The Ticketpro Dome resembles a suburban Sunday. Families congregate everywhere, familiar families of mom and dad with kids in tow. Every now and then, queer kids and adults weave through the crowd – signalling their sexuality by what they wear, the language they use and the gestures of affection they share – each momentarily given the space to truly express themselves because of the artist who will perform tonight. We have all gathered to watch Sam Smith, the British singer and songwriter whose soul-tinged pop stylings have captured mainstream musical attention.
Smith first drew attention with a string of number one singles, followed by an immensely successful debut, In the Lonely Hour. The collection of songs, journeying through unrequited love, sold 13 million albums and saw the singer garnering multiple awards, including Grammys, and attaining massive airplay. After coming out as queer, his torch songs took on new meaning and vitality for some.
The Thrill of it All, the title of his second album and tour, explores newer territories, venturing into the dynamics of fame and the relationship between sexuality and society while retaining his trademark intimacy and honesty.
In the beginning, there was Sam
At precisely 9pm, Smith emerges, assuming the god-like form that fame creates. The crowd screams for what feels like several minutes.
Artists have incredible power onstage. They raise their hands and we follow suit. They take a single step and we scream. They ask that we switch on phone lights and we obey, turning stadiums into cities of stars. Through the stage, and the work done to attain it, they achieve superhuman shape and attain profound power.
This power is malleable, able to be bent to the shape that performers craft it into. Tonight, Sam Smith deftly shapes that power into the creation of an unapologetically queer show, played to a scene of suburban bliss. The contradiction is inescapable and important.
Smith begins the show with his current chart-topper, Dancing with a Stranger, a duet with singer Normani, who was a member of American girl group Fifth Harmony.
From the moment he appears, his performance is an exercise in queer joy. His sexual and gender identities are present in the lyrics and the lace he wears. It’s insistent in the sway of his hips and his mimed hair flick.
These gestures and aspects of Smith’s performance are not in nature queer or gender-specific, but we as a society have turned specific ways of being into symbols of sexuality and gender identity. Smith embraces these identities, refusing to perform a “straight” show for a suburban audience.
As Smith told reporter Jamal Grootboom, South African fans should expect a show that has become “gayer and gayer and gayer” as the tour has gone along. Through style, he takes the audience on this journey, first emerging in a standard suit, then shifting to a pair of black pants and a lacey black shirt, and finally a sequined shirt. The show gets “gayer and gayer” as it progresses. It’s joyful to watch.
Identity as rebellion, resistance, and reclamation
Over time, Smith has become more outspoken about his gender identity and performance. As Smith recently told Jamila Jamil:
“I’ve always had a bit of a way within my body and my mind … when I saw the word nonbinary genderqueer, and I read into it and I heard these people speaking, I was like fuck that is me … Nonbinary genderqueer is that you do not identify in a gender. You are just you. You are a mixture of different things. You are your own special creation … I’m not male or female. I think I float somewhere in between.”
To stand within these identities is an act of rebellion, refusal, resistance and reclamation in a world where LGBTQIA+ people everywhere are still fighting for the right to be. Smith’s performance of these identities onstage gives many offstage permission to be fully themselves, to experience the feeling of freedom.
Early in the performance, one of Smith’s songs morphs seamlessly into the gospel standard His Eye is on the Sparrow as he and his backing singers sing:
I sing because I’m happy
And I sing because I’m free
What does it mean to be truly free? We know, through bitter experience, that it is more than words in a Constitution and laws that reality renders paper-thin.
His joy is hard-won, which makes it so vital. As Maneo Mohale writesin a piece on black feminist joy, for those denied the full experience of humanity: “the insistence, pursuit and desire for joy becomes an act of vital resistance”.
Identity in action
Questions of identity are always on stage with our favourite artists, whether we see them or not. As the audience lights throw the suburban-tinged scene into full sight during a singalong, I wonder what it means to have a queer pop icon occupy this South African space, how Smith’s identity is reconfigured in people’s imaginations, and how homophobia and queerphobia play out in the other spaces the audience find themselves in.
