Sam Smith's Fucked-Up Gay Conservatism

Angel-voiced Brit Sam Smith is gay, but not like those terrifying spermwhores who love sex sooooo much and will eat your children because they think it strengthens their boners. He is also 22. Since 22-year-olds routinely spout bullshit about things they know little about in an attempt to render a monolithic prescription regarding how one should live his or her life, it follows that Smith does this in regards to how one should be gay.

For one, Smith, who has never been in a relationship, had these words to say about using apps like Grindr and Tinder to find...well, whatever you use to those things to look for (what are you into?):

No offense to people who go on Tinder but I just feel like it's ruining romance, I really do. We're losing the art of conversation and being able to go and speak to people and you're swiping people...From my experience the most beautiful people I've been on dates with are the dumbest, so why would I swipe people who are "unattractive" when I could potentially fall in love with them? Stop Tinder and Grindr!

It's wise to be wary of how technology might be infiltrating our bodies. I'd be a hypocrite if I didn't admit to thinking, "What does it all mean?" when someone tries to engage me in raw parTy play at 2 a.m. on a Wednesday.

I understand that a lot of guys have really negative experiences with apps that leads them to hate the apps and/or take out their frustration on the apps ("DELETING THIS SOON!" say some users' profiles... because they know you won't notice them when they're gone). App hook-up sex can be cold and reductive and completely counter to the stable commitment that many guys crave (or think that they should say they crave in public so nobody confuses them for spermwhores).

And yes, maybe it is troubling that these apps favor looks over everything else. We should all be perfect and love people for their insides and train ourselves to get off on their insides so that sexual attraction and chemistry become much more mindful, fair phenomena.

But there is a different experience to be had, one that is just as real as the painful one Smith implies, one without pathology or grief. Apps don't necessarily ruin communication; they fix it for people who are too nervous to approach people in public. Or they just make it easier to get sex when you want sex.

In my experience, we don't lose the art of conversation via hook-up apps—these apps make conversations easier. They create conversations that wouldn't have happened otherwise. These conversations can be with words or with bodies or with both separately or both simultaneously. Up to you. Don't blame the game; blame its player.

Apps don't hinder my ability to speak to people, either. I meet guys all kinds of ways, and have no problem talking to whomever the fuck, providing that he can carry a conversation better than a doorknob. My travels have taught me that the difference between meeting a guy on Grindr and picking up a guy in person amounts to the difference between takeout and eating at a restaurant. The latter, if I have to choose, is preferable insofar as it is a richer experience, but sometimes you want a midnight snack of San Loco and it arrives and it hits the spot so hard, you can't even muster guilt about how naughty you just were for your late-night indulgence. Come be my nachos, buddy.

Smith's anti-app attitude, annoying as it may be in scope, is hardly surprising if you've been paying attention to his career. In his breakthrough solo hit "Stay With Me," he lets you know exactly what kind of guy he is (not one of those guys). "Guess it's true, I'm not good at a one-night stand," he moans exquisitely. "But I still need love 'cause I'm just a man." I wonder if Smith leaves his shirt on during sex because he needs to keep his heart on his sleeve.

Smith distances himself from certain stereotypes that small-minded, under-sexed people might negatively associate with young gay men who enjoy multiple partners and the ease at which modern technology can deliver them to your door. And assuming this is the truth and that he isn't doing that thing that some guys do when they put "No hookups" in their Grindr profile and then hit you up for some dick as soon as they message you, that's great.

This is undoubtedly many gay men's experience when confronted by the ostensible expectations of modern gay culture. It can all be really intimidating if you detect that you don't have the same approach to interacting that all of the people around you, the people you're supposed to bond with as a matter of course, seem to be having.

Smith has said that "Stay With Me," like the rest of his debut In the Lonely Hour, is about a man. But the experience he shares transcends sexual orientation, as the song has been simmering near the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for months now. For those who think Sam Smith is refreshing in terms of mainstream gay representation, I see that, too: He doesn't have a stereotypical gym body, and as a result has heard that he is fat a lot. He seems steadfast about maintaining who he is inside and out. He told Fader earlier this year:

I got a comment on my Instagram recently—I posted a picture and someone said, "He's getting fatter and fatter." It boggles my mind. I can see why people would go crazy. I do care about the way I look; I used to be really, really big as a child, so my weight is something that I have always been very conscious of and sensitive about. But I don't give a shit. I just need to have the best body I can and feel confident in that.

But the anti-app/anti-hookup stance also falls in line with the greater conservatism guiding Smith's presentation to the world as a gay man. His philosophy is, in short, to be gay, but not too gay. He also said this to the Fader, in the story that served as his coming out:

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. I'm not in this industry to talk about my personal life unless it's in a musical form.

A recent Rolling Stone profile included this passage:

Coming out, Smith says, "felt great. But I had to be careful — I want my music to be sung by absolutely everyone, just like I listen to straight people every day of my life, and I'm not straight. I've got to have faith in mankind that that can happen."

