Sam Smith, “How Will I Know”
Getting the purely musical commentary out of the way first: this is a good cover, even beautiful in parts — his navigation of those tender little descending chorus in the pre-chorus @ 2:30ish is sublime — but probably not worthy of the insane hubbub that it’s generated over the last few days. (It cracked Facebook’s inane “trending topics” section for me, which has to mean something.) There’s an instant familiarity at work because the chords that open the song up sound almost exactly like the ones that crack open “Stay With Me,” the song that’s truly broken Smith here in North America. He’s graceful and mealy-mouthed as ever; when I watch him sing I can just imagine notes rising out of his stomach, bubbling up through his throat and fluttering out of the corner of his mouth. But ultimately I resent this take on this song for robbing the original of its joy. Whitney chose to revel in the uncertainty, thumbed her nose at it, chose hope and sought counsel. Smith is never farther than an inch away from utter heartbreak. I get it, I really do, because I was there once too, but as a listener it’s frustrating. You want him to let the light in, if only for a minute or two.
(An aside, about his physical presence: when the camera takes a moment to capture the whole room you see Smith standing incredibly still, those notes pouring out. He looks statuesque in the most basic sense of the word. A result of his intense and well-documented training, an expression of his extreme control, I don’t know, I find it fascinating. There is so little movement.)
I’m really torn up about the pronouns thing, I’ll be honest. Smith is resolute in choosing “you” over “he” and “him” when he’s singing about love, which is always, and it’s a choice that says so much about him as a person and a performer: ambitious, unabashedly seeking commercial success, “intensely private,” whatever. I respect him for it, because he’s absolutely right when he says that a straight performer wouldn’t get hounded about the subjects of their songs like this, and I think it’s admirable that he’s trying to write and sing love songs that possess both power and universality. And this sort of anguished hand-wringing over the absence of a simple “he” is probably something he’s been dreading long before coming out to the Fader! But I think his decision is impractical, and working against the widespread appeal he’s fighting so hard to cultivate.
Sam Smith’s biggest problem right now is that he occasionally seems like a machine custom-built to conquer the pop charts: golden voice, classic style, relatively versatile with respect to genre, polished to a fault. In this context, something as simple as neutralizing the pronouns on a Whitney Houston cover can seem like oppressive quality control from an automaton and his team. The whole thing reminds me of the old Michael Jordan adage about sponsorship and politics: “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” Straight people buy records, too. But is a man singing about his love and lust for another man really going to make them stop? In trying to render his music applicable to any relationship, regardless of sexual orientation, Smith is draining it of the heart and character that rings through many great love songs. (Even the rare Smith songs that doesn’t grapple directly with love are possessed of an ineffable queerness: look at the smash “La La La,” a thinly veiled indictment of hate speech if I’ve ever heard one.)
Smith’s straightwashing stings a bit more for me because I’m intimately familiar with the romantic struggle documented throughout In the Lonely Hour. Smith has talked about the unrequited love that inspired much of the album, but that’s not all I hear: it’s also an unyielding document of a young gay romantic running headfirst into the unfamiliar paradigms that govern sex and dating for gay men. “Stay With Me” is more than just a needy chronicle of an one-night stand that didn’t pan out: it’s the sound of someone who was trained from birth to view monogamous heterosexual relationships as an ideal, violently crashing into something a little more blurred and learning to deal with it. It’s a journey that’s capped off by bonus track “Restart,” where Smith finally figures out how to quickly step in and out of failed flings and broken promises; he finally finds the “restart” button, and it’s one of the best tracks on the album, frothy pop-soul that feels practically weightless compared to the goopy balladry of the album proper.
I embarked on that same journey, with most of it taking place over the last two or three years; much of it has been chronicled on this Tumblr, in sometimes raw and embarrassing fashion, and more of it has been deleted at 2:00 a.m. or later after getting 1 note’s worth of comfort. That’s why it’s frustrating for me to watch Smith scrub himself clean, diluting his experience and his message and his music: I’ve been there, and I know the feeling, and I’m really rooting for him. His choice could be the difference between creating art that’s successful and art that’s truly resonant.
This is a good post. I do think that in a post-Frank Ocean world it seems unnecessarily Puritan to straightwash pronouns, and I do think that Jamieson is right about Sam Smith’s background pointing towards his devotion to “you” being—at least in part—a calculated maneuver to not derail a carefully planned career.
That having been said, I almost feel like his refusal to say “he” on his album when he knew we would know he’s singing about a man almost gives his music a different—and perhaps greater, but definitely different—sort of power. I hear these songs from the perspective of someone who was not comfortable with coming out—be it for personal or professional reasons—and so I don’t see Sam Smith as “diluting his experience” as much as speaking to a different part of the gay experience. This is a bit of projection on my part but I feel like songs like “Lay Me Down” and “Stay With Me” are soaked with the unique sort of tension that is suffering privately when you’re in the closet (which in my case was a long line of intense crushes on straight close friends). I actually wasn’t prepared to give a fuck about Sam Smith but I’ve really been stuck on this album because of this. I pick up a feeling in these songs that was basically my entire adolescence and one that still informs my life.
