Smith came to Bovard Auditorium on Tuesday evening as part of a Visions and Voices signature event.
Smith also treated the audience to a mini-concert, performing hits like “Because the Night” and “Banga.” She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007 and was included on Rolling Stone’s list of greatest artists in 2011.
Josh Kun, an associate professor of communication and journalism, moderated a conversation with Smith that touched on her approach to art, relationship with photographer Robert Mappelthorpe and childhood belief that toys come to life at night.
The 1975 release of Smith’s debut album, Horses, earned her the moniker “The Godmother of Punk” and included songs that paid homage to some of American music’s greats, such as Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix.
“The last song, “Elegie,” gave me a great way to deal with losing some of the best voices of my generation,” Smith said, who has often used art to transform grief. “You have to step back from [grief] and understand that what you’ve lost is a beautiful thing.”
In the question-and-answer segment at the end of the evening, Smith responded to one student with a nugget of artistic wisdom.
“As an artist, one should shed all ideas about race and gender. All of those labels are shackles,” Smith said. “The whole idea is to create a work that transcends all those things.”
This advice particularly resonated with Maxwell Subar, a freshman majoring in music industry.
“Tonight made me want to do what she does and express myself the way she does,” Subar said.
Known also for her activism and seminal artistic voice, Smith was named one of TIME’s most influential people of all time in 2011. She has been connected with the Green Party and has spoken out against the War in Iraq.
“I love my country,” Smith said after Kun asked her how American tradition influenced her work. “What we have going for us is our youth. Rock and Roll, Jackson Pollock, the Declaration of Independence — we gave that to the world.”
But Smith also spoke about her disappointment in America. “We have a lot of stains. We are tainted. And instead of trying to cleanse ourselves, we keep piling on more tainted-ness,” she said, woefully recounting how even as a 7-year-old she knew dropping bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was wrong.
Smith even touched on the current gun control debate.
“Our forefathers didn’t talk about the right to own machine guns,” Smith said. “They were more concerned about our right to ask questions.”
Many students came to the event to learn more about Smith.
“I’ve always admired her but just recently got into her music,” said Robert Guard, a senior majoring in film and television production who saw this as a Visions and Voices event he shouldn’t miss.
Meanwhile, some students have been fans of Smith’s for years, like Felicia Ho, a junior majoring in critical studies. Ho was in line to get her copy of Just Kids signed after the event.
“I’ve liked [Smith’s] music since I was in high school. She’s definitely one of my favorite artists,” Ho said.