“everyone is talking on the scene” – What does the success of Kim Petras and Sam Smith say about the UK’s attitude towards trans people? Oscar Rees writes;
Dance and chart music has long welcomed queer people into it’s sweaty embraces, but this month Kim Petras and Sam Smith made history with their chart-topping and now Grammy nominated single “Unholy”, being both the first trans woman and the first non-binary person to top the UK Charts and the Billboard Hot 100.
@kimpetras and @samsmith are busy making history – and chart-topping bops. 🎵✨ This fall, Petras and Smith became the first trans woman and nonbinary person to have a song at No. 1! https://t.co/lpSumuzVEH
— National Center for Transgender Equality (@TransEquality) November 19, 2022
In terms of sound and lyrical content the song is something of a departure from the kind of thing we might expect from Smith, but if anything it’s a bit of a tame affair for Petras, whose songs “XXX” and “Throat Goat” really aren’t the sort of thing you’d sing in front of your mum… Or my mum, at least.
It isn’t unusual to hear the names of trans pioneers in dance such as Sylvester, Anonhi, Mykki Blanco and SOPHIE over the airwaves of more niche radio stations like NTS, or BBC 6 Music. But Smith and Petras have long occupied a much more mainstream space, due in part to the support they have had from queer communities.
Kim Petras and her team seem to have the secret chemical formula to the sounds that make every gay man on the planet want to go to a club and grind, while Sam Smith’s more ballad style of songs capture queer love and heartbreak perfectly.
The success of Kim Petras and Sam Smith is no doubt due in part to the catchy chorus hook, which seems to be perfect for TikTok & Reels – Scroll your favourite app and within 2 or 3 swipes you’ll see multiple videos using it as a backing track. The nature of these apps has been shaping the music industry for a little while now, with labels now signing artists on the strength of their TikTok presence or even straight up offering huge label deals after one really viral song clip. (My personal favourite of these is from earlier this year – a Liverpudlian grime artist called Hazey rapping in one of the thickest Scouse accents you will ever hear).
Part of the measure of success of a song in 2022 is definitely making sure that people are able to create their own content from it, and Unholy seems to fit any and all content – I’ve seen it used on everything from people doing spooky make-up looks, drag outfit changes and, as is standard for the internet, a cat doing something daft.
So it’s a killer song made to be catchy and enjoyable – no big news there – it’s a chart topper after all. Yet the fact two trans people have sustained this chart success amongst the rise of anti-trans sentiment and legislation in the US and UK is something to behold.
Kim Petras and Sam Smith have performed the song for Radio 1’s iconic Live Lounge and during Smith’s latest tour Petras joined them for the song at the Royal Albert Hall. In itself this shouldn’t really be news – I mentioned names of trans dance and pop musicians above who have had varying degrees of chart and popular success, but there’s something that feels particularly incredible about one of the most revered music venues in the country having two trans people perform their chart topping song.
There is particular poignancy in the success of both these artists when thinking about all of this. Kim began her transition as a teenager, and underwent GRS age 16. How strange it is to consider that she should top the charts in a country where that isn’t possible, or to think she will probably be asked to play tour dates in US States that are drafting in legislation to accuse parents of supporting their trans kids of child abuse.
Non-binary people have no legal recognition in the UK, yet Sam Smith has topped the charts. It is literally easier to have a number one single in the UK than get a passport with a non-binary gender marker. How mad does that seem? How wrong does that seem? Kim Petras and Sam Smith’s success shouldn’t be possible, if you are to believe everything that’s splashed across newspapers and various channels about trans teenagers.
"Being non-binary in the UK is a constant struggle. You can't have a passport that accurately reflects your gender. You can't get married without registering as male or female. Almost no public toilets are gender neutral. You feel like you are being eroded from all sides." Lex pic.twitter.com/zQEKF8CFrW
— Trans Actual (@TransActualUK) May 25, 2022
Perhaps my favourite thing about the success of the song though is how unavoidable it, and by extension the success of Smith and Petras, is. As a trans person I’m no stranger to being on the receiving end of hateful messages online, but I’ve noticed there’s nothing quite like success and thriving to bring out the worst vitriol from anti-trans people. Of course there’s something heart-warming about how as anti-trans rhetoric covers the front pages and saturates the internet there are millions of people willing to support two transgender artists all the way to chart-topping success.
Better still, to me at least, is the thought of the tuts and eyerolls as intolerant people try and change the radio station in their car to avoid Kim Petras and Sam Smith only to hear them again a few moments later.