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'Deconstructing Sam Smith: Is Pop Broken in 2014?'

It’s telling that Sam Smith‘s breakthrough track was called ‘Latch’: if you believe the advance press, he’s got 2014 firmly locked down. 

Last week, the 21-year-old Cambridge singer came top in Auntie’s annual Sound Of… poll – a result so obvious that both bloggers and bloodline were celebrating his win a day before it had been announced. The win followed the news that he’d secured the BRIT Critic’s Choice award – and, as just about any music journo with an email address will tell you, that news arrived off the back of a fierce 12-month PR sortie. The music world has glommed onto him like a limpet to a rock face. Question: is this something to celebrate?

We’ve absolutely no ill-will towards Smith – he’s an obvious talent with an exceptional voice, seems a genuine sort, and doesn’t look like he’s going to be going the way of the Banks any time soon – and the following is resolutely not intended as a personal takedown. He will do well, and deserves to – the best of luck to him. What’s interesting, though, is what his storming win tells us about pop in 2014 – about why tastemakers, gatekeepers and commentators have rushed as one to anoint him as the face of 2014. We’ve taken a look at why the industry has rallied behind Smith so heavily, and the reasons don’t always look good: fear, siege-mentality, imaginative poverty, and conservatism writ large.

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As a guest artist: rootsy d’n’b-lite and tasteful house. As a solo artist: lacquered pop-soul, tender(ised) balladry.

What this tells us:

Muted dance numbers and (Olympic) torch songs – pretty much the exact same template as Emeli Sandé, who happened to have the best selling album of 2012 and the second biggest of 2013. Suits are evidently wagering that, like Sandé, Smith will ascend to that same rarified sphere of artist who produce a 21 or a Back To Black – albums that become de facto proofs of citizenship. It looks like a smart bet – Smith’s Naughty Boy collaboration ‘La La La’ was one of the Top 10 biggest sellers of the last year. But, as with so many aspects of the Smith package, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that The Sound of 2014 is essentially The Sound of 2013 (cf. the Mercurys’ staggeringly retrograde shortlist).

Side note: it’s interesting that, at the same time that the Yanks are smitten with the ersatz fetish-freqs of EDM, we’ve spent the last 12 months falling for the likes of Rudimental, Chase & Status and Avicii – dance producers whose music has emphasised guitars and horns and worn its clubland influences lightly. Which leads us onto…

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Musical theatre, many a manager, tiger mom.

What this tells us:

The biggest selling songs of 2009 cast our popstars as heroes and warriors: they fought for this love, went in for the kill, boom boom pow’d, celebrated the climb. Looking at 2013’s equivalent chart, cheery normality has been the dominant mode: the biggest seller of the year was a make-out track that was goofy rather than sexy; Macklemore rifled through the ‘Thrift Shop’; and Lorde published her Das Kapital-dwarfing cultural manifesto ‘Royals’. Stylised authenticity ruled – and so it proves with Smith.

On his recent ‘Money On My Mind’, Smith strikes a David posture: “When I signed my deal / I felt pressure…You say could you write a song for me / I said I’m sorry I won’t do that happily.” But, whilst one suspects the words ring true to some extent for Smith, it’s a carefully stage-managed sort of authenticity – he’s a well-practised artist, finessed by nine managers over a decade, the product of an ongoing process of fractional distillation. Musical theatre, despite being a corrosive social evil, will put him in good stead: like Jessie J, he’ll be experienced, professional and well-versed in the gestural emotional language required in this sort of landscape. Again, he’s being deliberately shuttled down the Sandé route – an apparently normal lady, who happens to be clocking up seriously abnormal numbers.

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John Newman.

What this tells us:

It makes sense that Smith’s stylists would take a few cues from the biggest breakthrough British male of 2013 – but, seriously, Smith’s team are on some Dostoyevsky shit. Taking a broader view, you could say that the Scrubbed Up Lad look (see also: James Arthur, late period Robbie) is a result of Gaga fatigue, or that Smith’s GQ cover look fits in perfectly with the aspirational-but-not-lofty angle his marketing team have opted for. But that’d be glib – really, it’s just another symptom of the withered imaginations of pop’s power brokers. You can’t imagine anyone was on anything over than the defensive when decking out their man, however natty he looks.

Smith’s sharpish threads and eye for black reflects something about his voice, too. Gender-netural and technically robust, his is a voice the listener can project onto – a talent that’s both incandescent and deeply safe at the same time. Considered alongside fellow tippee Sampha, whose voice also hovers ambiguously between male and female, it’s hard not to think of that OVO and that XO. Could Smith, Sampha and others be part of a concerted push to find some actual UK chart traction for the #sadboy ethos, which has converted to big money in the States?

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Disclosure, who featured him on his breakout ‘Latch’; Naughty Boy, who collared him for jaunty unit-shifter ‘La La La’.

What this tells us:

It’s been noted elsewhere, but the Sound Of 2014 poll points towards a phenomenon we’ll call (surprise, surprise) The Sandé Paradigm: appearing on somebody else’s record as a means of testing the commercial water. Naughty Boy’s Smith-featuring ‘La La La’ was one of last year’s Top 10 biggest sellers – and, in a coup that will have earned some industry tyro a jeroboam of Bolly, it featured Smith on the cover. Ella Eyre (voice of Rudimental/Naughty Boy), Sampha (voice of Drake/SBTRKT), MNEK (voice of Rudimental/Duke Dumont) have all gone down the same route – as did the non BBC-sanctioned Newman. A small cabal of artists with 2013 chart pedigree set to rule 2014 – brazen in a Buller sort of way, but not indicative of a healthy pop machine.

But that’s not the worst of it – it’s crucial to remember that Smith’s got friends in low places, too. It’s quietly terrifying how the Sound of 2014 – which, remember, is mostly selected by pundits and non-partisan industry folk – have served up such a perfect sop to the industry’s manifold commercial insecurities. They literally couldn’t have plumped for a safer choice. The imaginative poverty of those polled (or perhaps the unadventurous Rolodexes of those doing the asking), considered alongside the pink noise of PR, is maybe the most important force behind Smith’s rise – a feedback loop that needs busting open to give stranger, newer artists a crack of the whip.

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