We watch Sam Smith arrive at an old castle. Within seconds, they’re inside, surrounded by provocatively dressed dancers undulating suggestively. Smith stands at the centre, tassels on their nipples. Streams of water bounce off their face. In a nearby room, leather-clad BDSMers thrust amorously atop beds. I suppose it’s no wonder Smith’s latest music video, for the disco-inflected track “I’m Not Here to Make Friends”, has got people up in arms. It’s a raunchy, unabashed display of sexuality. Some have branded it “pornography” – but they’re wrong. It’s an accusation that reeks of homophobia.
The track itself isn’t the issue. “I’m Not Here to Make Friends” has pretty innocuous lyrics – tamely horny lines about looking to pull in a nightclub. Smith’s video, too, shouldn’t really have raised too many eyebrows: the non-binary English singer was simply embracing the kind of in-your-face, sex- and body-positive sensibility that has become fairly commonplace in the modern music scene. And yet, in poured the outrage, with detractors branding the content “pornographic” and calling for an age restriction to be placed on the video. In one of the more extreme reactions, ex-Brexit Party MEP Alex Phillips went on Good Morning Britain and likened the video to porn, linking its content to a wider culture of sexual assaults and “relationships falling apart”.
Now, while some of the more reactionary objections to Smith’s video are simply not worth indulging with a good-faith response, it should be pointed out that the video isn’t pornographic, by any real definition of the word. The mere suggestion of sexuality does not equate to porn, nor is such a suggestion inherently unsuitable for children. Smith’s video might not make the primary school curriculum any time soon, but there’s a vast desert of middle ground between Deep Throat and Barney the Dinosaur. Musicians should not be forced to tailor their output to the sexless whims of the young. Equally, children should not be insulated from any content that dare admit sexuality exists. And besides – the idea that five-year-olds are streaming Smith’s YouTube channel in their droves, is, frankly, a laughable fiction.
Compared to many of their pop contemporaries, Smith is thoroughly unremarkable in their willingness to place sex front and centre. It’s hardly a leap to assume that there’s an element of homophobia in the backlash, as well as a streak of body fascism; if Smith were thin and cisgender, their unapologetic displays of sexuality would likely have passed by unnoticed. Other artists who have suffered similar censure in recent years for “over-sexualised” music videos include Lil Nas X, and Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion for their raunchy hit “WAP”. It’s probably no coincidence that these singers are queer artists of colour.
Artists such as David Bowie and Freddie Mercury have been widely valorised for upending sexual and gender norms, for daring to get up on stage and be unapologetically themselves, at a time when few dared to do so. People love a rebel. At least, they love a rebel when the dust has settled. When the parapet has gone back up. When the act of rebellion has been washed clean, made sturdy by history and the heft of consensus. When transgression still has a living, beating pulse, plaudits can be a little harder to come by.
While Smith is currently facing the sharp end of this double standard, it would be absurd to act as if they are some kind of radical button-pusher. Musically, their oeuvre is far from the cutting edge. In a three-star review of their latest album, Gloria, Helen Brown describes Smith’s singing as the “aural equivalent of watching a lava lamp” – and she’s right. Smith is no punk rocker: they’re a radio-ready crooner who plays stadiums. Perhaps it is this incongruity that sits uneasily with some people. That even a mainstream, accessible artist like Smith is able to put unapologetically queer sexuality on display is proof of just how far society has progressed in recent years. For prudes and bigots, it’s a terrifying thought.
I’m reminded of a routine from Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, in which the comedian jokes: “Today’s young people are exposed to pornographic imagery everywhere. In advertising. In fashion. In music. And above all, in pornography, where it is extremely prevalent.” Which is to say, yes – there is obviously a problem with how widely, and early, children are being exposed to pornographic material. But it’s disingenuous to suggest that Smith’s video is in any way part of this problem. This isn’t Pink Flamingos. It’s a bit of dancing. Grow up.