The Proms, in its latest attempt to be accessible and inclusive, has (via the BBC) booked famously ‘non-binary’ singer Sam Smith to add dazzle to its Pop Prom. Previous pop artists employed for this purpose include Stormzy, Self-Esteem and Paloma Faith. There is also to be a ‘Disco Prom’. (Which for those of us of a certain age immediately brings back memories of the grotesquely naff ‘Hooked On Classics’.)

This remains an odd tactic. These concerts sell seats and draw eyes, yes, but then so would any concert by these artists. Does their appearance really make pop fans expand their musical horizons? I consider it doubtful in the extreme that anybody has ever thought ‘well I enjoyed that performance by Stormzy, so I think I’ll nip out and buy some platters from Chopin and Schoenberg’.

Smith is a walking example of how fame and riches can do very odd things to even the dullest people

Pop music is all about tiny bits and a quick rush of feels. It’s jingle music for busy people, and three cheers for it. But classical is – in general – about huge long melody lines and hidden delights for which you have to put in the hours. Both are wonderful, but for different reasons.

The loss of interest in classical music for ‘ordinary’ (for which read ‘working class’) people is indeed a cultural disaster. As a young teen 80 or so years ago, my dad was sheltering from the Cardiff Blitz to the tune of records of Puccini and Brahms being played. I recently caught an episode of sitcom Bless This House from 1975 in which Sid James’s character was listening appreciatively to a classical record. It wasn’t portrayed as a quirk or pretentious, or as anything unusual. This shrinking of classical music’s reach is a tragedy. But is Sam Smith going to lure people back?

Smith is a walking example of how fame and riches can do very odd things to even the dullest people. He (he calls himself they, but let that not detain us) is a talented, unspectacular but conspicuously not very bright man who was suddenly thrust into a mad world.

What was different about Smith, to begin with, was his ordinariness. That made a refreshing change in the pop sphere, particularly the gay pop world which was notable for its eccentrics. Like Long John Baldry and Simon Fowler of Ocean Colour Scene before him, his no-frills presentation meant that Smith didn’t even register as culturally ‘gay’. His most notable characteristics were a sweet soul voice and pleasant, traditional tunes in the vein of Adele. His early interviews are refreshingly direct and matter-of-fact.

But then things got a bit strange. We soon learnt that Smith had a very limited knowledge of pop history, and of gay pop history in particular. The idea that he was breaking new ground by playing with gender roles, for example, must have come as a shock to Little Richard, Mick Jagger, Boy George, Annie Lennox, etc. Did Erasure drag up as the girls from ABBA in vain?

And being a huge hulking hairy chap is perfectly acceptable (though of course I would say that). But let’s face it, Smith was never going to set anybody’s pulse racing in a teen idol way. Which, again, is fine.

But as time passed, Smith declared himself non-binary and started presenting himself as ‘femininely’ sexy. Pop music has, or should have, few limits. But the idea that someone who resembles a hefty brickie can rewrite himself in all seriousness as a sultry sex symbol – well, no. Nobody but nobody, was, or is, buying Smith’s records for his sex value.

For a supposedly ultra-modern 2020s non-binary, the ‘sexy’ Smith trappings are very ancient iterations of naughtiness and sexiness: Satan, corsets, wacky outfits, etc. There is an uncomfortable sensation of the Victorian travelling freak show about it all – you can easily picture him being pulled into a village on a horse-drawn cart before gawping peasants. Tellingly, none of the backing dancers in the videos or the Satanic rite performances look anything like him. Similarly, none of this strained attempt at weirdness percolates into the music, which remains dull and extremely conventional. In fact, the quality of his early work – which had an honesty about it – has not sustained.

The Proms’ organisers have tried to reassure the public that Smith’s performance will be ‘appropriate’. Sam Jackson, the incoming Proms director said, ‘We have worked very hard with Sam Smith and their management to see how we can create something authentically Proms, and the look and feel will be entirely appropriate for the audience in attendance.’ We shall have to see whether that hard work pays off.

Smith tries so very very hard but he is still – crushingly – ordinary. It feels so inauthentic and clueless. Now, inauthenticity can work: look at Bowie the Bromley bloke, or Elton the nerd from Pinner. But they had a sparkle inside, and a lively interest in the outside world and other people. Sam Smith? He is about nothing but Sam Smith and whatever nonsense he’s just picked up on the LGBTQ+ grapevine.

I have another idea to promote classical music. If all culture is to be gamified, then wouldn’t emphasising the challenge of listening to and appreciating classical be the way to go? You put in the patient listening work and get a huge payback – the moment when a classical piece transforms from just a heck of a lot of notes into something supernatural. Listening to classical music is like climbing a mountain: after heaving yourself to the top you get a view that changes you. Forget Sam Smith. Market that.

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