Ed Sheeran: The guy we love to pretend to hate
Even hardcore music critics aren’t immune to the Everyman charm of Ed Sheeran, writes Chris Wasser. Ahead of his Phoenix Park gigs, we reflect on the appeal of the red-headed singer-songwriter whose granny is Irish...
What would aliens from outer space have to say about Ed Sheeran? That’s a serious question, by the way. Imagine what they’d think. Imagine, for a moment, how we might explain to our alien overlords — were they to swing by for a visit — that a scruffy, pasty red-head from Suffolk conquered humankind with just a tiny guitar, a pedal station and a flannel shirt. We’d be forced to lie. “The pedals, they control our minds,” we might explain to the bemused extra-terrestrials. “It wasn’t our fault! We had no warning! It was those damn pedals!”
Indeed. There was no warning. We weren’t to know that a young fella named Edward Christopher Sheeran, and his pocket sized six-string (it is a very small guitar), might steal all of our money, occupy all of our chart positions and ruin all of our engagement plans. Would the aliens transport Mr Ed back to their home planet with them, I wonder? Probably not. Why? Because, in case you haven’t noticed, Mr Ed has a bit of a knack for taking over planets. He’s already done it three times here, with three different albums — the cheeky swine. And do you know what? I’m okay with that.
See, the biggest misconception of Sheeran Mania is that everyone hates Ed Sheeran. Obviously, they don’t. If they did, it wouldn’t be Sheeran Mania — and he wouldn’t have sold 400,000 concert tickets in Ireland alone this year. The second biggest misconception of Sheeran Mania is that everyone loves Ed Sheeran. Obviously, they don’t. If they did, well, I wouldn’t spend the next five minutes trying to explain his success.
I should probably cut to the chase: I don’t know how Suffolk Busker Ed Sheeran became Global Superstar Ed Sheeran. I’d be willing to bet a small fortune that the man himself has no idea how it happened. He appears to be as surprised as the rest of us — and maybe that’s part of his appeal.
The weekend before last, the 27-year-old brought Cork to a standstill. Last weekend, it was Galway’s turn. Tonight, Sheeran Mania comes to the Phoenix Park. The man is unstoppable. He is ubiquitous. You don’t need me to tell you that the Irish have fallen hard for young Sheeran. We could, if we wanted to, name a county after him (please don’t), or sign him up for the international football squad (anything is worth a shot there). It’s the granny rule, lads: Sheeran’s got Irish family and, as a result, we’ve claimed him as one of our own.
We did this with Josh Ritter, David Gray and avocados. We’ll do it again, I’m sure. Why does Ireland dig Sheeran? Dunno. He’s just our latest crush — the acoustic guitar-slinger that speaks directly to our hearts. The chap has a song for every occasion: first love, first kiss, first drink, first dance, first break-up, first mid-life crisis, etc. Fifteen-year-olds adore him. Fifty-year-olds want to adopt him. He’s got red hair. He’s a fan of Christy Moore. And then there’s Galway Girl (we’ll come back to that). We just like him, is all.
Why does the rest of the world dig Sheeran? Well, he writes catchy songs, doesn’t he? People love that. They love it when a pop star comes along that walks, talks and acts like them. They love it when someone goes and takes all the feels and all the warm-and-fuzzies and makes a luverly, simple, arena-ready melody out of them.
True, Sheeran isn’t the most inventive songsmith in the room, but the man knows his way around a chorus. He’s good with a hook. He’s good with an effects pedal. He’s genuinely good at what he does.
Indeed, Ed Sheeran has picked up several titles since emerging in 2011 with his debut album, + (plus). ‘The Nicest Man in Pop’ is the one that seems to have stuck (or, at least, the cleanest one we can mention here). It’s at this point that I should probably admit that I am an admirer of Mr Ed.
Honestly, I tried not to like him, but over time, you get used to him. He’s just…well, he’s just there, isn’t he? Like Phil Collins. Or cauliflower.
It might have been his triumphant live shows that did it for me. Sheeran’s a clever egg — he doesn’t play with a band. Instead, he recreates the better parts of his back catalogue with just a guitar, his voice and that aforementioned pedal station at his feet.
He’s a hell of a multitasker, and anyone who can keep a gig going for two hours with that sort of trick, and still have an audience hanging on every word, gets my approval. Plus, it means he goes home with a bit of extra cash in his pocket — because he doesn’t have to pay a touring band. That’s smart.
True, the nice guy demeanour annoys most folks. It’s as though his biggest critics want Sheeran to be an arsehole, because it might make him more interesting. Maybe it would. But then he’d just be an arsehole, and studies have shown that people aren’t too fond of those, either. Another complaint is that Sheeran makes ‘boring’ music. Others consider him overrated, over-played and over-indulged. Well, so is Adele. So is Taylor Swift. So is everybody who’s ever headlined a football stadium.
Now, I won’t lie. I find it hilarious that a chap who looks as though he was discovered writing songs in a McDonald’s, is currently the most celebrated solo artist in the world. And he does have an awful lot to answer for. Take a stroll down Grafton Street and tell me how many young fellas with guitars strapped around their waists are singing Ed Sheeran songs? How many kids on The Ed Factor (my new name for The X Factor) have developed Sheeran Fever these past five years? Too many.
But it happens. Ed Sheeran may not look like a pop star. He’s kinda scruffy. He plays with Lego. He’s all shy and awkward and nice and humble. But the world decided that it no longer wanted all of its chart-toppers to be glamorous, extraordinary and god-like — not when dishevelled, ordinary and human will do just fine, thanks very much.
And everyone wants in on that goldmine. The copycats will go away, eventually, and we can’t pretend that this hasn’t happened before.
Hell, most of our favourite chart sensations, including Sheeran, are merely mimicking their idols. Sheeran, bless him, is what happens when someone goes and gets his Damien Rice and Nizlopi records all mixed up with Paul Simon’s. Meanwhile, the other biggest male superstar in the world, Bruno Mars, is practically a pound shop Michael Jackson. How come everyone is okay with his derivative brand of pop?
For now, Sheeran is just one of those things we love to pretend we hate. Like Phil Collins. Or cauliflower. But seriously, we’re very good at giving out about pop idols and rock gods. Think James Blunt, Sting, Bono, Nickelback, etc. Sheeran, the poor lad, is practically a one-man NickelBlunt. But you don’t have to listen to him if you don’t want to. In fact, it’s surprisingly easy. You just change the channel. Turn the page. Avoid the Phoenix Park.
I don’t know why people who like Ed Sheeran should explain why they like Ed Sheeran. Me? I think he’s grand. We’ve had worse. I can live without his ballads (Perfect, Thinking Out Loud). I could probably do without hearing Galway Girl again (now the most annoying song in the world with that title — which is some achievement, when you think about it).
But I like me R’n’B tunes, and I like what Sheeran can do with ‘em (Shape of You, You Need Me, I Don’t Need You, etc). He’s got the pipes. He’s got the skills. His success is no cause for concern.
It’s 2018. You don’t have to look too far to find challenging, daring or exciting music. For now, Sheeran represents something safer, more accessible. And there’s nowt wrong with that — if it wasn’t him on top, it would be someone else like him. So, you know, leave Ed alone.
This is how pop music has always worked. Leave him to it. I still don’t know how we’re going to explain him to the aliens, but sure listen, we’ll figure that out once they get here…
Ed Sheeran is live at the Phoenix Park on May 16, 18 and 19