Sam Smith hasn't always been comfortable being a spokesman for gay men. He's now prepared to take that responsibility on as a new man — though unfortunately, his first at-bat wasn't the most elegant.
In an interview with NME, the English singer-songwriter explained that his previous reticence was about wanting to speak to the widest possible audience. "I'm a gay man who came out when I was 10 years old, and there's nothing in my life that I'm prouder of," he told the magazine. "What I was trying to say was that I didn't want the album to appeal to just one community, I wanted it to appeal to all of them."
He clarified that he does indeed want to be both spokesman and "a figure in the gay community who speaks for gay men." Smith then tried to explain that he hopes his music will inspire change in countries where things are far worse for gay people.
"I sell records in countries where gay men get killed, and that's a big thing for me, because maybe one person in that country will pick up my album, realize it's by a gay artist and it might change their opinion," he told NME.
Taken for its core sentiment, Smith's quote isn't bad. Changing opinions is a good goal. The phrasing, however, is the issue. "I sell records in countries where gay men get killed, and that's a big thing for me" sounds like a victory lap taken on the backs of gay men persecuted for who they are in those countries.
Predictably, Twitter users weren't fans of the quote.
On the surface, it seems unfair for Smith to have his words parsed with such a razor, but he shares responsibility for it. For one, he's specifically saying he wants to be a spokesman. To speak for a community means speaking as precisely and cleanly as possible to best communicate a message.
Additionally, Smith doesn't have the best record when it comes to speaking on gay issues. In a Fresh 102.7 interview from June 2014, he repeatedly emphasized that normality should be the goal for gay men, telling them not to make their sexuality "an issue."
Two months later, he gave an interview to Metro in which he dismissed using apps like Grindr and Tinder to meet partners. "No offense to people who go on Tinder, but I just feel like it's ruining romance, I really do," he told Metro. "We're losing the art of conversation and being able to go and speak to people, and you're swiping people."
On one hand, it's admirable Smith is interested in being a role model for his community. On the other, his previous statements on these subjects have been so judgmental and off-base that he's basically working at a deficit. His quotes have to be as perfect as possible, else he'll only trigger more criticism.
His success in countries where gay people are killed for being who they are shouldn't matter. Instead, he should put his focus on making things better in those countries. His music is a start, but what comes next? That's his challenge. Hopefully, this new Smith is up for it.