News that 22-year-old British vocalist Sam Smith had swept the board at the Grammy awards – winning record of the year, song of the year, best new artist and best pop vocal album – received a curiously mixed reaction in the US press. On the one hand, journalists were quick to point out that at the time of last year’s Grammy awards, Smith’s name was essentially unknown in America: his breakthrough single, Stay With Me, a US No 2 hit, was not released until April. On the other, his triumph at the awards this year seemed like something of a foregone conclusion.
As with the Brits, the Grammys largely exists to reward artists that are already commercially successful, and Smith has now sold 1.3m copies in the US of his debut album In the Lonely Hour. Nominated for six awards, it would have been more shocking if he had walked away empty handed. Controversy at the awards ceremony was instead reserved for the best metal performance category – where the comedy duo Tenacious D beat Anthrax, Motörhead, Slipknot and Mastodon – and for awarding of album of the year to Beck’s Morning Phase instead of Beyoncé’s eponymous fifth album. The latter provoked an abortive stage invasion by Kanye West and had Billboard magazine claiming that the decision “speaks volumes to the race and gender bias present in the recording industry”. It came days after Billboard itself published a music business Power 100 list in which the highest-placed person of colour only reached No 30.
Smith’s American commercial success currently seems unstoppable, eclipsing even that of Ed Sheeran, last year’s other big British pop breakthrough act in the US. It has been unaffected by the singer coming out as gay in a country where mainstream pop audiences are frequently depicted as still resistant to gay artists; by the decidedly mixed critical response to In the Lonely Hour and by accusations of plagiarism, albeit unconscious, that led songwriters Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne to receive credits on – and 12.5% of the royalties for – Stay With Me, thanks to its similarity to Petty’s 1989 single I Won’t Back Down.
Comparisons were quickly drawn between Smith’s Grammy successes and those of Adele, who won six awards at 2011’s ceremony, and Amy Winehouse, who won five, in 2009. The three have more in common than their nationality. The success of Winehouse’s 2006 album Back to Black kickstarted a vogue for vaguely retro-sounding blue-eyed soul that benefited both Adele and Smith: among the producers and co-writers of In the Lonely Hour are Fraser T Smith, and Francis “Eg” White, both of whom previously worked with Adele.
this story first appears on washingtonpost.com