Sam Smith, “How Will I Know”
Getting the purely musical commentary out of the way first: this is a good cover, even beautiful in parts — his navigation of those tender little descending chorus in the pre-chorus @ 2:30ish is sublime — but probably not worthy of the insane hubbub that it’s generated over the last few days. (It cracked Facebook’s inane “trending topics” section for me, which has to mean something.) There’s an instant familiarity at work because the chords that open the song up sound almost exactly like the ones that crack open “Stay With Me,” the song that’s truly broken Smith here in North America. He’s graceful and mealy-mouthed as ever; when I watch him sing I can just imagine notes rising out of his stomach, bubbling up through his throat and fluttering out of the corner of his mouth. But ultimately I resent this take on this song for robbing the original of its joy. Whitney chose to revel in the uncertainty, thumbed her nose at it, chose hope and sought counsel. Smith is never farther than an inch away from utter heartbreak. I get it, I really do, because I was there once too, but as a listener it’s frustrating. You want him to let the light in, if only for a minute or two.
(An aside, about his physical presence: when the camera takes a moment to capture the whole room you see Smith standing incredibly still, those notes pouring out. He looks statuesque in the most basic sense of the word. A result of his intense and well-documented training, an expression of his extreme control, I don’t know, I find it fascinating. There is so little movement.)
I’m really torn up about the pronouns thing, I’ll be honest. Smith is resolute in choosing “you” over “he” and “him” when he’s singing about love, which is always, and it’s a choice that says so much about him as a person and a performer: ambitious, unabashedly seeking commercial success, “intensely private,” whatever. I respect him for it, because he’s absolutely right when he says that a straight performer wouldn’t get hounded about the subjects of their songs like this, and I think it’s admirable that he’s trying to write and sing love songs that possess both power and universality. And this sort of anguished hand-wringing over the absence of a simple “he” is probably something he’s been dreading long before coming out to the Fader! But I think his decision is impractical, and working against the widespread appeal he’s fighting so hard to cultivate.
Sam Smith’s biggest problem right now is that he occasionally seems like a machine custom-built to conquer the pop charts: golden voice, classic style, relatively versatile with respect to genre, polished to a fault. In this context, something as simple as neutralizing the pronouns on a Whitney Houston cover can seem like oppressive quality control from an automaton and his team. The whole thing reminds me of the old Michael Jordan adage about sponsorship and politics: “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” Straight people buy records, too. But is a man singing about his love and lust for another man really going to make them stop? In trying to render his music applicable to any relationship, regardless of sexual orientation, Smith is draining it of the heart and character that rings through many great love songs. (Even the rare Smith songs that doesn’t grapple directly with love are possessed of an ineffable queerness: look at the smash “La La La,” a thinly veiled indictment of hate speech if I’ve ever heard one.)
Smith’s straightwashing stings a bit more for me because I’m intimately familiar with the romantic struggle documented throughout In the Lonely Hour. Smith has talked about the unrequited love that inspired much of the album, but that’s not all I hear: it’s also an unyielding document of a young gay romantic running headfirst into the unfamiliar paradigms that govern sex and dating for gay men. “Stay With Me” is more than just a needy chronicle of an one-night stand that didn’t pan out: it’s the sound of someone who was trained from birth to view monogamous heterosexual relationships as an ideal, violently crashing into something a little more blurred and learning to deal with it. It’s a journey that’s capped off by bonus track “Restart,” where Smith finally figures out how to quickly step in and out of failed flings and broken promises; he finally finds the “restart” button, and it’s one of the best tracks on the album, frothy pop-soul that feels practically weightless compared to the goopy balladry of the album proper.
I embarked on that same journey, with most of it taking place over the last two or three years; much of it has been chronicled on this Tumblr, in sometimes raw and embarrassing fashion, and more of it has been deleted at 2:00 a.m. or later after getting 1 note’s worth of comfort. That’s why it’s frustrating for me to watch Smith scrub himself clean, diluting his experience and his message and his music: I’ve been there, and I know the feeling, and I’m really rooting for him. His choice could be the difference between creating art that’s successful and art that’s truly resonant.