like other gays" position? And does that help, or hinder, the community?
Other gay acts like Years & Years and Troye Sivan have huge LGBT followings but have yet to break out into the American mainstream. It's nearly impossible to say the use of he/him pronouns didn't hurt their careers, but Smith's refusal to use gender identifiers certainly didn't hinder his. "Stay With Me" went on to be #2 in the US. He nabbed four other top 10 songs and won on Oscar for his Bond-theme, "Writings on the Wall."
But the pressure on Smith to be queerer feeds directly into the "right way to be gay" pipeline. Smith is openly gay, so isn't that gay enough? Even as a public figure, we don't get to tell Smith who he is and how to build his career.
We often separate gay men into dichotomies: the tops and the bottoms, the femme and the masc, the regular Grindr users and the hopeless romantics. But what about the verses?
No, I'm not saying Sam Smith is a vers. But can we get mad at Sam Smith for not being "gay enough" without perpetuating the dichotomy that heterosexual people put us in as gay men?
There aren't just two ways to be gay. Yes, there are stereotypically gay men and those who defy all of those stereotypes, and then there are men who straddle both (pun intended).
The thing is, none of us have to be one or the other. Most aren't. Why should Sam Smith?
As Gay Star News notes, "there is something subversive about Sam’s femininity." Smith is simply a guy who's learning who he is and being himself. His gayness might be more subtle than some would like, but he's so authentically himself. He wears his heart on his sleeve and in his music, and millions connect to it. He is the openly gay icon we have, whether we accept him or not.
Let the sad lady sing the blues.