The Week In Pop: Sam Smith’s Miraculous Voice Will Make Him A Star, But What Kind?
Among the attributes necessary for pop stardom, a powerhouse voice is not typically on the shortlist. From Madonna to Rihanna, pop singers have long been able to excel at their occupation without the ability to wail away magnificently. It’s counterintuitive given that job #1 for singers is, ostensibly, singing, but there are other more important factors involved in rocketing to fame and fortune, especially in an era when technology has turned once-treacherous trips to the vocal booth into bumper bowling. TLC didn’t lack for talent, but they certainly understood that the most common way to make it in the music business is to be Crazy, Sexy, and/or Cool. That’s why American Idol winners tend to fizzle when released into the wild: They sing like angels, but they don’t possess the looks, tabloid antics, or unflappable magnetism that’s necessary to stay in the limelight for any significant length of time.
Look at today’s most irrepressible pop stars. Even those who boast a significant amount of musical wherewithal often get by without singing particularly well. Drake’s pitch verges on terrible outside the safety of the studio, but he’s exceptionally good at staying ahead of trends, and he’s got an intuitive knack for melody. Taylor Swift’s voice isn’t exactly a force of nature, but she and her co-writers continually hit the sentimental sweet spot, and her awkward awards show dancing and dating roulette ensure the public eye remains fixated on her. Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and Miley Cyrus captivate the masses by weaponizing their bodies and inhabiting wild wonderlands of their own imagination, though Cyrus can certainly let ‘er rip when she chooses. Perhaps no two performers are as emblematic of modern pop stardom as Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake, and while both of them are preternaturally chipper born entertainers who can knock out dance routines and talk-show appearances with equal aplomb, you never imagine a cherub strumming their vocal cords when they hit the high notes. When someone ticks off all three boxes on the crazy/sexy/cool axis and they can conjure the heavens with a single breath — someone like Michael Jackson — they usually transcend mere stardom and become an icon.
But what about those who have nothing but a cataclysmic voice to offer us? Specifically, what about Sam Smith? To be fair, Smith — an immensely talented young British soul singer currently climbing to ubiquity on both sides of the Atlantic — has a cool haircut too. But otherwise, his empyrean pipes are the only thing the Cambridgeshire country bumpkin has going for him. He is neither crazy nor sexy nor cool. Whether guilelessly answering interview questions or stiffly strolling the cityscapes in his music videos, he carries himself like a big dork — emphasis on big because he’s tall, but also emphasis on dork because he’s a dork. Still, Smith’s star is rising. He topped the singles chart in Britain with the briskly exultant “Money On My Mind” after guesting on other smash hits by Disclosure and Naughty Boy. He is a budding favorite in the UK among the media (Critics’ Choice at the Brit Awards), the public (he won the BBC’s Sound Of 2014 poll), and Taylor Swift. Smith made it to SNL before releasing a debut album — and with such a charisma deficit that he ended up staring at his feet in all the promos. He is poised to become the rare singer who succeeds at pop stardom simply because people (get this) love hearing his voice.
But people loved hearing Susan Boyle’s voice too, and her 15 minutes felt more like 15 seconds. Same for all those Idol contestants you can’t be bothered to remember. Stirring vocal performance is enough to nab the spotlight for a moment, but in the age of YouTube and reality TV, there is no shortage of songbirds vying to serenade the public. The only real currency in the pop machine is star power, and at least for now, Smith is all but bankrupt in that regard. His oafish demeanor is part of the reason my colleague Tom Breihan can’t stop comparing Smith to Rick Astley, another bumbling Briton with fantastic hair and effortlessly supple intonation. Astley scored a record deal on the strength of his marvelous singing but did time as a studio tape op while his label waited for him to overcome his crippling shyness before unleashing him on the public. Like Smith’s “Money On My Mind” (or Disclosure’s “Latch,” which was Smith’s first hit for all intents and purposes), Astley’s breakout single, 1987’s worldwide #1 sensation “Never Gonna Give You Up,” matched a contemporary dance-pop sound with flashes of blue-eyed soul. He continued to accrue top 10 hits in the ensuing years before negative press and a desire to raise his daughter caused him to retire from music in 1993. But Astley was more infamous than famous; the Rickrolling craze of 2008 was predicated on the assumption that “Never Gonna Give You Up” was irredeemably lame.
Is Smith destined for an abbreviated career and similar ridicule decades down the line? I’m willing to bet he isn’t — partially because he’s different from Astley in some key aspects, and partially because he’s ahead of Astley in one important way. First, the differences: For one thing, Astley never had the benefit of borrowed cool from utterly hip collaborators like Smith had with Disclosure. His association with the Lawrence brothers won him the attention — and, crucially, the approval — of a vast swath of listeners who might have otherwise overlooked him, myself included. From the start, he was “Disclosure collaborator Sam Smith” rather than some anonymous corny bloke with lanky limbs. Thus, unlike Astley, he’s had the critics on his side from the beginning. For someone so perilously uncool, he’s unquestionably hip. Furthermore, Smith hasn’t yet taken America by storm to the extent that Astley did — no singles bearing his voice besides Naughty Boy’s “La La La” have done any significant action on Billboard’s Hot 100 — so he’s less likely to suffer from overexposure. As with Lana Del Rey, SNL was only the beginning of Smith’s Stateside mainstream offensive, and who knows whether he’ll land the “Summertime Sadness” he needs to move beyond “look what the hipsters are into” curiosity. He’s simply not famous enough yet to be appreciated ironically.
