After teasing the world on TikTok for weeks with snippets of their latest single “Unholy”, Sam Smith released the full version on September 22, 2022, and it has left many thinking, “wait, was that it?” Yes, the R&B electro-pop fusion song that has inundated our For You pages for weeks did not live up to expectations, leaving many online feeling swindled out of a smash hit. Some blame Smith’s producers for failing to ride the wave of TikTok popularity, while others blame Smith for the song’s lackluster qualities. Is this criticism fair, or is “Unholy” actually a success?
As the song begins, we hear the echoing voices of a choir, chanting: “Mummy don’t know daddy’s getting hot / at the body shop / doing something unholy.” While Smith is known for soulful music, here they venture into the darker side of the soul, one corrupted by secrecy, adultery, and pure lust. Electronic beats and stifled whispers are peppered in as Smith begins singing the first verse. Here, they play the role of the husband’s secret-keeper, the devious accomplice complicit in the adulterer’s immoral crime. They warn this womanizer of the precarious game he is playing and what the consequences could be: “She’d kick you out if she ever, ever knew / ‘Bout all the **** you tell me that you do.” Smith’s smooth, sultry vocals make us all feel like they are the suave devil on this cheater’s shoulder.
With Smith’s descending vocal run on the last line of the first verse, the chorus begins and we sink into the gritty, backstreet world the husband partakes in on the downlow. The choir joins with Smith to belt out the focal lines again, as the husband gets spicy with someone behind the scenes. To clear something up, the reference to the “Body Shop” does not mean the husband is sauntering his way down to an auto shop to seduce the local mechanic; in slang terms the Body Shop is a place where someone goes to pay for a sex worker, and the husband is certainly parttaking.
There’s a good reason why this chorus was trending: it is a masterclass in fusing emotion with musical storytelling. Synthetic instrumentals and minor chords combine to create a beautiful tension in the chorus, adding to the feeling of enjoying something that one should not, mirroring the husband’s indulgent narrative. It feels ripped straight from the scene in an action movie where the protagonist meets with an underground crime lord for a shady deal. You hate to see the hero forsake their morals for the quick and easy solution, but you can’t help feeling as though you’re relishing in the guilty pleasure as well.
The perspective of the song shifts dramatically when Kim Petras takes over in the second verse. Petras is known for creating music that bluntly showcases her unabashed sex appeal, and “Unholy” is no exception. Here, Petras plays the role of the husband’s “sugar baby,” the woman he visits while away from home. Her electrolyzed voice contrasts heavily with Smith’s, as she relishes in all the luxury she is gifted: “Give me love, give me Fendi, my Balenciaga daddy.”
In a vacuum, “Unholy” is a great song with an enchanting chorus and an intriguing narrative. Nothing too spectacular or show-stopping, but certainly worth a listen. However, the social context of the song’s release has contributed to its mixed reviews.
One legitimate criticism of the song is how short it is. At only about two and a half minutes, we reach the song’s conclusion quickly, and this brevity is exacerbated by the fact that half the song is the same chorus repeated twice. Additionally, Petras’ inclusion on the track feels jarring; the blunt tone with which she delivers her lines takes away from the emotional depth that Smith works to create. In other words, Petras’ provocative gloating spoils the sinful mood of Smith’s verse. Featuring Petras on the track has also been seen as somewhat controversial due to her vague statements of support regarding record producer Dr. Luke, who has been accused of abusive practices with several artists. This controversy has soured her public image, turning some people off from the song as a whole due to her inclusion.
Perhaps the biggest criticism of “Unholy” is that it was only made for TikTok. The dramatic chorus feels right at home in TikTok’s short form content, perfect for thirst traps and dance vids alike. It should therefore come as no surprise that this part was widely praised when it began to trend as a soundbyte in early September. Anticipation for the full release was high, but when the complete song was dropped after weeks of waiting, the only additions were …two decent verses. Simply put, the TikTok preview created high expectations that the full song couldn’t possibly meet—a classic case of the trailer spoiling the entire movie.
Disgruntled fans are quick to blame artists and producers for dropping the ball when a song doesn’t match up to its TikTok notoriety, and many amatuer music critics on Twitter love to claim “TikTok is ruining the music industry.” However, while the app has certainly changed the criteria for what becomes popular, it’s not fair to blast any song with a catchy few bars as “made for TikTok.” After all, there are plenty of older songs that get the spotlight too (see “Running up that Hill” or “September”). In actuality, the problem is that TikTok creates the expectation that every song has to be nothing but its highest highs, diluting its popular songs down to their best parts. However, in order to appreciate those highs, you have to listen through the lows, and songs that manage to strike a balance are ones worth adding to your playlists. While I’m not sure “Unholy” has adequately found that balance, it would certainly be a mistake to call this a massive flop.