Sam Smith caught a longread of heat from Gawker’s Rich Juzwiak yesterday for negative comments he made about dating apps and relationships: “No offense to people who go on Tinder but I just feel like it’s ruining romance, I really do,” Smith said. “Stop Tinder and Grindr!” Hardly a screed—unlike Juzwiak’s 2,000-plus–word takedown of Smith’s “fucked-up gay conservatism,” in which he lambastes the singer for downplaying his homosexuality for the sake of his career and casting aspersions on “spermwhores” using dating apps. This line of criticism follows from Juzwiak’s implicit assertion that there is a correct way to be gay, and Sam Smith isn’t doing it right.
Juzwiak takes issue with Smith’s criticism of dating apps chiefly because Smith has never had a boyfriend. He writes: “[Smith] has never been in a relationship, but he thinks he knows how others should go about finding one.” Not the furthest thing from reason. But the following sentence reads: “He is just out of the closet (to the world, at least), but he has advice on how to conduct yourself as a gay human.” The idea that because Smith is “just out of the closet” he has no idea how to conduct himself “as a gay human” puts unfair restrictions on gay personhood—“You must be this gay to talk about relationships!”—as though until one has had a certain quantity of sex, one’s gay experience is invalid, at 22 or at any age. Talk about advice on how to conduct oneself as a gay human. “I just wish that his pronouncements were less grand,” Juzwiak writes, “that they accounted for the people who’ve been doing this shit (the gay shit I mean) for longer than he has.”
Ad hominem dismissals aside, Juzwiak hears “Stop Tinder and Grindr!” as slut-shaming of gay hookup culture from someone exterior to the community, and accuses him of not only prudishness but gay shame. Juzwiak quotes Smith in an interview in Fader, in which he says, “I’ve tried to be clever with this album, because it’s also important to me that my music reaches everybody. I’ve made my music so that it could be about anything and everybody.” And in Rolling Stone: “[Coming out] felt great. But I had to be careful—I want my music to be sung by absolutely everyone, just like I listen to straight people every day of my life, and I’m not straight.” To Juzwiak, this is tantamount to denying his homosexuality, or “covering.” But from a realist perspective on pop music, Smith’s reticence is almost understandable; even in an era when a straight white man can win Best Rap Album at the Grammys and hit the Billboard 100 with a single about how OK he is with gay marriage, dozens of gay artists have remained irreparably niche.
Frank Ocean is a prime example. A member of the hip-hop collective Odd Future [Wolf Gang Kill Them All], he appeared on two tracks of Jay Z and Kanye West’s magnum hip-hopus, Watch the Throne, in August 2011. His critically lauded mixtape, Nostalgia, Ultra, had appeared in February 2011. Less than a week before the release of his first studio album, channel ORANGE, in July 2012, Ocean published a cryptic but confessional Tumblr post, which many took as his coming out story. It was a powerful moment, and a crucial shift in the culture of hip-hop, at least outwardly. Numerous rappers and friends of Ocean’s tweeted their support, and commended him on his strength. But after a few months, and despite a spectacular catalogue of work, he seemed to vanish. In an interview this past February, not long after Macklemore and Ryan Lewis won Best Rap Album, the rapper T-Pain disputed the idea that hip-hop was becoming more gay-friendly, despite the insipid ubiquity of “Same Love,” in an interview with VladTV:
I think the radio is getting more gay-friendly, but I don’t think urban music or anything is getting more gay-friendly. Because if that was the case, Frank Ocean would be on a lot more songs. Like, I know n****s that will not do a song with Frank Ocean just because he’s gay. But they need him on the fuckin’ song… He was on the Watch the Throne album before he came out, and then when he came out, it’s like, he can’t get in the studio with Jay and Kanye right now!
Nostalgia, Ultra and channel ORANGE deal in homosexual desire, emotion, love, and heartbreak, but in no explicit terms. Does this diminish their artistic validity? Is it the duty of any gay artist to be loudly and unmistakably gay in every instance?
On Sam Smith’s cover of Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know,” in which Smith changed the words “boy” and “he” to the nonspecific “you,” Juzwiak writes, “Even worse than his nonspecificity… is the complicit pass he gives to those who might disapprove of his music if it were identifiably gay. His ‘cleverness’ is figuring out a way to refrain from shaking up small-minded people’s worldview, allowing them to continue to default on heteronormativity… He is gay, most of us who thought to ask know that he’s gay, but he’s not too gay because too gay is still too much for too many people… [T]he burden on gay people becomes to present as less gay however possible. This demand is often presented as incentive for reward… Do you want worldwide success as a pop artist? Be less outwardly gay.”
