And why has he taken over the world?
Who is Ed Sheeran? What is Ed Sheeran? Well. He’s a man. A small, ginger man with tattoos and wristbands and a worn out guitar. He’s also a man who’s headlined Glastonbury, and whose latest album, ÷, has taken up a position of embarrassing dominance in the UK charts.
Music ÷ Money
÷ indulges in the crass aesthetic docility of commercial music with a vampiric lust. Put a couple more voices on it and you have a One Direction record. Give it a female chanteuse, and these could be the anodyne pop hits of Ariana Grande, Rita Ora et al.
Pop music, by which I mean music deliberately targeted towards mass consumption, is self-consciously conservative in this way.
The artistic content of figures like 1D and Sheeran remains so imbued with our conscious awareness and sympathies to the people, these icons, these ubermenschen, that it is rendered impossible to analyse their work for any pure, intrinsic value. Doing so misses the whole point of their popularity, and they (Sheeran and co.) know it.
Yet as identities constructed through popular culture go, Sheeran remains something of a perversity.
He is credited with (at least co-) penning every song on ÷, which remains the depressingly low barometer from which pop authenticity is attributed. He also represents a divergence from that culture’s scale of perfection in a sense which his new album, for all its generic production, identifies.
The album begins with Eraser, a first-person reflection on his journey from a ‘small town’ to the awards and recognition of today. He tells us in a slurred monologue that ‘when the world’s against me’s when I really come alive’; that he’s ‘caught in the trappings of an industry’.
If Sheeran represents the aspirational pinnacle of our culture, he remains convinced of his outcasted, insurgent status. The album’s ubiquitous reminiscences on parochial romances and alcohol-fuelled travailles enshrine this image. He is resolutely not some detached celebrity leading a hyper-idealised, exotic existence.
This is the nuance to Sheeran’s identity. It may not mark him as a totem for counter-cultural subversion, but it’s enough to get him on the Pyramid Stage on Sunday night, a space unlikely (though not unimaginably) to be occupied by Harry Styles any time soon.
Sing me to Sleep
It is an identity which speaks to a world in which brazen opulence is starting to appear a little tactless, and where the Brexit/Trump effect is politically awakening millions of Millenials on both sides of the pond.
Some are mobilising to the soundtrack of Beyonce and Kendrick, while others are clambouring after artists like Sheeran to anaesthetise the shock. ‘Life can get you down so I just numb the way it feels’, he sings on Save Myself, a sentiment which my own near-comatose state responded well to by the latter half of the album.
But is this auburn-headed crooner really able to wholly mitigate the tide of our political moment? On What do I know?, Sheeran’s Lennon-esque proclamation of music’s ability to ‘change this whole world with a piano’, the singer tells us how ‘everybody’s talking ‘bout exponential growth, and the stock market crashing and their portfolios while I’ll be sitting here with a song I wrote saying love can change the world in a moment, but what do I know?’
Sheeran is leading his sizeable band of supportive outsiders against ‘everybody’ still fixated with these abstract and incomprehensible signifiers of our times. He wants to put us on a little wooden boat, pick away on his rustic guitar and sing to us about his maladroitness until we snuggle up against his unkempt beard and fall in to a dream full of innocent Irish jigs.
Resistance ÷ Action
Commercial culture’s capability to construct the models to whom we aspire is diverse. Sheeran is self-consciously antithetical to what we could call the mainstream of the mainstream. He is correspondent of the people, but nonetheless is conservative in his critique of the spectacle. If One Direction teach us how to conform, it is Sheeran’s task within popular culture to teach us how we should resist: in the most banal, generic and pacified way possible.
Pictures from: http://www.digitalspy.com/music/glastonbury-festival/news/a831650/ed-sheeran-glastonbury-festival-2017-set-pyramid-stage/ and https://www.axs.com/6-more-mind-blowing-milestones-ed-sheeran-has-hit-with-divide-115937 and https://medium.com/variables-weekly/ed-sheeran-divide-variables-weekly-633cbcc3ce81 and https://beardedgentlemenmusic.com/2017/03/08/ed-sheeran-sucks/