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Sam Smith’s Gloria is Queer, Controversial Perfection

Sam Smith was once Pop’s ‘Most boring figure’ and shot to stardom as they crooned their heartbreak ballads to a receptive audience of every age. Far from their breakout song Latch, their main body of work was marked by Not the only one, Stay with me, and Too Good at Goodbyes, and peaked with their title song for the James Bond movie Spectre with Writing on the Wall.

So what is so different for the album Gloria – one that has catapulted Smith into a different genre where their voice so effortlessly belongs? Well not a huge amount. Smith told Jennifer Hudson on her talk show that “Sad was safe for me, and that in this album I play round with many different emotions, happiness and anger”. Smith’s 2020 album Love Goes would be what I describe as a melancholy but warm summer breeze – still in touch with their roots as a ‘sad song’ artist, but with a more euphoric and creative spin. Songs like Love Goes with its trumpet serenade climax, the dance anthem How do you sleep?, and the powerful I’m Ready all hold clues as to the direction this album would take. 

Smith came out in 2014 after the release of their first album and sung openly about their sexuality in their 2017 album The Thrill of it All with the song HIM. This song captured the choral essence that would make Gloria the song to title this new album. The first song of Love Goes also captured this with Young explicitly opening up to the topic. What Gloria does most effectively is being a ‘Queer Love Poem’. It is breathtakingly diverse in tone, but relatable on every level to queers universally. 

Expectations for the album were high when Unholy dominated charts and catapulted Smith to new heights of stardom, and they would be awarded a Grammy and BRIT in the process. This new dance-style genre is expanded upon with Gimme and I’m Not Here To Make Friends. Smith’s tone perfectly matches the melodies in these songs producing anthems that only grow your love of the song with every play.

I must admit that these three songs are very different to the basis of the album. Most songs keep in touch with Smith’s more serious norm of focus. Yet far from being sad ballads, to me, these songs are comforting and warm. My favourites How to Cry and Who We Love are so relatable to me with my sexuality, that I find myself gravitating to them above any of those dance anthems. 

What must be said is that the synergy of the album is precise. While it may jump around in terms of mood, this is perhaps why it achieves perfection, as it beautifully captures the strong emotions and mood swings that are part of being queer today. From joyous celebration, to deep unease, and then to self-empowerment, Gloria is so good because it represents these effortlessly. Perfect leads into Unholy with a string crescendo in a brilliant way. 

The song and namesake of the album Gloria is a powerful choral hymn that gives permission for queers to engage in the sounds of joyous faith without any of the baggage conventional religion brings. No God and Perfect encourage us to reflect and challenge those around us and ourselves who are guilty of perfectionism. 

Unlike Smith’s other album covers, Gloria features Smith looking directly into the camera, and makes eye contact with every listen. Previously, Smith looked away, and normally downwards – reflective of the down, sad emotions those albums capture. This is further evidence that Smith is reaching musical and emotional maturity in this album, presenting themself as developed. 

Queer people have many power anthems already – one only has to shuffle RuPaul or Todrick Hall to be blasted with empowerment. But Smith has had one of the biggest songs of the season, bringing this empowerment into the mainstream, while also bringing the queer experience onto a high platform with all its navigational difficulties. 

The album has of course not been without controversy. After Smith’s GRAMMY performance where they donned devilish ears, Piers Morgan branded it ‘Satanic’ and ‘Cowardly’. Personally, I think that there’s nothing cowardly about Smith’s transformation from shy balladist to expressing themselves unapologetically. Smith performed Unholy during the performance, which by definition would encourage association with those deemed most unholy – devils. If someone’s faith is so sensitive to seeing an imitation of the devil on stage that it is irreversibly challenged by this, then I think the issue is with their faith, not Sam. 

Smith has been sexually explicit in music videos – namely I’m not here to make friends which involves very eye-raising content. There is always a fine line between being unapologetic about who you are, and then just vulgar. But Smith was always going to have the extra baggage of their sexuality and identity behind any criticism they received. Furthermore, Smith’s size has drawn criticism not given to Harry Styles despite wearing similar outfits. Perhaps being straight and skinny allows for more forgiveness in the press? Body shaming is rife within the queer community too, so Smith is fighting a battle on many fronts. 

Whatever criticism Smith received, I don’t blame them for any of it. If anything, it’s a smart move to garner more media attention by dabbling in the Culture Wars stoked by the alt-right. Yet, a video recently emerged of Smith being verbally abused in an encounter in New York’s Central Park. Regardless of your oepinion of Smith, no individual should ever be subject to harassment just because they have expressed their identity. What Smith has performed in, worn, or shared is no reason for hate. 

Smith is not forcing anyone to watch or listen to their work, rather celebrating themself on the platform their work has created. It is a beautiful transformation to watch. Yes, it may challenge our biases instilled by society over what is ‘normal’, but Smith is forging a new path through tough conditions, one which many others will be able to follow in order to attain inner-happiness much more easily. For the ‘Freedom Caucus’ and free speech ‘warriors’, perhaps letting others express themselves freely can be a challenge, and so this is something for them to work on. 

Gloria was always going to be part of a new chapter for Smith. Figuring out who you are is a constant process, and one that the album captures well. For the queer community as a whole, this album is a welcome addition to queer culture, and I am excited to see where this direction takes Smith next.

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