The powerhouse of British R&B that is Jorja SmithJustin Higuchi / Wikimedia Commons

‘Little Things’ was certainly one of, if not the, song of the summer. Its release was a masterclass in album rollout from the powerhouse of British R&B that is Jorja Smith. I remember the day that I first heard the track. I was sitting in my Cambridge room, having absolutely lapped up ‘Try Me’ (the first single from Falling or Flying), eagerly awaiting more music from a woman whose work defined my teens. Pressing play, I was hit by an impressive fusion of jazz and jungle that fans of her soulful debut were not expecting. The track was so good that its Nia Archives remix was a downgrade, and its climb to number 11 on the Official Charts suggests that the rest of the UK agreed.

Yet the quality of her music was not what was being discussed in the comment sections of her YouTube and TikTok videos. Instead, users were remarking upon her weight and an alleged “fall off” in her appearance. “What happened?” declared one. “Get her a gastric sleeve ASAP,” commented another. Meanwhile, others revived spurious claims that Smith entered a relationship with Stormzy earlier this year, citing Smith’s appearance as the reason that Stormzy chose to rekindle his relationship with the presenter Maya Jama. But why is Smith receiving all these baseless and misogynistic accusations?

“It has become clear that many of her so-called ‘fans’ only valued her for her appearance”

In the six years between Smith’s last two albums, she matured considerably, as evidenced by her music. Likewise, she does not look the same. Unfortunately, in the late 2010s, when she made her name, part of the narrative surrounding her success concerned her beauty. Indisputably, she is a stunning woman. However, this became part of her brand without her trying to perpetuate this narrative. Recently, it has become clear that many of her so-called “fans” only valued her for her appearance. Since re-emerging in the public eye wearing a larger dress size, she has faced a torrent of abuse online. But let’s be clear: Jorja Smith is not a large woman by any stretch, nor was she ever petite. Indeed, she was often praised for her middling body type. Besides, surely one’s appearance has no bearing on their musical talent? Nevertheless, the conversation surrounding Smith suggests that, in the process of gaining weight, she has lost her talent too.

This disgusting treatment of Jorja is just a microcosm of the treatment of female pop stars in general. We saw a similar reaction when Lana Del Rey allegedly abandoned her aesthetic after the pandemic. Suddenly, it became clear that much of her fanbase valued her style just as much as her music. Certainly, pop stars are brands. However, for female musicians, this is taken to the extreme. Women in music become commodities, complete packages that one buys into and are therefore not allowed to change. Their appearance (and more often their “attractiveness”) is valued as highly as their art.

“Women in music become commodities”

Yet attitudes towards plus-size artists and those who gain weight are considerably different. Certainly, Adele faces scrutiny about her weight. However, when Lana Del Rey gained weight during the pandemic, it was depicted as a betrayal. Some fans felt that they had invested in a specific vision of the star in which her appearance was central. Through this lens, Lana’s body is not hers; it belongs to those who support her. This commodification of female pop stars diverts attention from and consequently devalues their art. Furthermore, since appearances are never constant, constructing female artists in this way ensures that their value will decline in the eyes of the public.


Mountain View

To be frank, Ocean’s set at Coachella wasn’t that bad

Since the main attraction of an artist is not allowed to be their music, musicians face toxic expectations from their fans. Smith produced an amazing album. Yet this was not enough for people. She never agreed for her appearance to be part of the deal. Nevertheless, this is something that she cannot escape. This harsh environment causes artists to disappear from public life, as Smith did between releases. Recently, one of the most elusive artists of modern times, Frank Ocean, poked his head above the parapet to tease new music on Instagram. Let’s pray that unwarranted negativity from his so-called “fans” does not force him back underground as it has done so many times before. Maybe we can try to focus on the music? After all, that is the only thing that most artists consensually offer for public consumption – not their person, not their weight, nor anything else. Most likely, if this was how the music industry worked, Ocean would have released more than two albums. And wouldn’t we all prefer to live in that world?