TikTok has become the place to release new music clips in recent years. Having a track go viral as a sound on the platform almost assures it will find commercial success, and that was the case for Unholy by Sam Smith. The real meaning of the song went over most people’s heads, whether because they wrote it off as a thirst trap or were offended by the Grammy performance of it. In this article, we’ll look at the success, real meaning, and controversy around Unholy.
The Writing and Success of “Unholy”
Unholy is one of the most sexually charged tracks to come out in recent years thanks to its tension, seductive tune, and the many references that were included to keep the theme in line with the song. So, a quick rundown of references and samples should be included here.
The Body Shop was the first all-nude strip club on Sunset Strip in Hollywood, opening in the 1960s and still in operation today. Unholy also samples and uses the chant from the 1939 film The Wizard Of Oz as well.
Smith first teased the track on TikTok with a single clip of the actual song. It immediately sparked a viral trend on the app, spawning immeasurable numbers of sexualized, thirst-trap videos on the platform.
For old heads out there, thirst traps are posts meant to be sexually enticing to the viewer, and the term comes from the young folks’ term “thirsty,” likening unfulfilled sexual desires to being dehydrated. Regardless, it became the biggest, most-used sound on the platform for several weeks, and you couldn’t avoid it.
A couple of months later, Unholy was officially released on all platforms, becoming the first single Smith had released in two-plus years. It would eventually also appear on the artist’s 2023 album Gloria.
While the viral trends associated with the song certainly boosted its popularity, Unholy was a smashing success on a commercial scale as well. In its first week on the market, it surpassed 5.9 million streams in the UK. It debuted at the top of the UK Singles and ARIA Singles chart, eventually reaching the same spot in Austria, Canada, the US, Ireland, and New Zealand as well. Outside of those countries, it entered the Top 10 in an additional seven countries.
At the 65th Grammy Awards, Unholy won Smith and Kim Petras the award for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance and would earn a nomination for Song of the Year at the Brit Awards. It would garner an incredible number of certifications internationally, earning platinum or double platinum status in 11 countries while gaining quadruple platinum in Australia.
The True Meaning of “Unholy” Explained
Unholy isn’t just a song full of sexual tension; it’s a track with an edgy dark side. In reality, most of the song is uttered in complete disgust at the man’s actions in the track, to the point of calling them unnatural, disrespectful, and unholy—in that God’s judgment will be rained down on him.
The disgust is pretty obvious when you look at lines like “She’d kick you out if she ever, ever knew,” and the repeated usage of calling his actions deplorable by saying he’s doing something ‘unholy.’
The song itself is about adultery, but it isn’t just a track about a cheater. It plays both sides, from the perspective of someone calling out the man who’s cheating on his wife and the perspective of the woman he’s cheating with.
One of the ironic parts of the song is that the man in the track is bad at keeping his actions a secret. He heads down to the strip club to have sex behind his wife’s back, but everyone other than his wife seems to know about it. It’s pretty obvious, even with only a cursory glance at the lyrics.
Mummy don’t know Daddy’s getting hot,
At the Body Shop,
Doing something unholy
Dirty, dirty boy,
You know everyone is talkin’ on the scene,
I hear them whisperin’ ’bout the places that you’ve been,
And how you don’t know how to keep your business clean
Then you can look at Petras’ lyrics for the perspective of the woman he’s cheating with. She’s essentially just talking about all the designer brands and money she gets from the man for her… ahem, affection.
In the end, the song is honestly pretty simple. It feels like a very sexual, tense, and pop-inspired track about how bad infidelity is. But not everyone saw the song that way, especially after some of the performances by Smith caused huge controversy. We’ll take a look at those next.
Controversies Surrounding The Song
So, the meaning of Unholy is that infidelity is bad, destroys families, and is an unnatural thing that hurts people. So, why were many people so pissed off about the song?
At the same Grammy Awards that the duo won an award, Smith and Petras performed Unholy live. I’ll try to summarize what riled people up quickly. He performed the song in an entirely red outfit, with red lights and fire erupting from the stage. His hat had devil horns on it, and Petras—as well as backup dancers—performed from inside cages wearing devil costumes and holding whips.
After the show, the act was quickly labeled ‘Satanic,’ ‘evil,’ ‘demonic,’ and ‘deplorable’ by users online. To some, it was an act of Satanic worship many believe is rife in the music industry. To others, it was a way of introducing kids to Satan worship.
If you watch the performance and are offended, power to you. However, that negative reaction to it seems to be the opposite of the intended meaning. The track is about how bad infidelity is and how cheaters will be punished by God, so the devil visuals fit the theme and enhance it. They’re portraying how evil cheating is and how big of an impact it can have on people. I can see why some were offended, but they missed the point entirely on that route. The other people that were pissed about the song have a better point.
Balenciaga is a now-canceled, disgraced fashion brand, and one that gets shouted out in the track. It was canceled because it released inappropriate ads that featured children, marking them as pedophiles—this is very quickly summed up, there’s more detail out there. Many criticized the artists for not changing the lyrics of the song to leave out the name Balenciaga, combining that with the devil themes of the performances.
In the end, this was a much more fair criticism, though I’m not sure how the line would have read with a different brand thrown in there. At the end of the day, the track is condemning an evil act and many missed the entire point of the song thanks to the controversies surrounding its performances.
As a contributing writer for Music Grotto, Dakotah writes and produces professional music/media content. He works closely with editorial staff to meet editorial standards and create
quality content for the Music Grotto website. Dakotah is passionate about music in a wide variety of genres, from hip-hop to country and lo-fi to metal, and he enjoys creating music pieces for Music Grotto.