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Wednesday 18 September 2019

John Meagher: 'Ed Sheeran's massive success demonstrates that we're living in an age of mediocrity'

As Ed Sheeran's nine-date sold out Irish tour kicks off, can 400,000 fans be wrong? Yes, argues John Meagher, who says the pop idol is hugely overrated

Ed Sheeran. Photo: Getty Images
Ed Sheeran. Photo: Getty Images
John Meagher

John Meagher

Even in an industry as given to hyperbole as music, we've never seen the like before. Kicking off tonight in Cork, Ed Sheeran plays nine sold-out shows in stadia and parks on this island and more than 400,000 tickets have been shifted. That's one tenth of the entire population of the Republic and he could probably play another few dates at the Phoenix Park and they'd still be clamouring for more.

There isn't a hope in hell - or heaven - that Pope Francis will encourage as many people to take their chances in the great outdoors when he calls here in August. And the pontiff has the good grace to only stay a few days. Sheeran will still be at large in Ireland until May 19, no doubt dropping around to fans' homes - as is his wont - or bothering invalids in wards up and down the country.

Ed Sheeran with fans. Photo: Getty Images
Ed Sheeran with fans. Photo: Getty Images

"He's such a lovely guy," is the constant refrain, as if niceness were enough to negate such wretchedly boring music.

Edward Christopher Sheeran MBE is a phenomenon - no doubt about it - and there will doubtless be much excitement at Cork's Pairc Ui Chaoimh tonight when the Irish jaunt - and European tour proper - gets underway.

Huge he may be, but wildly overrated he is too. In fact, it is difficult to understand how this man of such modest talents managed to hoodwink so many. Can so many people be so wrong? Yes, they can, actually, and Sheeran's massive success demonstrates that we're living in an age of mediocrity, one in which undeserving figures are lauded above vastly superior peers.

The Suffolk native talks about having to pinch himself that he's become so big - and he probably truly is surprised that in an Instagram-obsessed world where image is everything that a scruffy, flannel shirt-wearing redhead with some naff arm tattoos could have become quite as omnipresent.

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

So why has Sheeran become so massive, especially in this country?

It's simple, really. He's the biggest catch-all star of his day because he delivers terribly safe, relentlessly catchy and carefully honed pop music that translates in stadia and manages to speak to virtually everyone, no matter how young or old.

Ever since he first emerged, he has delivered easy-to-digest and easier-to-hum tunes that don't require even the teeniest bit of effort from his listeners. It takes a special sort of talent to be quite that bland, but Sheeran's beige songs haven't happened by accident: he's said to be obsessed with trying to appeal to as many people as possible and actively hones his craft in the hope that Biddy in Birr and Brandon in the Bronx will take something from them.

He even admitted as much when promoting his album 'Divide' (stylised as ÷, which is the edgiest thing he's done): when told that some songs sounded as though they had been written with BBC's Radio 1 in mind, and others with Radio 2 in their sights, the bold Ed said that had exactly been the case.

There's nothing 'difficult' or challenging about his songs and precious little that sees him writing honestly about himself. His songs won't provoke a strong reaction or offend anyone and he has yet to write a single memorable lyric.

If his songs were food it would be one microwaveable high-processed dinner after the next: homogeneous, easy to consume and with very little nutritional value.

But he writes his own songs, his defenders will proudly boast, as if such a feat were in any way unusual. But even then, he's been on shaky ground. Last year, a month after 'Divide' came out, he had to settle a plagiarism case out of court. But he wasn't accused of ripping off a song by one of the giants of song-writing. His alleged source material was from a song written by the tedious and largely forgotten X Factor winner, Matt Cardle.

'Divide' sold a cool million copies in its first 24 hours and that's the sort of feat that only a handful of people manage today, in a time when sales are a fraction of what they once were. It's the album that he was promoting when playing those 'intimate' shows at the 14,000-capacity 3Arena last year and it's the album, ostensibly, that he's still plugging 13 months after release.

It's hard to quibble that it's very professionally put together, but you'll struggle to find any heart in it. Like his two previous albums - 'Plus' (+) and 'Multiply' (x) [he's got a thing for maths symbols - can't wait for 'Minus' (-) and 'Square Root' (√ )] - 'Divide' feels like it was the product of intense focus group campaigns. There are ballads, hip-hop tinged songs, rock lite, singalong anthems, retro tunes and a handful with an urban edge.

There's also Galway Girl, that frightfully hokey dirge about a mythical lady from the west who can beat Sheeran in darts and can drink him under the table. When I first heard it - divorced from the album - I thought it was from an Ed Sheeran parody act. Then when I gathered it was real I thought: 'Surely he's not planning to release this?' His record company apparently had the same reaction on first hearing the album and urged him to reconsider what singles he should bring out.

One can only imagine the mandarins there thought the cod Celtic, faux rap tune with the wince-inducing lyrics would be too much for even the most obsessed Sheeran fan to stomach.

But our hero was not for turning. "There's 400 million people in the world who say they're Irish," Sheeran told a British newspaper last year. "And those type of people are going to f***ing love it."

He got his way, which is hardly surprising considering that as one of the biggest-selling acts of the decade, his opinion carries much weight when such decisions are made. But faceless record company execs could have done him a huge favour on the critical front if they had urged him to leave the song off the album completely.

Incredibly, Galway Girl has been lapped up by the Irish and not just the Plastic Paddies who arrive in the plane-load from the US with their flat caps. It's one of the most downloaded songs in this country over the past few years and is so popular that when you say the words Galway Girl out loud, the vast majority of people now think of this version rather than the infinitely superior song written and recorded by Steve Earle.

And then there's Perfect, a song that has the same toe-curling appeal as Lady in Red and even appears to piggyback on the lyrics of Chris de Burgh's inescapable creation when Sheeran sings, "Darling, you look perfect tonight."

But even that power ballad - bound to be played tonight and every night - pales when compared to the vacuous Eraser. "I think that money is the root of all evil," go lyrics that might just about pass muster in a Transition Year essay. "Revolution is coming… but what do I know?"

Bob Dylan can rest easy, but so too can such contemporary greats as Kendrick Lamar, a man who is enormously popular, but also daring and inventive and whose very presence can inject a note of cool on the latest U2 album. And Lamar has got an awful lot to say about the ills of the world today.

Sheeran, unfortunately, is simply happy to deliver the same mass appeal guff over and over again. But he's a lovely guy, apparently, so that's all OK, isn't it?

Irish Independent

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