When I was a teenager in the early 2000s I would have never believed you if you had told me that sex would be so difficult to come by in the media only 10 years later. But now, the biggest pop star is Taylor Swift, the most popular media franchise is Marvel, and if you so much as say the word boob on TikTok, your account will be gone the next day.
With “Vulgar,” Sam Smith and their collaborator Madonna go to war against the very idea of censorship with a song so filled to the brim with F-bombs that to make it radio-friendly would be to release one long beeping sound. Sam Smith’s most recent tracks have been an exercise in provocation or rather the expectation that a certain type of person will find what they do provocative. I’m sure there were plenty of people who found the single “Unholy” itself terrifying simply because it uses a word that is tangentially tied with religion as its title; but if that wasn’t enough, Sam Smith and Kim Petras’ Grammy performance certainly stoked the flames of the conservative talking heads. It brings to mind Lil Nas X’s “Montero” which used religious imagery as a metaphor for how some people think of queer love – it’s satanic, it’s unholy, it’s the devil! So Lil Nas X dresses up as the devil and talks about going out to the club to meet a boy. Sam Smith puts on devil horns and talks about closeted queer men leaving their beds at night to search for a place to be themselves. There is an outcry against a sneaker. Piers Morgan calls Sam Smith’s performance vulgar.
If love is the most sung-about emotion in pop music, sex would be the titillating act that follows. Everyone has always written about sex. From Prince’s masturbating “Darling Nicki” to Madonna getting down on her knees in “Like a Prayer.” And then of course there’s the Britney of it all. Straight sex is allowed to be art if sung in a way that softens it and ensures it’s all under the covers missionary. But queer love is equated so closely with sex that just the idea of the pride parade becomes a topic of controversy.
I read over a couple of other reviews for “Vulgar” and they read a bit lukewarm. But without naming names, I think some of these other reviewers were missing the point. “Vulgar” is produced to within an inch of its life with lyrics that don’t necessarily show the extent of Sam Smith’s talent – but that seems purposeful. “Vulgar” is stupid fun, a little trashy, and, well, it’s vulgar! It has Madonna spelling her name B-I-T-C-H, the song lacks a chorus because it doesn’t need one, as Sam and Madonna inform us over the bridge. Sam and Madonna have dubbed themselves “S&M.” “Vulgar” is by far one of the most unapologetically sexy songs I have heard in a while, alongside “Unholy.” And the best part? Because of the content, there is no way that we will ever hear it as a “watch me get ready” track on TikTok.