From the summer of 1978 through the summer of 1979, singer-songwriter Sylvester James Jr., known by the mononym Sylvester, scored three consecutive Top 40 hits on Billboard’s Hot 100: “Dance (Disco Heat)” (No. 19), the hi-NRG landmark “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” (No. 36), and a cover of the classic torch ballad “I (Who Have Nothing)” (No. 40). An LGBTQ+ icon, Sylvester was both publicly out and avowedly male, but he was nonetheless a pioneer of gender identity. At a moment when gay rock stars were negotiating the closet with great trepidation, Sylvester was onstage and in videos in heavy makeup and chiffon outfits, serving up realness. Though he tried his hand at rock, soul, and even folk covers, it was unsurprisingly dance music that gave Sylvester his biggest hits. All three of the above singles were club smashes (the first two, paired on a 12-inch, hit No. 1 on Billboard’s early club chart, Disco Action). Realistically, only the cultural peak of disco could have given a performer this unabashedly queer such a string of hits—even if none of them threatened the very top of the American Top 40.
Sylvester walked—strutted, really—so others could run. Just under a month ago, a very unlikely TikTok-fueled hit called “Bad Habit,” by the quirky and publicly bisexual guitarist Steve Lacy, topped Billboard’s Hot 100, and I called it “queer in every sense of the word.” Remarkably, after three weeks at No. 1, it’s been replaced atop the Hot 100 by a duet from two artists with even showier queer backgrounds: the first openly nonbinary and trans performers to top America’s flagship pop chart. One LGBTQ+ act replaced at No. 1 by two more—let’s call that progress. And yet this new duo’s song is, sonically, the opposite of the laconic “Bad Habit.” Like Sylvester’s hits, it comes from the world of electronic dance music. It’s standard-issue EDM pop that, frankly, could’ve come out a decade ago and now sits comfortably alongside the likes of Doja Cat, Post Malone, and Lizzo on the charts, almost conventional in its adherence to Top 40 trends. In its way, this too is progress—queer artists have every right to produce serviceable radio fodder. If you hear this chart-topper on the airwaves, you might not even register its transgressive title: “Unholy.”
The two artists behind “Unholy” are a relative veteran and a U.S. chart newcomer: British pop crooner Sam Smith, who’s been scoring big hits for nearly a decade and announced in 2019 that they prefer they/them pronouns, and German-born, L.A.-based dance diva Kim Petras, who’s never cracked the Hot 100 before—and now has a No. 1 hit. Frankly, this song sounds more like Petras than Smith, which as far as I’m concerned is all to the good. Smith has always been more interesting on dance tracks, even though balladry was what made them famous.
In the nine years I’ve been writing this No. 1 hits series, I’m a little surprised this is the first time I’m writing about Sam Smith. I came really close way back in 2014—Smith’s heartsick “Stay With Me” spent two weeks at No. 2 that summer, stuck behind Magic!’s appalling lite-reggae hit, “Rude.” (I was not a massive fan of “Stay With Me,” but it was a damn sight better than “Rude.”) “Stay,” a pleasant-enough torch ballad that later added a Tom Petty songwriting credit for copping the melody of “I Won’t Back Down,” spent more than a year on the Hot 100 and basically defined Smith’s career in the mid-2010s.
Back then, I used to chronicle how closely Smith was following in the tear-stained footsteps of Adele. This was rather snarky of me, but for a long while, Adele’s career really was Smith’s business model: Like Ms. Adkins, Smith broke in America thanks to a celebrated Saturday Night Live performance. Smith sold truckloads of an album, In the Lonely Hour, that like Adele’s 21 was filled with heartbroken ballads—during this period, I liked Smith’s ’70s-style soul jam “I’m Not the Only One” (No. 5) best, but the hymnlike “Lay Me Down” (No. 8 in 2015) was also a big hit. Like Adele in 2009, Smith, in 2015, took home the Best New Artist Grammy and then, in 2016, took home the Best Original Song Oscar for “Writing’s on the Wall” from Spectre—yup, after Adele recorded the titular James Bond theme “Skyfall,” Smith recorded the very next Bond theme. At the height of Smith’s balladeer period, they even had a version of the same throat surgery that Adele underwent.
Clearly somebody likes Smith in balladeer mode—many, many somebodies—even though Smith’s light-lyric tenor with a pronounced nasal honk has always struck me as an acquired taste. But what I liked best about Smith from the jump were the moments they played a dance floor diva, usually guesting on other acts’ singles—something Adele barely dipped her toes in. Smith’s first U.S. Top 40 hit was not one of the ballads; it was British DJ Naughty Boy’s U.K. garage–style jam “La La La” (No. 18 in 2014). And Smith’s first truly great hit was their guest turn on EDM duo Disclosure’s woozy, hypnotic “Latch” (No. 7 in 2014). There’s something about Smith’s honk that works like gangbusters against thumping beats. Don’t get me wrong—I love a good ballad as much as the next hopeless romantic, but Smith’s braying falsetto needs an uptempo counterpoint.
