Music for general societal exhaustion: why Ed Sheeran can’t lose
Last September Ed Sheeran’s Bad Habits was finally dislodged from its seat at No 1 in the UK singles chart after 11 long weeks. Its replacement? Ed Sheeran’s Shivers, which subsequently nestled at the top for a month. That’s nearly a quarter of 2021’s singles charts ruled by one man. The streaming stats for both songs are mind-boggling, with combined Spotify plays at the time of writing soaring past 2bn, while their parent album, = (Equals), hasn’t left the UK top 5 in eight months.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that this week the music licensing body, PPL, announced Ed Sheeran as the most-played artist in the UK in 2021. In fact, it’s an honour he’s achieved in four out of the last five years. Not only that, but Bad Habits was 2021’s most-played song, beating hits from the likes of The Weeknd (whose Blinding Lights banger Bad Habits cribs from), Little Mix and Coldplay. People, it seems, can’t get enough – but what makes Sheeran’s success so enduring?
The roots of Sheeran’s ubiquity can be traced back to his mainstream arrival a decade ago. His success chimed with the rise of what journalist Peter Robinson called the New Boring, a prevailing anti-fun agenda that’s since become deep-rooted. Set in opposition to the untouchable, deity-like superstars such as Beyoncé (who would later collaborate with Sheeran on UK Christmas No 1, Perfect), and the avant-garde meat dress-sporting likes of Lady Gaga, artists such as Sheeran, Adele and Emeli Sandé made open, emotionally straightforward, resolutely “authentic” music broad enough to leave no one feeling alienated.
Sheeran prized relatability from the start – shuffling awkwardly into glitzy award shows in a hoodie. Rather than shroud his music-making in layers of mystery, or bejewel it with highfalutin concepts, Sheeran revelled in its laser-focused box-ticking. So third album ÷ (Divide)’s two lead singles, Castle on a Hill and Shape of You, were crafted to simultaneously hit two different demographics: the former’s drive-time rock was perfect for Radio 2, while the latter’s tropical-tinged R&B (the song was initially offered to Rihanna) was aimed at Radio 1. It quickly established him as a master of both worlds.
The cynicism of the songs’ creation was, of course, irrelevant to the listener. And therein lies the crux of Sheeran’s success. As an artist he rarely impedes the songs he creates. His world is frictionless. He can skip between genres with ease, be it indie-folk, pop, R&B, grime, hip-hop, because each new persona is a projection on to a blank slate. His personality rarely gets in the way of the music; his social media presence is a promotional tool rather than a distraction.
He’s also malleable – when he’s done with hip-hop, for example, he doesn’t need an image overhaul to then revert to balladry. If one genre isn’t to your tastes, then fear not, another will be along soon. It’s Now That’s What I Call Basic. Thanks to his penchant for far-reaching, streaming-ready collaborations, from Stormzy to Beyoncé to Bring Me The Horizon, he can also inhale the whiff of second-hand cool even if the concept remains alien to him. He can often look like a competition winner stood next to his favourite singer, which in turn helps him keep that unthreatening, everyman status intact. His authentic singer-songwriter status means he’s a credible pop artist to pal up with, while his early appearances on rap channel SB:TV, and his genuine championing of pre-mainstream fame Stormzy, mean accusations of appropriation rarely stick (although his recent move into drill certainly raised eyebrows).
In a complicated world, Sheeran’s musical modus operandi is straightforward; to create well-crafted, expertly vague songs that unite people. Politics is verboten in Sheeran’s bubble, which for some must make him a breath of fresh air in a pop world occasionally weighed down by discourse. His songs are vessels broad enough to soundtrack both a first dance and a funeral procession, a gut-punch break-up and a trawl around a harshly lit shopping centre. They’re for life’s big moments, with all the cinematic edge of a Richard Curtis film.
At a time of general societal exhaustion, burnout and fatigue, Ed Sheeran kindly doesn’t ask the listener to put in any work. His music, always just at the endpoint of the pop zeitgeist, does all the heavy lifting for you, while crumbling under closer inspection. It’s not just aural wallpaper that fades completely into the background, but more the musical equivalent of a Live Laugh Love sign; well-meaning, vaguely uplifting but as deep as a puddle. Sometimes boring is what we deserve.
Michael Cragg is a music writer for the Guardian and the Observer