Brock Willard managing editor
Sam Smith and Kim Petras’ newest single “Unholy” has gained them a monumental, history-making honor: Smith and Petras are the first openly nonbinary and transgender artists, respectively, to make a No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 rankings.
The song, produced by a team of producers including Smith and Petras themselves, as well as Jimmy Napes, Ilya, and others, and released by label Capitol Records, is the second single from Smith’s upcoming fourth studio album entitled “Gloria.” The album will feature many allusions to organized religion as is evident from the title and the aesthetic of “Unholy.”
There are many things to say about this track. When Smith and Petras first pitched the song to their teams, sources report that they had a hard time understanding it. Smith has been known thus far for more intimate vocals and soft chord progressions so I can imagine the confusion when they presented the concept to their team. “Unholy” quite obviously moves away from the dulcet tones and goes into a far darker place, in both musical material and lyrics.
Musically speaking, the song has an exotic flavor to it and there’s an explicit reason for that. In Western music, we have the labels major and minor to describe collections or scales of notes. “Unholy” doesn’t exactly fit into one of these two categories. Fortunately, we have other labels as well that define different collections of notes. The particular scale or collection that “Unholy” is based on is called “Phrygian.” The only thing you really need to know about the Phrygian collection is that its origins lie outside what we would traditionally consider the Western world. The Phrygian mode comes to us from the Middle East and its musical traditions. You might listen to “Unholy” and also find some kinship with the Iberian Peninsula, otherwise known as Spain, Portugal, Andorra, and Gibraltar. History buffs will know that for a period of history, Islamic peoples controlled much of this landmass and their musical traditions remain to this day.
Smith and Petras use this Phrygian aesthetic to great effect to evoke a sense of both uneasiness and fascination with the music. The aesthetic is particularly potent in the chorus on the word “unholy.” A major identifying feature of the Phrygian collection is the second note. As compared with major and minor, this second note in Phrygian is lowered slightly to provide a clear pull down to the first note of the scale. This is what creates this unease and makes it a particularly effective candidate to use on the word “unholy.”
Narratively, the song is simply about sexual positivity, although in a gruesome way. The lyrics seem to suggest an illicit affair in which a man who is married to a woman goes down to a place called the “Body Shop” which could be the name of a sex club or an actual mechanic’s shop where the man sleeps with another person. Not exactly a positive image morally, but sexually positive? Absolutely.
This is going to be a popular song for a while. It hits all the right boxes for a hit. “Unholy” receives an A rating.