I think the “diluting” of Sam Smith’s experience will come into play at some point. Maybe this Whitney Houston cover is that point. It will be bullshit if he doesn’t say “he” on his next album, and if he doesn’t he’ll rightfully open himself up to criticism from gay people about putting his career ahead of the “greater good” or whatever. But I weirdly love this album (or at least some of it) for coming from the place that it does.
Emily Gould got a book deal because certain people in New York thought a bunch of people inside and outside of New York were invested in her story. This turned out to not be true! Not even by a long shot. By her own admission her book was something like 32,000 copies short of being able to be called “not a horrible idea.” That’s an incredible amount of books. An entire bookstore’s worth of books.
Now, four years later, Emily Gould has a novel out, and she has been in the press because of this novel. Thousands of words in Elle. Front page of the Style section of The New York Times, which is her second time being featured in the Times in the last three months. “Emily Gould apparently has the world’s only good book publicist,” is how Hamilton Nolan put it on Twitter.
Something about this is acutely maddening. Emily Gould, if anything, was a very visible reminder of how small and unimportant the stories of “stars” in the New York media bubble are to basically everyone else in America. Her personal story—ABOUT BLOGGING, lol 2008—was considered so unique and important that a company paid $200,000 for it. This was seen as basically one of the most engrossing personal stories the industry had to offer to the general public. And pretty much no one cared.
It should have been cold water to the face. Granted, a bunch of pages in Elle or a few pages in the Times is still obviously an incredibly tiny slice of the general media real estate, but nonetheless: Emily Gould’s personal story is still something that people in power—editors, in this case—think other people are going to find interesting, even though that story (“I am now a normal person”) has gotten even less interesting (objectively speaking). Of all the stories on Earth, this one is still being presented as worth reading about.
This is not about Emily Gould’s writing. It’s not even about her life, which is exceedingly ordinary, just like mine and most likely yours. This is about people in an industry (or several industries) forgetting a visible and memorable lesson when the entire health of the industry depends on remembering lessons that teach us about the mortality of the industry. Even worse is that the current story necessitates repeating that lesson but ignoring it.
In related news, the United States is about to enter another war in Iraq.
"I Luh Ya Papi"
A month or so ago I saw Rob Dubbin talk about a Twitter bot he programmed named @oliviataters. Olivia—he talked about her as if she’s a real person—cobbles together tweets from those of other Twitter users, most or all of whom, from what I can glean, are teenagers. The results are tweets that almost always nearly make sense.
having faith will definitely thankful
omg totally going through old pics and i soooo miss my long nails, they were gay id still be dry. smh.
went to the gym for the first time in 8 months, i can conclude i am ridiculously glued to my phone like.
Olivia has quickly become one of my favorite Twitter accounts. Like a robot in a sci-fi movie, she has a quasi-personality that shines through her code’s broken language and non-sequiturs. Like a real teen, she’s snotty and sarcastic, but also excitable and passionate and prone to fits of exasperation. “depression nd anxiety are definitely gay and lame,” she tweeted today, and I nodded.
At the same time that I’ve found myself entranced by @oliviataters, I’ve also been unable to stop listening to the Jennifer Lopez song "I Luh Ya Papi." Like Olivia, “I Luh Ya Papi” mostly gets 90% of the way to making sense.
Keep it number one, that’s easy, mathematics
Keep it number one, baby, ain’t no static
Boy, you the shit, go and take a power
Started from the bottom, baby, then we went roof
These lines were written by humans—J. Lo, Detail, and a few others—but they read like jumbled phrases spit out by a program that digests the lyrics of popular rap and R&B songs.
And yet, this song speaks to me. “I Luh Ya Papi” is about the first blush of love: “I didn’t see it but I see it now / I think I love you, and I need you now,” goes the pre-chorus. I’ve been in a relationship for two-plus years now so I’m past the first blush of love, but that rush of blood to the head still hits me, and “I Luh Ya Papi” nails that emotion squarely.
Expressions of love often come out all weird and soupy. Every once in a while I stare at the part of Instagram where you type a caption and am completely stumped as to how to communicate love in a public forum without embarrassing myself, but you gotta just go for it and let the words splatter as they may. Sometimes they come out in code. They’re only for one person anyway.
That’s what I hear in “started from the bottom, baby, then we went roof,” a hilariously ridiculous lyric that feels to me like accidental gospel. It’s what I hear during the song’s climax, with French Montana chanting “hanh!” while J. Lo sings “I luh ya papi, I luh ya luh ya luh ya papi.”
Two people who barely make sense, maybe only to each other, laughing like fucking idiots. It’s the best.
Are people still citing this as evidence that Mac Klemore is a Truther? Obviously, he was listening to Immortal Technique’s “Bin Laden" when he wrote that tweet. How do I know? Because he’s a white guy.
That song samples Jadakiss’s voice asking, Why did “Bush knock down the towers?” on “Why?,” but because it’s taken out of context it sounds like a statement: “Bush knocked down the towers.” Why else would he word it that way?
Only the Internet could make me sympathize with Mac Klemore and cop to knowing some Immortal Technique songs. And for that, I’ll never forgive it.
But seriously, folks: LOL at the idea that Macklemore isn’t a truther.