Among outrageous pop stars, Ed Sheeran is weirdly normal
by Jeff Koch
Posted 1/24/15, 09:00 am
Twenty-three-year-old singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran stands out from this year’s Grammy frenzy. It’s not his nomination for the coveted best-album award nor his blockbuster sales numbers, though Sheeran finds himself on top of an elite group. Spotify recently named him the most listened-to artist in the world, with 860 million downloads, according to The Independent.
What’s different is not even his arresting musical style, a sleek combination of indie-acoustic with R&B and steely strains of hip-hop. He can be as candid and coy as James Taylor or throw down like Eminem.
What really sets Sheeran apart from the Grammy crowd is that he looks so normal and unpretentious—even a little nerdy. While many artists strike poses alternately hip, fashionable, or rebellious, Sheeran seems unconsciously himself. With unruly red hair and his trademark kooky smile, Sheeran calls to mind an assistant bellboy who accidentally stumbled onto the red carpet.
This disarming demeanor might be why he didn’t get much love from critics, at least at first. His major label debut in 2011 received mixed reviews, although he was likely comforted by album sales approaching 4 million copies. His new album X won over more critics, with some exceptions. The Guardian derided his “simpering vanilla sound.” Comparing Sheeran to his Grammy rival Sam Smith, Smith “gets extra points for being gay and being able to sing,” while Sheeran is decried as a “parentally approved pop boy-dolly, who comes with guitar accessories, and makes nice soothing voices when you pull a string on his back.”
There’s no doubt that Sheeran’s lack of twerking, shrieking, and croaking has many parents breathing a sigh of relief. But nice-guy persona notwithstanding, it would be a mistake to assume he is safe or appropriate for youth and teen listeners. Sheeran’s themes are mostly love lost and found, and he isn’t shy with explicit lyrics and regular mentions of drinking and smoking pot.
In “Don’t,” Sheeran dishes on the real-life twists and turns of his brief but torrential affair with a famous girl he met on tour. Although the woman remains nameless, Sheeran shares some of their suggestive moments before he calls her out for betraying him. Sheeran’s purpose isn’t titillation, but reflection and maybe a little payback. He adopts a cultural standard that sex outside of marriage is normal and positive. The fact that it leads to a never-ending supply of problems and heartache is not enough to shake that belief. In fact, Sheeran aptly summarizes the modern view in “Photograph” when he opines, “Loving can hurt sometimes / But it’s the only thing that I know … that makes us feel alive.”
His reflections turn more substantive in “Afire Love,” in which he remembers his grandfather’s death and 20-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Melancholy chords and a light, techno beat accompany Sheeran’s struggle to make sense of how, “Things were all good yesterday / and then the devil took your memory.” He shares inspiring memories and rousingly recalls the funeral summation, “And my father and all of my family / rise from their seats to sing, ‘Hallelujah.’”
Sheeran is a sensitive songwriter with a knack for capturing the world around him and a desire to let his work speak for itself. Compared to the image-obsessed industry surrounding him, his ordinariness is refreshing while, at the same, illustrating how far today’s “ordinary” has drifted from biblical norms. Sheeran might be enjoyed by mature listeners, but he proves once again that discernment is the order of the day.
Jeff is a mortgage lender and graduate of the World Journalism Institute's mid-career course. He lives with his wife and their eight children in the Chicago area.