Music

Sam Smith is an unequivocal force for good... by being brilliantly themselves

As Sam Smith's new album Gloria hits the shelves, here's why the non-binary British star with an extraordinary voice is vital

Sam Smith performs on stage at iHeartRadio Q102's Jingle Ball 2022 at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 12 Dec 2022. Image: Shutterstock

Sam Smith performs on stage at iHeartRadio Q102's Jingle Ball 2022 at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 12 Dec 2022. Image: Shutterstock

There are few unequivocal forces for good in the pop world. One of them is Sam Smith, the non-binary British performer with an extraordinary singing voice, which can rise from a soulful purr through a heart piercing falsetto to a full belt. So impressive are Smith’s vocals that Mary J Blige is on record as saying that, on first listen, she thought they must belong to a black woman.

Their list of achievements, amassed quietly over a decade, is genuinely astonishing – starting with winning the BBC’s Sound of 2014 award for emerging artists and going on to include several Brits, a Golden Globe, Grammys, a GLAAD award, MTV Awards, a Q Award, a Teen Choice Award, several MOBOS, oh, and an actual Oscar for their Bond theme, Writing’s On the Wall, incidentally the only Bond theme to reach the UK number one. Their debut album, In The Lonely Hour, still holds the record for the most weeks spent in the UK Top 10. Their new album Gloria, which comes out this week, looks set to continue breaking ground and breaking records. It’s a hell of a CV.

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But successful pop stars are ten a penny. Chuck a brick in Beverly Hills and it’ll bounce off one and hit another with a similar track record. Sam Smith is different. For starters, they’re the most famous assigned-male-at-birth openly non-binary person in the entire world.

You can’t underestimate the value of that. Non-binary identities have been around for as long as humanity has. There have literally always been people who feel they are neither completely male nor completely female, and those people have had varying degrees of acceptance across that long history. Accepting of non-binary agendas in the modern era has been a rocky road, however. The list of genuinely famous non-binary people is a small one, and of those that have been very public about their gender, the vast majority have been femme-presenting and from an AFAB (assigned female at birth) background – Demi Lovato, Janelle Monáe, Cara Delavigne, Emma Corrin. We find it easier to accept someone who previously identified as a woman crossing that divide.

As the non-binary comedian Andrew O’Neill said in their Radio Four show Pharmacist Baffler, a female politician wearing a suit and brogues looks presidential, a male equivalent in a skirt and heels is a laughing stock. It’s a perception that was weaponised against Eddie Izzard in her own recent attempt to become a Labour MP.

There is an innate homophobia – rooted in toxic masculinity – in our culture that is uncomfortable with assumed-male people who feminise their appearance. Even when blurring gender boundaries becomes fashionable, as in the hair-metal rockers of the 70s and 80s, in most cases it’s accompanied by extremely performative blokeyness (think of Mötley Crüe and their deliberate association with violence, drugs, strippers and sex workers). Those that genuinely poke through the mold – David Bowie, Boy George, Prince, the Manic Street Preachers, are outliers. To be a girly-boy is to be a cissy, a fairy, a poof, and thus ridiculed.

At its heart this is also deeply sexist – it’s the idea that someone becomes less powerful when they let go of the trappings of blokeyness and embrace elements of femininity. Ultimately it’s a belief, at the heart of western culture, that to be feminine is to be less. That’s not to suggest that non-binary AFAB people don’t have a pile of problems of their own – over sexualisation, denial of their identity and many more – just that an imposed masculine background brings its own set of very specific issues.

This is where Sam Smith becomes so vital. Here is a young person whose career has been defined by musical success, but whose profile is defined as much by their identity. Smith’s time in the spotlight has been a series of coming outs, first as gay in 2014, then as genderqueer in 2017 and then further clarified as non-binary, and adopting they/them pronouns in 2019. This reflects partly a young person becoming more comfortable with their identity, and partly a society gradually becoming more comfortable with the idea that gender is flexible and sex only as important as we make it.

We shouldn’t need to celebrate Smith just for being who they are, and I’m sure they would prefer to be recognised for their deserved musical success. But in a celebrity world obsessed with ideals of male and female beauty, someone being so unapologetically and brilliantly themselves, in the face of that staggering pressure to conform, is genuinely important. It makes Sam Smith, whether they wanted it or not, into a role model and something of a symbol. Someone that young people, pressured into being boys even when they know they’re not, can see themselves in and be inspired by.

That they do so whilst being unapologetically body positive, utterly fabulous and in the face of cruel and vicious attacks from the anti-trans brigade on both sides of the political divide just makes them all the more extraordinary. They’re paving the way; a path that fellow non-binary artists Olly Alexander and the wonderfully gender-blurring Harry Styles (though Styles doesn’t identify as non-binary) are already following. There will be many, many more. And they’ll owe a debt to Sam Smith – a true 21st century superstar.

Sam Smith’s new album Gloria is out on January 27

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