But if Smith is going to be a star in America, he’s apparently not going to do it singing the dance-pop anthems he made his name on. The tunes he performed on SNL, the recent single “Stay With Me” and last year’s “Lay Me Down,” are both torch songs that resemble adult contemporary more than cutting-edge pop. The same was true of “Not In That Way,” the stunning ballad that leaked last year in demo form and will close out Smith’s debut album In The Lonely Hour. To put it plainly, they all sound like something Adele might sing. Smith has attracted more than a few comparisons to Britain’s foremost diva, and for good reason: Both of them defy the standard definition of a modern pop star, both of them won the BBC poll, and both of them are obsessively fixated on the subject of unrequited love, though as noted by Vulture, Smith’s default disposition is more wounded puppy dog than scornful avenger.
Perhaps the most pertinent parallel between Smith and Adele is that they each prefer to use their extraordinary abilities in a highly traditional context, one in which the crazy/sexy/cool dynamics of pop stardom don’t apply, and having a rich, resplendent voice means everything. This is where Smith is ahead of the curve compared to his vocally and follically endowed forebear Astley, who retired before he got to cash in on his canny 1993 transition to straitlaced adult contemporary. It would be a savvy decision given Smith’s fleeting prospects for mainstream pop stardom, but it also seems driven by a personal inclination toward this kind of emotional soul-bearing songwriting that could almost pass for bias against uptempo dance-pop. Talking to The Fader at SXSW, he drew a subtle dichotomy between “classic,” “timeless” songwriting and the electronic production that drove his early collaborative hits, asserting that “Latch” and “La La La” are great songs with or without their digital framework and affirming that In The Lonely Hour will stay true to the downcast mood of “Lay Me Down.” According to a recent Interview piece, the LP matches that song in subject matter as well: “My album focuses on unrequited love quite a lot because I don’t think it’s spoken about enough in music. I’ve been through it myself and I found it hard to find songs that were about that, so I’ve definitely tried to make that a part of my album.”
Smith may have lots of experience with heartbreak, but after a passionate fling with dance-pop, he seems to have found the musical equivalent of a secure committed marriage in the form of these sentimental slow jams. Time will tell whether he becomes a full-time balladeer. If that’s his trajectory, the world will be worse off without him delivering electrifying hooks on monster jams. The Adele route might be the surest path to a long, lucrative career, and I’m never going to complain if we get lots more rhapsodic sadness like “Not In That Way” through the years. But is it too much to hope that the cosmic forces that Smith summons when he opens his mouth are strong enough to crash the gates of mainstream pop too?
Who did Frozen freeze out of the #1 spot this week? That’d be Shakira, whose self-titled MOR effort premieres at #2 with 84,000 sold, good for her highest-ever chart position. But with 161,000 copies sold, the Frozen soundtrack easily maintains its hold on #1 for an eighth non-consecutive week. As Billboard notes, it’s one of only 20 albums in the SoundScan era to record that many weeks on top. Other top 10 album debuts include the Johnny Cash’s “lost” album Out Among The Stars (#3, 54,000 copies), rockers Memphis May Fire’s Unconditional (#4, 27,000 copies), Mary, Mary gospel singer Erica Campbell’s Help (#6, 23,000 copies), crooner Barry Manilow’s Night Songs (#8, 22,000 copies), and prog-emo stars My Chemical Romance’s greatest hits album May Death Never Stop You (#9, 20,000 copies).
Over on the Hot 100, who do you think is at #1? Of course it’s Pharrell. “Happy” will turn down for nothing — except perhaps someday for “Turn Down For What,” the insane Lil Jon/DJ Snake collab that rises to #10 this week. Billboard notes that Pharrell has passed Elvis as the male artist with most weeks at #1 thanks to 23 weeks on top between Pharrell’s four #1 singles. The rest of the Hot 100 is absurdly static. Can we get some new hits up in here?
Avicii – “Addicted To You (Avicii Remix)”
The original version of this song didn’t do it for me, but you know what does? Lego-on-Lego violence. (Also: this remix, which banishes the original’s annoying folk-pop tendencies in favor of a more pleasing electronic arrangement.)
Vado – “My Bae” (Feat. Jeremih)
Musically, this is basically a Mike-Will-era remake of Drake and Young Jeezy’s “Unforgettable,” and an inferior one at that, but there are worse things than copying a formula that works.
Rebecca & Fiona – “Holler”
In which these Scandinavian synth-poppers “execute patriarchy” while dancing in anti-swastika T-shirts and munching on cheese fries.
Max Collins – “Sports Bar”
Yes, that’s the guy from Eve 6. No, this isn’t anywhere near as memorable as “Inside Out.”
Paloma Faith – “Only Love Can Hurt Like This (Off the Cuff)”
The underwhelming “Can’t Rely On You” was probably one of Pharrell’s Summer Of Smooth leftovers, so here’s Paloma trying her hand at a heartrending ballad. It’s an improvement on her last single, but I’m still not understanding her appeal.
DEV – “Kiss It” (Feat. Sage The Gemini)
Who says DJ Mustard is the only peaking California rap producer who can make waves with a pop song? “Don’t like me? You can kiss my ass,” to the tune of “Mockingbird,” is an amazing hook.
Lewis – “Hunter”
Sometimes pop moves toward rock and not the other way around. In this instance, that works out splendidly, as the guitars and live drums lend extra gravitas to the proceedings. Not sure how I feel about Lewis portraying herself as prey to be hunted by her man, though.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Michael Jackson’s XSCAPE reportedly contains a song about child abuse. [The Independent]
- Beyoncé is being sued by some fans who were trampled at her Chicago show. [Vibe]
- Tourmates Katy Perry and Kacey Musgraves will perform together on CMT Crossroads. [Billboard]
- Is Usher trying to copy Pharrell’s gimmicky hat thing? [Idolator]