When Sam Smith made their SNL debut in 2014, aged just 22, they did so looking like a West London estate agent highlighting a new kitchen’s cutting edge specifications. Sporting a black shirt, a tailored black suit and a perfectly manicured quiff, they performed two MOR ballads – Stay With Me and Lay Me Down – helping boost the already heady sales of their debut album, In the Lonely Hour. It was the apex of the second wave of the New Boring, with Smith, Adele and Ed Sheeran politely soundtracking life’s beige moments.
Fast-forward nine years, and Smith returned to 30 Rock. This time they were sporting a giant ruffled fuchsia pink dress designed by Tomo Koizumi, their cropped hair – now bleached blonde – masked by a top hat resplendent with shiny devil horns. Smith was there to perform Unholy, their ludicrous and lustful banger featuring German pop trailblazer Kim Petras, who would later emerge from inside the giant pink dress to deliver her verse. Unholy’s staggering success has seen Smith and Petras break a record to become the first openly non-binary and trans musicians to reach number one in the UK and US. It feels important to reiterate that accolade in a climate where transphobia is rife, and where anti-woke bores aim to dismiss people’s pronouns amid turgid culture wars.
This week’s SNL performance felt exciting, not just from the point of view of spectacle, but as an emblem of Smith’s journey from purveyor of middle England Marks & Spencers music with “a voice like butter” (according to Beyoncé) to something, perhaps, more genuinely groundbreaking. After years of trying to work out how much or how little of their sexuality and identity to reveal, Smith now inhabits an intriguing space in pop culture as a gloriously queer, properly mainstream act.
But for some, those early straight-faced, and very straight ballad years are hard to shake, mixed with memories of their overly eager 2016 Oscars faux pas as evidence of their over eagerness (Smith wrongly claimed they were the first openly gay man to win at the Academy Awards). But could Smith’s fourth album, Gloria, mark the moment they edge away from cringe and towards ‘cool’?
The singles certainly nod towards it. Unholy, which rides a SOPHIE-esque metallic beat and features Smith sporting a goes-to-Soho-once leather harness in the video, is joined by low-slung heater Gimme (featuring Jamaican superstar Koffee), in which they coo their instructions to a lover: “Voyeurs are watching us /Giving me such a rush /When I’m crazy and drunk on love /Give me what I want.” Both songs are playful, sweaty, and about a million miles away from the sexless, broken-hearted ballads of old, which aged Smith by a couple of decades. In their respective videos, Smith is surrounded by glistening bodies, seemingly having a lovely time.
But we’ve been here before. In the video for 2019’s Max Martin-assisted How Do You Sleep?, a one-off single that also saw Smith experimenting with propulsive synth-pop, they writhe around, owning their power, giving flashes of sensual choreography. How Do You Sleep?, however, was never meant as a one-off. It was supposed to form the backbone of third album, To Die For, a record that was semi-scrapped, retitled Love Goes and released in the midst of the pandemic. Having come out as non-binary shortly after How Do You Sleep?‘s release, the hope was Smith was about to embrace their queerness, only for the muddled Love Goes, with its noticeably muted aesthetic, to look like a retreat.
Musically, that bait and switch is still present on Gloria, with Smith acutely aware of their audience, offering up a handful of mid-paced, rustic ballads (one particularly drippy one features Ed Sheeran), to keep the casual listeners happy. In fact, at a recent show at London’s Royal Albert Hall, Smith’s ability to cater to both sides of their fanbase – the champagne swilling straight couples crying to Too Good at Goodbyes and the younger, TikTok-au fait gays grinding to Unholy – was close to alchemy.
But the difference with Gloria, outside of the music’s occasional lack of dynamism, is the sense that something bigger has shifted with Smith: The Person. After publicly coming out as gay, and then later again as non-binary, and having worked on issues surrounding their body image (“I now have the opposite of body dysmorphia,” they recently told The Times, “I look fabulous”), Smith’s sense of joy in their presentation feels groundbreaking. Who else is performing at the Capital FM Ball dressed in a sparkly silver jumpsuit, chunky heels, pearl drop earrings and a cheshire cat grin? In an industry that focus groups its focus groups, with one eye on the stats and the other on not scaring the horses, to be “queering the mainstream” as an actual queer person, on your own terms, feels as close to cool as anything nowadays.