When writing songs about gender and sexuality, there's no more powerful tool than a pronoun. Whether it's "he," "she" or something in between, the ability to be specific in describing who we are (and who we want) is an artist's hard-won right.
So when Sam Smith, the 22-year-old British soul vocalist and the most commercially successful gay male pop singer right now, covered Whitney Houston's "How Will I Know" in concert Monday night, it was jarring when he changed the object of affection in its lyrics from "he" to a generic "you." Smith has always been open (if relatively modest) about his sexuality; why would he take one of his favorite tunes and strip out the gender in its chorus?
Because Sam Smith also aspires to make his love songs universally accessible. Those dueling impulses — to be both groundbreaking and entirely relatable — are one reason for his popularity. It helped him score a "Saturday Nigh Live" performance this spring and international hits like his own single "Stay With Me" and Disclosure's smash "Latch," which features Smith's lead vocal.
But that ambition is also his main obstacle to greatness. Smith's brief and heartfelt set at a sold-out Greek (the first of two nights there) proved that well-written, powerfully sung love songs can transcend the particulars of who they're meant for. But it also suggested that the best singles get their power from being as intimate as possible.
It's too easy to call Smith the male Adele, but it's not an entirely false comparison. He's collaborated with some of her same songwriters and works in a similar scrubbed-up, pop-soul sound with just enough hipster credibility to still feel like a discovery.
The differences are in his quiet allusions to less Starbucks-ready subjects. There are falsetto nods to underground house divas on "Latch," which he owed to his core love of female singers like Beyonce and Amy Winehouse. Onstage at the Greek, he admitted that much of his debut album "In the Lonely Hour" is a bloodletting confession about an unrequited love. He described the LP as being "pretty depressing" and that leading up to it he "wallowed in sadness for about a year."
Still, most of his set leaned populist. Smith isn't the most technically precise or emotive soul vocalist, but he does have a charismatic and satisfying falsetto that slips into velveteen low notes. This is his first major headlining American tour, and if he sounded a touch tentative in his delivery it's only because his ascent to stardom has been so quick.
During "I've Told You Now" and "Lay Me Down" he confidently rode atop his large backing band (a small string ensemble and trio of vocalists among them), and still shined in the quiet spaces. "Money on My Mind" was a clever broke kid's insistence on emotional truth over commercial potential (though, presumably, Smith's finances have since changed).
On "Leave Your Lover," Smith's demand for a partner to "leave him for me" was spine-tingling for its simplicity and bravery. It was a rare moment of raw need that stood out in an otherwise ultrasmooth set. With just one LP to his name, Smith had to rely on a lot of covers — a piano-bar take on "Latch," his Whitney revision, his turn on Naughty Boy's "La La La." It's a virtue that his voice sounds good in so many settings, but it underscored that soon he'll need to write some more defining solo singles.
Smith is a talented young artist figuring out his art on his own time and terms. He doesn't need to write overtly gay-themed songs for the sake of politics or edginess.
But toward the end of his set, Smith introduced "Make It to Me" by saying that he wrote it to "sound like one huge mating call." It was the closest he got to acknowledging the specifics of the attraction that inspired his album. It made one wonder what a Sam Smith record of unfiltered, utterly personal songs about love and lust might sound like.
In a time when series like "Transparent" and "Orange is the New Black' can use unconventional characters to explore fundamentally human feelings, Smith should feel safe to do so. Pronouns are potent, and would be even more so in the hands of such a promising singer.