Twitter has never been a conducive environment for effective sociopolitical debate. Far from being a welcoming space where rational individuals consider complex societal issues, Twitter discourses tend to favour childish, ad hominem taunts over the opinions of logical and informed adults.
On the thirtieth of January 2023, Twitter was swarmed with backlash to Sam Smith’s new music video, ‘I’m Not Here to Make Friends’. One user accused the artist of leading her children astray with the extensive sexual themes contained within the video. Another mourned for the state of a world which would allow an artist to represent themself so provocatively.
The video features Smith as they belt out a powerful tune promoting sexual freedom and self-love. They express frustration at being friendzoned in romantic relationships, celebrating sexual encounters with the lyrics, “I’m not here to make friends, I need a lover”. The cinematography and costuming are visually stunning, featuring Smith in opulent outfits amongst a crowd of backup dancers. In one shot, Smith is showered in streams of champagne, evoking the imagery of an ornate, baroque fountain. In another, the use of leather masks and costumes alludes to sexual bondage.
Western pop music has a long history of mature and sexual themes. Whether it be nudity, sex, bondage, or orgiastic allusions, there’s not much that ruffles audiences of the genre anymore. When created by artists expressing heteronormative sexual desire, sexually explicit music videos scarcely warrant controversy. However, when created by LGBTQIA+ artists expressing queer sensuality, they seem worthy of societal contention.
The issue here was not that Sam Smith created a sexually explicit music video; it was that they, as a nonbinary artist, created an explicit music video which celebrated homosexual desire.
Society has historically stigmatised music that expresses the sexual desires, or desirability, of artists who deviate from ciscentrism or heteronormativity. Queen’s 1984 music video, ‘I Want to Break Free’, featured the band’s four male members wearing makeup and stereotypically feminine clothing. In cross-dressing for this video, Queen deviated from ciscentric ideals that were strongly entrenched in Western society at the time. The video, which was banned from MTV for its inappropriate material, is widely considered responsible for Queen’s loss of their American audience base during the mid-1980s.
Dr Frederik Dhaenens from the University of Ghent specialises in the representation of LGBTQIA+ communities in Western media. He discusses how, despite the increased presence of LGBTQIA+ narratives in mainstream music videos over the 21st century, the representation of such identities remains problematic through its one-dimensionality and demure nature. “One might applaud the increase and diversification of gay music videos but at the same time need to be wary of homogenised and desexualised representations of sexual diversity [in music videos].”
Mainstream pop is a battleground for LGBTQIA+ artists as they advocate for the representation of their sexual freedoms and against societal heteronormativity and ciscentrism. Whilst these biases may not escalate into public backlash where LGBTQIA+ musicians express less explicit forms of sensuality, criticism of Sam Smith for their proud celebration of homosexual desire draws attention to the prejudice that continues to underscore the genre of mainstream pop. Smith has been uncompromising in their ideals following the backlash, utilising the momentum from this debate to further advocate for their right to explore queer sensuality and desirability in their music. In one Tweet, Smith posted a photo of themself in a black, feathered outfit and matching headpiece, captioned with the text, “Never too much”.
It must be acknowledged that pop music also provides a platform for sexual stigmatisation against various underrepresented and exploited communities, including women, plus-sized individuals, and various racial and ethnic groups. An understanding of LGBTQIA+ sexual stigmatisation in pop music requires broader consideration of society’s inherent prioritisation of the sexual freedoms of heterosexual, cisgender, caucasian males. For this reason, the backlash directed towards Smith likely also stems from fatphobia, with thin body types often presented in Western media as the only ones that may be considered sexually attractive. Thus, it is likely that Smith’s intersectionality as nonbinary, gay, and plus-sized contributed to the extent of backlash they faced in the wake of this video.
Although pop music continues to gatekeep sexual freedom from LGBTQIA+ artists, musicians such as Sam Smith continue to celebrate their sexuality and desirability. In doing so, they empower counternarratives to heteronormativity and ciscentrism, and by extension validate the identities and experiences of LGBTQIA+ communities.