All the fuss over Sam Smith’s new music video exposes how deeply uncomfortable many are with seeing a plus-size, non-binary person being sexy
Sam Smith has just joined a very long conga line of stars who have shaken their hips suggestively in the name of pop music/art/whatever. And yet, the fallout from the release of Smith’s latest music video would make anyone think that they are the first person to ever wear nipple tassels, a showgirl get-up and a corset on screen.
In the video for the new single I’m Not Here To Make Friends, the non-binary star wears the sort of skimpy, glittery outfits that anyone with even a passing knowledge of Kylie, the Pussycat Dolls and Beyoncé will be long familiar with.
Aided by a handful of backup dancers, Smith pulls some suggestively elastic dance moves – the likes of which Miley Cyrus, Nicki Minaj and Rihanna have relied on for a while now. Champagne is poured. Chandeliers are swung off of.
The whole thing is epic, overblown, with the sort of high-octane glamour that’s long been bedrock of pop music. Smith, for their part, looks as though they are having an absolute whale of a time.
Knowing that Smith is an artist who is open about their long and arduous journey towards moving away from self-hatred and toward bodily acceptance, the video is a joy to watch. “I now have the opposite of body dysmorphia,” Smith said recently.
And yet, it’s almost as though Madonna, who has done it all three decades prior, never existed. Detractors have noted that Smith, unapologetic in their sexiness, is ‘normalising pornography’ in pop music.
One critic took to Twitter to have a good old-fashioned pearl clutch: “YouTube does not have any age restrictions on Sam Smith’s degrading sexualised new music video,” they posted.
“Five-year-olds can search this up and watch it with no content restrictions! Sam Smith, this is not art. This is not trendy. This is not empowering. This is monstrous!” And another: “This is the music industry, not a Playboy cover shoot.”
The only logical response to all of this is a big fat head-scratch. I never buy the ‘won’t someone think of the children’ defence, because it’s mostly gives people a great opportunity to have a good old-fashioned conservative gripe about something or other that offends them. The Children rarely come into it, if ever.
And as I’ve mentioned, female artists have been creating much the same content for years: think Miley Cyrus showering naked in the video for Flowers, or Meghan Thee Stallion dancing in the video for Thot Sh*t. Not only do these videos pass muster; you could argue that for these young female popstars, the sexy visuals are a massive part of the overall package. Not only is it encouraged of these female stars; it’s expected.
No, the backlash to Sam Smith rings on a different register entirely. Smith identifies as genderqueer and non-binary, meaning that they identify outside the binary of male/female. This can mean that non-binary people can feel like they belong to neither gender, or that they tap into their masculine and feminine sides at different times. "I've always had a little bit of a war going within my body and my mind," Smith said back in 2019. "I do think like a woman sometimes, in my head. Sometimes I've questioned 'Do I want a sex change?' It's something I still think about, like, 'Do I want to?'"
While corsets, sexy swagger and bare flesh are pop staples, Smith is carving out a new trail as both a plus-size and non-binary artist, unapologetic about their own sexiness and the space they take up. Smith isn’t in the business of asking permission to do what countless other artists before them have done.
And yet, Harry Styles, who has identified as genderqueer himself, has worn similarly provocative outfits in a nod to gender experimentation in magazines up and down the newsstand. Lizzo, another plus-size popstar, has beaten the fatphobes to the punch, reminding them that her sense of body positivity is bullet-proof and there’s no point at all in coming after her for it.
Perhaps the backlash exists precisely because I’m Not Here To Make Friends is an unabashed, full-throated celebration of queer bodies and queer sexuality, as well as of larger bodies. And there’s a certain type of person for whom all of that in the one shiny glittery package is a completely new, alien concept. There’s a sizeable Venn diagram overlap here with the people who say that they don’t "mind” homosexuality as long as “they’re not all in-your-face about it”, or even those who say they don’t “believe” in non-binary identity, as though they’re being asked their permission for it to exist.
Even though there are precedents galore for their new video, Sam Smith will soon realise that, like many before them, breaking new cultural ground isn’t easy work. I often wonder about the people who gave out yards about Madonna’s Like A Prayer, Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Relax or Queen’s I Want To Break Free.
They were offended and flustered back then, but what now, decades later? Do they feel as though they’re still on the right side of history, looking back all that distance in the rear-view mirror? I doubt it.