Neither Smith nor Ocean is lying about his sexuality. Neither is being coy. To suggest that the outward “gayness” Smith projects publicly is a toned down version of his actual self, to criticize him for not being “gay” “enough,” is presumptuous, first, and stereotypical, second. Racial and ethnic communities face many of the same in-tensions, the identity politics of too x/not x enough. If Sam Smith had wanted to protect his music career from the fact of his being gay, he would likely have stayed in the closet.
To be sure, Smith is not a hip-hop artist, and gay artists face far fewer obstacles to stardom in the pop world, but the danger of being relegated to the cultural sidelines is ever-present. (Adam Lambert, anyone?) But however valid this concern might be in theory, it is not necessarily as calculated as Juzwiak accuses it of being. Sam Smith may simply be a private person uninterested in dating apps. That should be OK even for a gay person, and even for a gay person who has only recently come out.
There is a vocal contingent of LGBT people who decry supposedly heteronormalizing advances in LGBT equality—primarily the legalization of gay marriage—as antithetical to the gay ethos of pre-/post-AIDS come-what-may sexual opportunism epitomized by Manhunt and Grindr and nostalgic visions of the Fire Island Pines. Gay marriage, they argue, will “take the ‘alternative’ out of ‘alternative lifestyle,’” and warp young gays’ minds into dreaming only of white picket fences and househusbands, god forbid. The notion that gay men interested in monogamy and family are somehow traitors to their community (and to its history) has gained traction in some circles as gay has become more “mainstream,” however that might be measured.
Aside from this being flatly ridiculous—Adam and Steven getting married has as much effect on Garrett, Luke, Bobby, and Rich’s polyamorous cohabitating sex loft as it does on the Romneys—it is damaging to the community. The backlash to gay normalcy is founded in an tremendously privileged experience of homosexuality, one that considers “heteronormative” (i.e., non-“alternative”) romantic arrangements not only square but self-effacing, ignorant of what it is to be truly gay. The fetishization of alternative for alternative’s sake purports that gay identity can only—indeed, must only—exist in perpendicular opposition to mainstream (read: heterosexual) culture: To be “normal” is to assimilate, and surrender your Self to the straighties.
This understanding of “normal” is the purview of Chelsea Boys who have only gay friends, not gay youth in far-flung bits of this and other countries. And while the gays against gay marriage set display a healthy mistrust of heteronormativity—still rampant, mind you, and insidious—the only way for culture to change is for homosexuality to come into the unremarkable mainstream, and exist there on its own terms rather than only as a posture of anti-normalcy. This has been happening for a few decades now, and homosexual figures in pop culture have accrued a broader range of self-expression, beyond both Gay Best Friends and Queer as Folk. Gay characters appear on primetime network shows, albeit in incredibly normal form.
And while this may be disheartening at first to some, it represents a step forward in the identity politics of minority representation. The more gay characters that appear on TV, the less often they need be distinguished—either by themselves or by others—as “not that kind of gay.” We no longer have to be either a Will or a Jack. Just as straight culture (if there is such a thing) is broad enough that heterosexual women in pop culture are not only either sister wives or Snookis.
Unless a gay person is actively denigrating homosexuality and its public culture—and “Stop Tinder and Grindr!” doesn’t really count—there is no basis for weighing his or her self-expression against anyone else’s. To label certain romantic notions as “fucked-up conservatism” is itself pretty fucked-up, and ironically conservative. Counterintuitively, defining gayness as only alternative and counter-cultural puts gay identity into a box the same size as those outside the community may seek to put it in: “gay” looks only like this, acts only this way. There is no right way to be gay, and, equally, there is no wrong way. A Grindr account is not a membership card, and to suggest as much is to perpetuate the very stereotype you mean to reclaim as indentity-affirming. “I wonder if Smith leaves his shirt on during sex because he needs to keep his heart on his sleeve,” Juzwiak writes. Well so what if he does? Some dudes are into that.
Follow John Sherman on Twitter @_john_sherman.