When I was seventeen I was offered a pair of tickets to go and watch Example in the O2 in Bristol.
Example has never been an artist I particularly cared about but hey, a free gig is a free gig, right? Being as I was, a seventeen-year-old with neither the face nor the confidence to con the bar staff into serving me, I stood and watched the opening act. As they shuffled out onto the stage, their face curtained by the fluffy ginger locks now recognisable across the world, my immediate thought was “who the fuck is this guy?”. Then he started to play. The gig would have been deeply underwhelming, but this shifting, uncomfortable, guitar wielding opening act had saved the entire night from being a waste of my time. His name was Ed Sheeran.
Six years later, and there are few who would argue that he is not among the greatest and most recognisable pop artists on the planet. In little over half a decade he has gone from supporting Example to three sold out nights at Wembley stadium, following the success of his second official album ‘X’ (Multiply). His third studio album ‘÷’ (Divide) is out now, but you don’t need me to tell you that. Oh – and he’s headlining Glastonbury, too.
It is nothing short of unavoidable; a highly infectious aural plague seeping out through speakers across the world. Every radio station, every Spotify account and every banner advert triumphs Sheeran’s latest injection of pop genius. But for all the popularity, for all the numerous top 40 hits across the globe and for all the exposure, ‘÷’ appears to have done just that amongst the critics. Has Ed Sheeran therefore become an A list Teflon behemoth, impervious to critical opinion? Not necessarily, but as is often the case with the world’s most famous and recognisable artists, there is always more to them than their song writing – not reflected in the critical reviews of albums.
So how does he do it? Having listened to ‘÷’ myself, I can’t help siding slightly with the critics. It’s alright – a good pop album, but there is no way the music alone can have propelled it to the unearthly status it currently holds. Maybe it’s because I have a soft spot for Sheeran and followed him from his humble beginnings to his stardom, but I think the popular success behind the latest album stems from the fact that he is different to his pop counterparts. He is cleverer, both in his song writing and his public image, and it is a skill he has had a grasp of from the very first sparks of his career.
Firstly, his success is, to a considerable extent, to do with his public appearance. When many global musical stars appear in interviews, chat shows and panel shows, they tend to present themselves as otherworldly figures. Celebrity giants decorated floor to ceiling in designer labels, responding reservedly to questions with an ‘I don’t need to be here’ air of nonchalance. This is fine, it is what the public have come to expect from stars. When we hear Rihanna explain to Graham Norton that she always demands her bikini waxer is old and Russian, or read about Justin Bieber spitting verbal venom to the media about how there should be no problem possessing a pet monkey, we roll our eyes and carry on. Not from Ed though.
There can be no doubt that he is now mind-meltingly wealthy, but he still steps out dressed the same way he dressed as a teenager. His fame hasn’t consumed him. He remains the same gawky, awkward, modestly dressed young man he was six years ago and that’s what makes him so likeable. When he goes on stage he makes sure he is still the one holding the guitar, playing the music. He is inoffensive, unthreatening and avoids controversy. To be frank, he’s quite boring, but that dullness translates into likeability. Who could say a bad word against Ed?
But, for all his lack of showmanship or ego, he can’t seem to get out of the public image. He is repeatedly involved in celebrity gossip stories, all of which he seems to escape from unscathed. Being the likeable character in his associations with all of pops biggest stars has boosted his public image spectacularly. Best friends with Taylor Swift, former flame of Ellie Goulding, renter of Courtney Cox’s Malibu beach house. In the UK, best friends with Stormzy, collaborator with some of the UK’s freshest rap and grime artists, and allegedly slashed in the face by a member of the royal family (if you believe the tabloids), he, like his music, seems to be everywhere.
He is likeable, he is famous, but what really seals the popular vote for Sheeran is his music. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a fucking clue what Katy Perry’s Dark Horse is about. It’s catchy pop, sure – but it’s meaningless. This is where the critical and popular opinions clash. Critics have argued that Sheeran’s songs reflect simplistic nonsense. Nothing but drinking and girls, and to a certain extent this is true. But there is something about Sheeran’s persona which makes his songs seem genuine. His lyrics have a straightforward honesty which people understand and like, because they are able to relate to them. I mean come on, “So you wanna play with magic, boy, you should know whatcha falling for, baby do you dare to do this, cause I’m coming at you like a dark horse”– gibberish.
As well as this, he is capable of punching out lyrics with powerful emotional depth and meaning, and it is with this where he steps into a different class to his fellow pop stars. There’s a reason ‘The A Team’ was met with such critical acclaim. It’s a well constructed song, and it spills out a story worth hearing about. Similarities can be seen in Small Bump, another Sheeran hit with a hard hitting and tragic story behind it. When you combine all of these attributes – a hunger for the spotlight with an approachable modesty and a masterful range of songs, this is why Sheeran has risen to the very top of pop. Is he immune to critical opinion? Certainly not, but people like him, and he writes songs that people like, and so for now he has the ears of the people on his side.
Perhaps I have gone a little too overboard on my appreciation for Ed Sheeran, perhaps seeing him at the beginning of his career has warped my view of him. But my god, he set that terrible Example gig on fire. He seems to have continued burning ever since.
Get Volume #17 now.
Words by Alfie Thompson