Smith is in the business of being a pop star, and this is good business. I don't think it makes great art, though—Smith's aesthetic is vagueness as he forgoes gender-specific pronouns when discussing his object(s) of desire in favor of "you." Even worse than his nonspecificity, though, is the complicit pass he gives to those who might disapprove of his music if it were identifiably gay. His "cleverness" is figuring out a way to refrain from shaking up small-minded people's worldview, allowing them to continue to default on heteronormativity.

It's one thing to sing to "you"; it's another thing to purposely alter a well-known text to make it ambiguous. He did this in his cover of Whitney Houston's "How Will I Know," which changed references to "a boy" and "he" by shifting the mode into second-person.

"There's a boy I know / He's the one I dream of" became "Oh it's you I know, you're the one I dream of." "How will I know if he really loves me?" became "How will I know if you really love me?"

From a logical standpoint, Smith's attempt here is about as futile as it would be for him to try and seem less gay with a dick in his mouth. He's singing Whitney fucking Houston at her bubbliest, girliest, most post-disco. But this is also the epitome of Smith's negotiation of his sexuality with the public. He is gay, most of us who thought to ask know that he's gay, but he's not too gay because too gay is still too much for too many people. Sam Smith is here to speak to the masses, even if it requires rewriting a song that everybody knows and loves anyway. Via this cover, Smith is covering.

Covering is what writer/lawyer Kenji Yoshino describes in his 2006 book Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights as the external demand—by straights, by gays, by whomever—for LGBT people to suppress part of their personhood for mass acceptance. (Yoshino also writes about racial covering—as a gay Japanese man, he can examine the demand from multiple angles). It is the request that goes, "Fine, be gay, but don't shove it in our faces," Yoshino specifies. It is what happens when people turn their noses up at gay PDA, when people ask you not to reveal your sexuality to your children, when people tell you to stop talking so much about being gay.

Yoshino writes beautifully, and at length,* about how detrimental the covering demand can be. Now that we are no longer asked to convert or pass, the burden on gay people becomes to present as less gay however possible. This demand is often presented as incentive for reward. Do you want to keep your job? Be less outwardly gay. Do you want visitation rights to your children if you've left a heterosexual relationship for a homosexual one? Be less outwardly gay. Do you want worldwide success as a pop artist? Be less outwardly gay.

And it works! Sam Smith is really famous.

Of course this is just a refining of the burdens people place on gays. It's also hypocritical, like the gays who attempt to fight stigma from straights by stigmatizing other gays (you know, the spermwhores, the bad ones) that Michael Warner writes about in The Trouble With Normal. Says Yoshino:

In the new generation, discrimination itself not against the entire group, but against the subset of the group that fails to assimilate to mainstream norms. This new form of discrimination targets minority cultures rather than minority persons. Outsiders are included, but only if we behave like insiders—that is, only if we cover.

Unsurprisingly, another one of Smith's prescriptions, via an interview in June with New York radio station Fresh 102, is, "To make it equal we need to kind of act equal, if you get what I mean."

To put this in context, when Smith was asked what advice he'd give to someone who was struggling with his or her sexuality, he replied, "I would say just be yourself. Just be yourself. And don't make it an issue, do you know what I mean? If others around you are making it an issue, I understand, fight for your rights of course. But also let's make it a normality. To make it equal we need to kind of act equal, if you get what I mean."

I really don't know what he means, actually. If I'm being optimistic, he's saying keep your head up and demand the equality that you deserve. If I'm being realistic and surveying his entire way of conducting himself as an out gay man, I'd say that what he's suggesting is that you have to behave in a certain, non-deviant way to be considered equal, and that's bullshit.

You're equal whether the one night stand that your dick wanted so bad doesn't jibe with your bleeding heart, or whether you have several stands in one night. You're inherently equal, and it's not your job to behave in a certain way; it's mainstream society's job to catch the fuck up. And it's happening.

Sam Smith is 22 years old. He has never been in a relationship, but he thinks he knows how others should go about finding one. He is just out of the closet (to the world, at least), but he has advice on how to conduct yourself as a gay human. His music and interviews are marked by a sense of smugness—he self-congratulates in "Money On My Mind" when discussing his lack of materialism when creating his art (he's singing this via a major label, btw), and called himself "brave" ( called himself!) in Rolling Stone for being a guy who's "that emotional" in "Stay With Me." He is someone who was told that he mattered at a young age (he's still young) by a mass of people, and it seems like he believes it. The sweeping nature of his comments, then, makes sense.

It also makes sense that we have a high-profile gay man as outspokenly conservative as he is—even if I disagree, he represents a lot of people with these thoughts, and varied representation means that we're going to see more and more different "types" of gay people.

I just wish that his pronouncements were less grand, that they accounted for the people who've been doing this shit (the gay shit I mean) for longer than he has. A gay man with a deep sense of gay culture and history wouldn't be wondering aloud, "Why is [my sexuality] a talking point?" Smith has. He has plenty of time to learn.

[Image via Getty]