So “Unholy” really brings Smith back to their strength, even though, as dance tracks go, it is more lurching than twirling. There’s a sinister edge to “Unholy” that gives it high-camp energy. Its most original feature is its chorus, a repeating mantra of “Mummy don’t know Daddy’s getting hot/ At the body shop/ Doing something unholy” that, according to Billboard, uses a scale more associated with South Asian or Eastern music. This is set off by a more familiar Western hook—an invocation of the “oh-WEE-oh-WEE-oh” made famous in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz in the “March of the Winkies” scene. That militant monkey-man chant has been interpolated by everyone from Prince to Metallica to LL Cool J; Smith and Petras’ particular take on “oh-WEE-oh” puts me in mind of “Scream & Shout,” a positively trashy Will.i.am–Britney Spears collaboration that was a No. 3 hit about a full decade ago. Which only reinforces that “Unholy” probably could’ve done some business on the charts in the early-2010s peak-EDM era of Far East Movement, Avicii and dollar-sign-era Kesha. But of course, back then none of these hitmakers had TikTok working for them.
Two months ago, in mid-August, Smith and Petras previewed “Unholy” in a 21-second TikTok. The clip showed little more than the duo in the studio, proud of their new creation, bobbing and dancing as its loping beat echoed through the control room. It’s been viewed more than 36 million times as of this writing, and unlike Lacy’s “Bad Habit,” which snowballed organically in thousands of user-generated clips, Smith’s original posting basically single-handedly lit the match. This, it should be noted, is the dream of the modern recording industry, which is desperately trying to spark virality on the microvideo site every day, often to mediocre results. I can only speculate as to why “Unholy” succeeded where TikTok campaigns like Halsey’s fell short. If I knew how to make virality happen, I’d quit my job and become a TikTok curator. But if I had to guess, I’d say “Unholy” had two infectious things going for it: a chorus drop made for TikTok, and the X-factor of Kim Petras.
Though she had not scored any mainstream hits prior to this year, the Cologne, Germany–born Petras has been expected to dominate the charts for nearly a decade. She has built a parallel-universe version of online fame, expertly blending her music and her persona into a kind of hyperpop reboot of the Britney-Xtina template of 20 years ago. I think of her as the more accessible heir to the late SOPHIE, the acclaimed Scottish producer-performer-DJ who died in a tragic accident last year. Both trans icons, SOPHIE and Petras actually worked together as far back as 2018—“1, 2, 3 Dayz Up” blended the former’s daring with the latter’s pop fizz. Since then, like Sam Smith, Petras has scored as a vocalist on collaborations with EDM DJs, including “Feeling of Falling” with Cheat Codes (No. 23 Dance/Electronic in 2018) and “Broken Glass” with Kygo (No. 13 Dance/Electronic in 2020). But the showcase she receives on “Unholy”—she’s basically the centerpiece of the Cabaret-style video and gets a grand entrance on the song’s second verse—finally delivers the Madonna-esque fame she’s been building toward for years.
Still, the ultimate utility of a camp artifact is the audience’s ability to project itself onto it. By the evidence of the user-generated TikToks, listeners latched right on to the drop that occurs between the verse and chorus, the slithery tension of “You don’t know how to keep your business clean,” followed by the cathedrallike vocal explosion of “Mummy! Don’t! Know! Daddy’s getting hot! At the body shop.” It also doesn’t hurt that the “body shop” line is ideal for showing off one’s abs, curves, or sartorial flair.
All of these weeks of hot-and-bothered videomaking set up “Unholy” for a massive debut. When it arrived at the digital music distributors in late September, it was an instant smash, debuting on the Hot 100 all the way up at No. 3, then rising to No. 2 for two weeks before ejecting Steve Lacy from No. 1 this week. During all four of these weeks, “Unholy” has been the most streamed song in America, racking up 23 million to 25 million streams a week, handily beating Lacy’s “Bad Habit” by anywhere from 4 million to 7 million streams. Lacy’s hit held onto No. 1 on the big chart for a while thanks to its higher radio airplay, but “Unholy” finally took the crown this week thanks to a 40 percent increase in radio audience. Also, in a savvy move, last week, Capitol Records sales-priced downloads of “Unholy” at 69 cents in a bid to push Smith and Petras to No. 1. (The label probably saw it had a limited window, with only a week to go before the expected crash-landing of Taylor Swift in the chart’s penthouse next week.) Your admiration for these tactics is probably directly proportional to your feelings about the song.
So, what is “Unholy”: transgressive or normie? Musically adventurous or numbingly catchy? High camp or cheap kitsch? I daresay the answers to all these questions is yes. Smith and Petras’ first-ever No. 1—for each of them—is a product of decades of mainstreaming of the formerly outré. Sure, the video has a parade of drag performers, including two from RuPaul’s Drag Race, Violet Chachki and Gottmik. But that’s after Drag Race positively normalized drag over more than a dozen years and multiple Emmy-winning seasons. The song’s chorus is distinctive—give it props, nothing on the radio right now sounds like it—but it’s no stranger than “Bad Habit” or more cutting-edge than the revived “Running Up That Hill.” It admirably brings the vibe of an after-hours club to the top of the pops, but Beyoncé got there months ago. It’s pretty weird for a Sam Smith single, but they’ve been so middle-of-the-road for so long that their bar for “weird” was pretty low.
The highest compliment I can pay “Unholy” is that, now that it’s lodged in my brain, I can’t shake it loose—the mark of a truly infectious song, even if I waver between delight and annoyance at that hook. It’s no “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” a song I never want to turn off when it pumps through my speakers, one by a vocalist with an even more distinctive voice than Sam Smith. But more than 40 years after Sylvester’s peak (and more than 30 years after his poignant death), it’s hard not to regard the chart-topping “Unholy” as a quiet cultural watershed.