America’s New Sam Smith 1 Song a Big Step Forward and a Total Throwback

Sam Smith and Kim Petras both make history atop the Hot 100, but “Unholy” is not without precedent.

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In the summer of 1978 through the summer of 1979 singer-songwriter Sylvester James Jr., known by the mononym Sylvester, scored three consecutive Top 40 hits. He was a pioneer of gender identity despite being out and male. At a time when gay rock stars were negotiating the closet with great fear, Sylvester was on stage and in videos in heavy makeup. 

Dance music gave him his biggest hits, even though he tried his hand at other genres. The first two club smashes were on a 12-inch and hit the top of the charts. Only the cultural peak of disco could have given a performer like this a string of hits.

The man walked so others could run. I called the song "queer in every sense of the word" when it topped the Hot 100. It was replaced at the top of the Hot 100 by a duet from two artists with an even showier queer background. Let's call that progress because one act was replaced at the top.

The new Sam Smith duo's song is not the same as "Bad Habit" It came from the world of electronic dance music. It could have come out a decade ago and now sits comfortably alongside the likes of Doja Cat, Post Malone, and Lizzo on the charts, almost conventional in its adherence to Top 40 trends. 

This also is progress, because queer artists have the right to make radio fodder. If you hear this song on the radio, you won't register its title.

The two Sam Smith artists behind "Unholy" are a relative veteran and a U.S. chart newcomer: British pop singer Sam Smith, who has been scoring big hits for nearly a decade, and L.A. native, German-born, Sam Smith. As far as I know, this song sounds like Petras, which is great. Smith has always been more interested on dance tracks.

This is the first time I have ever written about Sam Smith. Smith's "Stay With Me" was stuck behind Magic!'s "Rude" in the summer of 2014). I wasn't a huge fan of "Stay With Me" but it was a great sight. Smith's career was defined in the mid-2010s by the song "Stay", which spent more than a year on the Hot 100.

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I used to write about how closely Smith was following in the footsteps of the artist. Smith broke in America thanks to a Saturday Night Live performance, and for a long time, it was his business model

I liked Smith's soul jam "I'm Not the Only One" but it was the best song on the album. In 2015, Smith won the Best New Artist award and in 2016 he won the Best Original Song Oscar for his song "Writing's on the Wall" from the movie "Sultan". Smith had a version of throat surgery that was the same as the one that was performed on the singer.

Smith has always struck me as an acquired taste, even though he has a light-lyric shirring in his voice. What I liked the most about Smith was the time they played a dance floor diva and guested on other acts' singles. Smith's first U.S. Top 40 hit was a British DJ's U.K. garage–style jam called "La La La" Disclosure's "Latch" was Smith's first great hit. There is something about Smith's honk that makes it work. Smith needs an uptempo counterpoint to his braying falsetto.

Even though it's a dance track, "Unholy" brings Smith back to their strength. It has high-camp energy due to a sinister edge. The song uses a scale more associated with South Asian or Eastern music and its most original feature is its chorus. The invocation of the "oh-WEE-oh-WEE-oh" made famous in 1939's The Wizard of Oz is the hook for this. Smith and Petras have a different take on the militant monkey-man chant, which makes me think of and Britney Spears. It reinforces that "Unholy" could've done some business on the charts in the early-2010s peak-EDM era of the Far East Movement. None of these hitmakers had TikTok work for them.

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Smith and Petras had a 21-second preview of "Unholy" in August. The duo in the studio were proud of their new creation, bobbing and dancing as its loping beat echoed through the control room. As of this writing, Smith's original posting has been viewed more than 36 million times. This is the dream of the modern recording industry, which is desperately trying to spark virality on the micro video site, often to mediocre results. I don't know why "Unholy" succeeded where TikTok campaigns didn't. I would quit my job and become a TikTok Curator if I knew how to make it happen. I think the X-factor of Kim Petras and a chorus drop made for TikTok is what makes "Unholy" infectious.

Petras has been expected to dominate the charts for nearly a decade despite not scoring any mainstream hits prior to this year. She has built a parallel-universe version of online fame that is a kind of hyperpop remake of the Britney-Xtina template. She is the heir to the late SOPHIE, who died in a tragic accident last year. SOPHIE and Petras worked together as far back as the year of 2018? Petras has collaborated with Cheat Codes, Kygo and Sam Smith. She gets a grand entrance on the song's second verse and a showcase on the video for "Unholy", finally delivering the Madonna-esque fame she's been building for years.

The audience is able to project itself onto a camp artifact. Don't. Do you know? Daddy is getting hotter. There is a body shop. It doesn't hurt that the "body shop" line is a good place to show off one's curves.

The Sam Smith video making set up "Unholy" for a big debut. When it arrived at the digital music distributors in late September, it was a huge hit and rose to the top of the charts. The song "Unholy" has been streamed 23 million to 25 million times a week, beating out "Bad Habit" by anywhere from 4 million to 7 million streams. Thanks to a 40 percent increase in radio audience, "Unholy" took the top spot on the big chart for the first time this year.

Capitol Records tried to push Sam Smith and Petras to the top of the charts by selling downloads of "Unholy" for 69 cents. With only a week to go before the expected crash-landing of Taylor Swift in the chart's top spot, the label probably saw it had a limited window. Your admiration for these tactics is likely related to your feelings about the song.

What is the term "Unholy"? Is music adventurous or numbing? Is it high camp or cheap? The answers to these questions are definitely yes. The first-ever No. 1s for Smith and Petras are a product of decades of mainstreaming. There is a parade of drag performers in the video. Drag Race normalized drag over the course of more than a dozen years. 

The Sam Smith song's chorus is distinctive, but nothing on the radio right now sounds like it. It brings the vibe of an after-hours club to the top of the pops, but it wasn't long ago that Bey got there. They have been so middle-of-the-road for so long that their bar for "weird" was pretty low.

The highest compliment I can give to the song is that it is infectious, even if I don't like it at first. I don't like to listen to "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" when it comes through my speakers, but it's not a song by Sam Smith. It is hard not to think of the chart-topping "Unholy" as a quiet cultural landmark after more than 30 years, says Sam Smith.

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