Thursday 17 August 2017

From lad next door to superstar... welcome to the Republic of Sheeran

'Anti-celebrity' image is secret to success, writes Ed Power

Ed Sheeran. Photo: AP
Ed Sheeran. Photo: AP
Ed Power

Ed Power

It's official: we are living through the Age of Ed. The orange-hued strummer has shattered records by selling 300,000 tickets in a single day for his 2018 Irish tour.

Even that wasn't enough to sate demand, with further dates subsequently tacked on.

Carry on like this and we're going to have to rename Ireland the Republic of Sheeran and drop the harp as our national symbol in favour of his glowing ginger bonce.

But though the singer's popularity is obviously beyond doubt, the secret of that attraction is less easily explained.

If you are 30 or over you will of course have had that conversation with friends in which you attempt to get to the bottom of his appeal. Is it all those tattoos? That reedy singing voice? The fact he looks like everybody's annoying roommate from college? The one constantly stealing your cheese?

One theory is Sheeran has identified the sweet spot between lad next door and pop star. Certainly to look at him, there's no reason the 26-year-old should be anywhere near as famous as he is.

Grace Kelly, right, (18) and sister Emily (21) from Cork before the Ed Sheeran concert at the 3Arena in April. Photo: Damien Eagers
Grace Kelly, right, (18) and sister Emily (21) from Cork before the Ed Sheeran concert at the 3Arena in April. Photo: Damien Eagers

This isn't a commentary on his slouchy physical attributes. It's just that he clearly has put minimum thought into his image. Taking to the stage at Dublin's 3Arena in April, Sheeran had the air of someone rolling out of bed. His hair bristled in 15 directions; the T-shirt was shapeless and billowing.

Yet far from holding him back, these are the qualities that have propelled Sheeran to superstardom. In this age of mega-celebrity, we are bombarded by pouting Kardashians, Taylor and her 'Squad', Justin Bieber enjoying a life of princely privilege.

With an estimated net worth of €40m, Sheeran could easily be kicking back with his peers. However, according to those who have interacted with him - the limit of my connection being a 20-minute phone conversation in 2011 - Sheeran's preferred means of unwinding is hitting the boozer with his chums from back in the day.

Thus, even at this point of luminescent mega-fame, he remains a bit hang-dog, a bit every-dude. Let's not underestimate how appealing that is at a time when social media has transformed celebrity into an otherworldly state of being.

Fans queuing for tickets outside OMG Zhivago records on Shop St in Galway this week. Photo: Andy Newman
Fans queuing for tickets outside OMG Zhivago records on Shop St in Galway this week. Photo: Andy Newman

To Irish fans, that he is proud and respectful of his connection to the old country is a factor, too. Far from a Plastic Paddy, he's a thoughtful second generation child of the auld sod (his paternal grandparents are from Wexford) - full value for his green stripes.

Still, if there is consensus as to Ed's underdog charm, his music is more divisive. Critics condemn his soppy pop as a crime against taste. But for younger people, fed up hearing things were better when Nirvana, The Smiths etc were rock's deities in chief, his songs are the perfect mix of catchy and unthreatening.

Consider early hit 'The A-Team', with its treacle-sweet melodies and theoretically toe-curling chorus: 'It's too cold outside, for angels to fly, angels to fly'. As Sheeran reached for the tune at 3Arena your grumpy, Nine Inch Nails-loving correspondent regretted not packing a sick bag. However, the kids all around were transported. They hugged, they wept, they sobbed the lyrics as if these were the most profound lines ever written.

Seeing a performer communicate to a mass audience with such undeniable power obliges you to take pause.

Ed Sheeran isn't for me and he may not be for you. Yet he understands his fanbase just as they understand him. Who could deny that, before us in all his ginger glory, stands the most important songwriter of his generation?

Ed Sheeran with Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez at the Grammy Awards last year. Photo: Getty
Ed Sheeran with Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez at the Grammy Awards last year. Photo: Getty

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