Mainstream musical success can scrub an artist of their multiple parts and identities. They become an album, a top 40 song, a melody hummed in evening traffic. They are symbols. Barely real. Sam Smith can just be the person who wrote Stay with Me. That singer on the radio you love. An outline of a human being.
I think about this as I watch two men hold each other openly while Smith croons, feeling safe to do so in the glare of the stage lights. The streets can be a scary place for such seemingly mundane behaviour. The lyrics of Smith’s powerful anthem, HIM, seep into this scene:
I walk the streets of Mississippi
I hold my lover by the hand
I feel you staring when he is with me
How can I make you understand?
HIM is the centrepiece of the show, a moment of breathless harmony that reaches transcendent heights. Surrounded by backing singers and backlit by a single stark light, the song becomes the sole focus. He sings:
We need to talk
I have a secret
That I can't keep
I'm not the boy that
You thought you wanted
Please don't get angry
Have faith in me
Say I shouldn’t be here but I can’t give up his touch
It is him I love
It is him
Don’t you try and tell me that God doesn’t care for us
It is him I love
As rapturous applause dies down, Smith says: “I wrote this song as a message to everyone, that love is love. I am a proud gay man.” His voice reaches a shout as he disrupts the suburban bliss, pulling people out of their comfort zones. Something in the air changes. It’s charged.
Other aspects of identity are present onstage, too, that of race and music’s history. White soul and R&B singers gain mainstream popularity, while black artists remain on the margins of success. It’s unavoidable and quietly simmers in the background. It’s what we have inherited.
Identity and performance
Sam Smith is easy to love. He is far away, a person who can be “understood” through notes strung together in melody. Fame is part fiction and fantasy, it’s myth-making of colossal proportions.
Sam Smith is easy to love. He is not your child, your sister, your childhood friend, your mother, your co-worker. He is a pop star who sings the music you love. More intimate quarters call for more than momentary acceptance, or being an exception to societal rules through breathless talent.
Smith’s beautiful and brilliant queerness onstage shines a light on what queerness means offstage, in all its dimensions.
Icons that come from oppressed communities serve a critical function. It’s a heavy mantle of responsibility. We can never fully separate the artist from the art, particularly when their art is such a powerful statement about who they are. Perhaps, to people outside the LGBTQIA+ community, Smith presents an invitation to think about the way we treat the people in their lives and outside of them, and to recognise the validity of all our identities. Perhaps Smith offers us insights into fragments of freedom, brief glimpses into its possibilities.
An ending as an invitation
In the latter part of the show, Smith emerges in a spangled gold and black shirt; he assumes a pose, hand on hip and flips imaginary hair. He knows he looks cute. As he vogues, drawing on queer history through the dance form that originated at the balls of New York City, it is a statement in identity but also just an exercise in joy. Not either-or, it’s both.
As an encore, he performs three hits, ending the show with Pray after the popular Stay With Me. It’s a curious move. Artists often finish with their most celebrated hit, the chart-topper, the one everyone knows. Instead, he chooses one of his more statement-leaning songs, a masterstroke. Smith sings:
I'm young and I'm foolish, I've made bad decisions
I block out the news, turn my back on religion
Don't have no degree, I'm somewhat naive
I've made it this far on my own
But lately, that shit ain't been gettin' me higher
I lift up my head and the world is on fire
There's dread in my heart and fear in my bones
And I just don't know what to say
Maybe I'll pray
I have never believed in you, no
But I'm gonna pray
The message is clear. Hope mixed in with brutal reality. The Thrill of it All is an ode to queerness, in its multiple parts and emotional elements. But for some it was just a sublime Sunday out. Our experiences differ. Not either-or, it’s both.
We leave the Ticketpro Dome under the spell Smith has woven, with audience members singing Siyaya as we head over the bridge. We go, we press on, no matter what, we move forward. The protest song’s multipart harmonies and meaning seem appropriate tonight. It feels like a response to Smith’s call in Pray as he repeated, “Let’s talk about freedom.” The journey continues.
Sam Smith cancelled his first show in Cape Town mid-performance, citing vocal strain as the reason. He is scheduled to perform two more shows in the city, however we await updates on the status of these from Big Concerts.