The music video starts with the arrival of a famous pop star in a club, as men in Lycra gyrate their bodies. It peaks with a fountain of liquid landing on all involved – including directly into the performer’s mouth.
You may assume that I’m describing the video for Sam Smith’s “I’m Not Here to Make Friends” – which has provoked a backlash for its apparently “pornographic” and “hyper-sexualized” scenes. But no! I’m writing about Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax” – the video that Smith’s pays homage to. It came out 40 years ago.
Clearly, sexy pop videos are nothing new, so why the outrage? The response to Smith’s video feels rather sinister. Smith, a queer artist who came out as non-binary in 2019, has faced far more flack than their straight, cis peers. Some viewers claim they are concerned about such raunchy material being shown to young children but thanks to the decline of music television channels, you’d have to specifically seek out Smith’s video online to watch it. Ironically, most of its terrestrial airtime has been via daytime debates about whether it is too explicit to be shown on TV. “Have you seen it? We’ll show a bit more later!” teased the Good Morning Britain host Richard Madeley on Monday morning.
The fact that these “debates” even make it to the screen is rather sinister too. They may be easy fodder for television and radio producers, but they are uncomfortable to many queer people. The work of an LGBTQ+ artist is deemed inappropriate and ghastly for children, while heteronormative equivalents are waved through without controversy.
It might seem like a harmless bit of pop culture chatter, but entertaining the idea that there is a debate to be had over the appropriateness of the work of artists like Smith can have consequences. It encourages people to believe that outrage confected to fill empty TV schedules reflects a legitimate social concern, and makes LGBTQ+ people feel that their existence is controversial and debatable.
I know this because it happened to me. Subjected to countless daytime TV debates about whether same-sex soap characters should be able to kiss before the watershed throughout the Noughties, I began to believe my life was somehow controversial. A seemingly large section of society didn’t want someone like me to kiss someone they loved in public or hold their hand – so I didn’t for a decade. And yet these “debates” roll on under new guises. In the 2010s there were “debates” about whether there should be same-sex partners on Strictly Come Dancing. Now in the 2020s there’s this one.
By framing conversations about the video in this way we are giving those who hate non-binary people a platform to express their bigotry, under the cloak of “legitimate concerns”. Just last month Smith received a torrent of abuse after the Brit Awards announced an all-male shortlist for the 2023 Best British Artist category. The nominations are voted on by more than 1,000 industry insiders, yet because Smith had advocated for gender free categories they received the brunt of the criticism, including from Piers Morgan and GB News.
“I’m Not Here to Make Friends” is a celebration of what it means to be queer. It’s everything that homophobes and transphobes hate. So why on earth do we dignify that bigotry by persisting in turning it into a debate?
[See also: The Britpop nostalgia complex]