Last March when I saw Sam Smith crooning the gospel-tinged torch song “Stay with Me” (fronting a small choir) on Saturday Night Live I knew he was special. His rich vocal texture, deliberate phrasing, and tortured affect (he actually cried) were unusually sincere, and musical, for modern pop. Shortly after the broadcast I heard the song in various settings and each listen confirmed it as sturdy song and an exceptional pop single. Though his debut album In the Lonely Hour made a less prominent chart debut than Beyoncé or Taylor Swift’s albums in the past year his album was one of the steadiest sellers of the year remaining in the top 10 consistently and spawning additional singles like “I’m Not the Only One.”
I was not surprised he was nominated for multiple Grammy Awards including Record and Song of the Year for “Stay.” The Grammies usually award performers who are popular commercially, critically respected (to some degree), and able to reconcile craft and accessibility. This explains the awards triumphs of pop figures like Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon, and Stevie Wonder. Smith deservedly won four awards on Grammy night, though the wins for New Artist, Record, Song, and Pop Vocal album merely acknowledge what was obvious in March 2014: he possesses the chops to transcend the immediate pop moment.
To my ears he is more listenable than most of his fellow nominees in the general categories. If his album is a bit dour and melodramatic in spots the integrity of his voice, his gift for melodicism, and the set’s focus enable it to stand up to repeat listens. You can tell he has some miles on him. Comparatively, I find most of the album and record nominees in the general categories confectionary at best. They reflect songs played frequently on the radio in the last year, but little more. Smith is arguably the most traditional vocalist, and “Stay” is certainly the most conventional ballad production among the nominees yet in this instance these qualities are assets. He can clearly sing well, emotionally and technically, and the recording feels of apiece rather than as a construction.
Smith is not merely “talented,” or “an old soul,” or just well-marketed, rather he is a skilled synthesizer. His best material weaves gospel, R&B and pop torch elements into a whole unified by sleek, but not necessarily slick, production. We’ve reached an unfortunate point in pop music when any vocalist who can sing in tune and convey some level of soul is considered contrarian, or even worse, “retro.” Smith is a modern singer who lives in the pop landscape without succumbing to its relentless genericness. Even on a seemingly throwaway dance club hit like Disclosure’s “Latch” (featuring Smith on vocals) his melancholic disposition and dexterous falsetto soar in a genre where the beat normally dwarfs the voice.
Smith’s Grammy night triumph evokes a similar feeling I’ve had over the last 20 years when strong recordings by Seal, Shawn Colvin, Dixie Chicks, and Adele, also won Record of the Year. Melodic songs with interesting stories, sung well in fresh arrangements still have a place in pop music. When contemporary audiences get a taste of this kind of pop music it inevitably stands above the faceless background music defining our age. No, all the “new” pop music is not bad; it just doesn’t have to be particularly “good” to earn adoration or awards.
The Grammies were founded in the late ‘50s purely as a response to rock ‘n’ roll. Major label record executives, convinced that rock ‘n’ roll was ephemeral, unmusical, sexually perverse junk, decided an industry award could function symbolically as a way to distinguish quality music (i.e. pre-rock, jazz, classical, etc.) from novelty music. Of course racism, ageism, classism, and snobbery underlie this boundary making as did commercial considerations. What better way to boost sales and promote artists by coronating them with awards? That smaller, independent labels—those most responsible for mainstreaming R&B and rock ‘n’ roll—were not part of the original organizing of the awards has always damaged the Awards’ credibility.
Rather than acknowledging emerging developments in music, the Awards have typically rewarded popular, inoffensive music fare more notable for craft than innovation. While no one disputes the fact that early winners like Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra were titans who stood out among their peers, it’s farcical that a rock category did not exist until 1979. Some of popular music’s most influential figures of the Grammies' first decade, including Bob Dylan, Laura Nyro, and the Rolling Stones were ignored when they made their most enduring music. Black artists, whose innovations are the root of R&B and thus the root of rock ‘n’ roll and rock, were mostly relegated to genre categories. Though Aretha Franklin won the Female R&B vocal Grammy from 1967-74 the artist who sang “Respect” and released classic LPs like Lady Soul and Amazing Grace was never nominated for Album or Record of the Year. Similarly, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall, and Donny Hathaway’s Extension of a Man are additional examples of influential albums absent from the general categories.
In the ‘60s certain acts, like The Beatles, were too big to ignore so some generational shifts occurred out of necessity. Forward thinking performers like Wonder, Simon, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, and Donna Summer were understandably rewarded multiple times in the ‘70s. The Grammies have still struggled to play catch up well into the present. For example, after years of ignoring Elton John, Bonnie Raitt, and Bruce Springsteen the Academy began recognizing them in the late mid-to-late 80s though their most daring work came in the ‘70s. Still, in the 2000s the industry’s recognition of oddballs like Gnarls Barkley, Macy Gray, Green Day, and OutKast signified an awakening of sorts for industry tastemakers. Innovation was not necessarily obscure and popularity, even a modicum of it, was not inherently vulgar.
Smith’s music is good transcontinental pop music that appeals to younger and more mature listeners thanks to a smart balance of pop’s past and pop’s present. In many ways it represents a lot of what the Grammies were originally founded against (music with teen appeal, music with a strong “black” influence) and much of what they aspired to recognize (“quality” pop that older people liked), yet also reveals the limits of these narrow calculations. Some of my favorite singers, including country singer- turned-folk singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash and eclectic vocal jazz artist Dianne Reeves also won awards on Grammy night. Their musical categories (Americana, vocal jazz) are definitely not popular; they’re relegated to the pre-show. But the Grammies depend more on the integrity and prestige associated with their categories than the pop, hip-hop, and modern rock, that garners the greatest awards hype. Meaningful music emanates from an array of sources within and beyond the commercial mainstream. Rather than romanticizing major or minor labels or coveting the cachet of certain demographics dedicated listeners must necessarily keep our ears tuned to a spectrum of creative frequencies to find the best popular music.
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