E is for Ed Sheeran: How an inoffensive man summed up the musical mood of a decade

The fifth letter in the New Statesman's A-Z of the decade.

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This summer, the Ed Sheeran Museum opened in Ipswich, filled with sculpted busts of the singer’s head, and trinkets from his childhood. This museum, opened in the closing months of this long, long decade, is the culmination of a very big ten years for the musician.

Before writing this, I thought I wasn’t a big fan of Ed. I was resolute in my respect for the general hierarchies of pop music: Rihanna: good, Sheeran: bad. I thought about blaming him for my dislike. I pointed fingers at his over-sized ego and total lack of awareness of the multimillion-pound problem with his “Everyman” brand. I thought of him as a man so inoffensive that he’s offensive. And yet, somehow, when Spotify summed up my listening habits of 2019, Sheeran came in as my second most-streamed artist.

I was in shock. How had this happened? If I hated Ed Sheeran as much as I thought I did, then why had I not stopped streaming him all year? Then, a chilling thought dawned on me. