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Sam Smith's Pop Rise: How a UK Soul Man Came Out and Still Became America's Next Top Idol

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SAM SMITH
David Wolff - Patrick via Getty Images

"It's the singer, not the song," the band Survivor declared on its 1984 album Vital Signs. But as anyone who's ever perused a Billboard chart knows by now, good singers and good songs often finish last. And if any of those singers of any of those songs happens to be a gay man, more power -- and good luck -- to him. He'll need both.

Although the importance of being straight if you want to be a male pop star has been waning in recent years, music remains the one area where women have it better -- if they're gay. It's hard to imagine that the rainbow flag-waving up-with-gay-marriage sentiment of "Same Love," the 2012 rap single that featured a lesbian, Mary Lambert, singing the hook, would have resulted in a Grammy-nominated No. 11 hit if its headliners, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, weren't two straight guys. We haven't come that far. Not yet.

Adam Lambert hung on to his burgeoning fan base but only had modest success as a recording artist after coming out as a gay man in 2009, three weeks after coming in second on American Idol. Although his second album, 2012's Trespassing, made him the first openly gay singer to score a No. 1 album on Billboard's Top 200 chart, it didn't even go gold. Frank Ocean earned critical acclaim and Grammy attention after revealing that he'd once fallen in love with a man before the release of his 2012 debut album, channel ORANGE, but that didn't translate to blockbuster status for the merely gold-selling ORANGE or Jason DeRulo-sized hit singles.

George Michael and Elton John have enjoyed both critical acclaim and commercial hits, as has, to a lesser extent, Judas Priest's Rob Halford, but their heydays were well before they came out, as were the shorter pop-idol cycles of Ricky Martin, Clay Aiken, 'N Sync's Lance Bass and Kajagoogoo's Limahl. Freddie Mercury may hardly have been closeted at the height of Queen-mania, but he never publicly acknowledged being gay, not even as he lay dying of AIDS, and while the UK has been generally more accepting of its openly gay pop artists (see Boy George, Marc Almond, Jimmy Sommerville, Pet Shop Boys, Erasure's Andy Bell and Frankie Goes to Hollywood's Holly Johnson), most of those acts had spotty or fleeting chart runs in the U.S. America hasn't had a platinum-level male superstar who was openly gay during his commercial peak since Culture Club's in the early '80s.

That seems likely to change any week now, courtesy of Sam Smith, whose unrequited love for a man inspired his entire debut album, In the Lonely Hour. Like Boy George, he's a British blue-eyed soul singer who is anything but the norm, not because of his sexuality (which he has yet to officially define by hanging a label on it) or his physical appearance but because his rise seems to have been imported from another era when stars were born, not manufactured.

In the Lonely Hour, out in the U.S. today, June 17, is on track to make one of the splashiest debuts of the year. Outselling J.Lo, whose A.K.A. comes out the same day, is almost a foregone conclusion, thanks to an enviable ongoing run of hit singles. Last week Smith appeared on three that were simultaneously in the Top 40 of Billboard's Hot 100: "La La La," his 2014 collaboration with Naughty Boy that already peaked at No. 19 and is now at No. 41; "Latch," the 2013 Disclosure single on which he is the featured vocalist, which just rose five more notches to a new No. 17 high; and "Stay With Me," his gospel-soaked solo breakthrough that this week leapfrogs 19 to 10, becoming his first U.S. Top 10.

Look out, Iggy Azalea. Smith is coming for you too. Like Azalea, the white Australian female rapper who has held down the top two spots on the Hot 100 for three weeks now, Smith is a foreigner riding a black American music form to the top. Also like Azalea, this "overnight sensation" has actually been years in the making.

Although Smith, at 22, is a part of the post-Idol generation, his early breaks came not through reality TV or social media but the old-fashioned way, far from the maddening TV cameras, in front of fans who often came to see someone else. One fateful night that would be Adele. Smith met one of his managers in 2008 when he was opening for a then-emergent Adele in London. His subsequent rise has come in three stages:

  1. Building underground buzz that slowly crossed over into the mainstream. Smith did it via "Latch" and "La La La," the latter of which hit No. 1 in the UK last year and was the sixth fastest-selling UK single of 2013. He maintained a crucial aura of mystique by not appearing in either video, remaining free to focus on perfecting his craft and not his public persona.
  2. Getting on Saturday Night Live. It worked for Adele in October 2008, when an SNL performance paved the road to smash status for her debut album, 19, which had spent months logging modest but not remarkable success. Smith landed his own plum performing spot on the March 29 SNL more than two months before the U.S. release of his album.
  3. Coming out. Frankly, when Smith revealed last month in Fader magazine that In the Lonely Hour was inspired by his unrequited love for a man, things could have gone either way, even in a celebrity climate where Michael Sam and Tom Daley have recently made it safer to be young, gifted and gay. His revelation was met with a collective shrug while raising his profile and his singles to greater heights.

But still, why Smith and not Adam Lambert, who at one point seemed to be as poised on the verge as Smith is now? Timing, for one thing. Acceptance of gays has evolved in the five years since Lambert was the American Idol runner-up, with gay marriage no longer an out-of-reach dream but a reality for more than half of all Americans, and television brimming with gay representation.

Also, unlike Lambert, Smith undersells himself. There's no flash, no attention-grabbing antics, no controversy. (Lambert infamously kissed a male member of his band and shoved the face of another into his crotch while performing at the American Music Awards in 2009.) It's hard to imagine baby-faced Smith making anyone squirm.

In the Lonely Hour, already a No. 1 hit in the UK, is just a singer and his songs, and the street cred is pouring in. Years ago Mary J. Blige's then-label, MCA Records, blocked the release of her duet with George Michael on a cover of Stevie Wonder's "As" from release in the U.S. allegedly because of concerns over how his sexuality would affect her image. Now when she appears on the Darkchild remix of "Stay With Me," it makes her look cooler:

It also helps that Smith, unlike Michael at his closeted '80s peak, isn't pushing a sexual agenda with his image or with his music. "I'm not a centerfold," Frank Ocean told Rolling Stone shortly after his own coming out. "I'm not trying to sell you sex." That could easily apply to Smith too. He's like a British Bruno Mars, sexless in a sensible suit, the perfect non-threatening blue-eyed soulful package.

Had Smith come out of the starting gate with a boyfriend in tow, flaunting Jason DeRulo's taut, exposed six-pack and oozing sex appeal, would his transatlantic crossing have been as smooth? I'm not sure that mainstream pop fans are ready for a gay male superstar who wears his sexuality on his shirtless torso, or in his videos the way Robin Thicke and Justin Timberlake recently have. Adam Lambert sold sex as flamboyance (no wonder the surviving members of Queen love him -- Freddie Mercury excelled at this), making it perhaps more palatable for straights (his AMAs stunt aside) who were OK with gay people but not necessarily gay sexuality, and the follow-ups to his first few singles still tanked.

By embracing understatement in both his music ("Stay With Me" might be the stateliest, most polite song on the charts) and his image (even his generic alliterative name practically screams "Don't stare!"), Smith is poised to go where no British man or woman has managed to go since Adele. And he's doing it in much the same way, without glitter and noise. So many other promising careers have been crushed for emphasizing talent over image, but in a nice pop twist, that might be the secret to Smith's success, the very thing that's made his sexuality a footnote and his pop domination all but imminent.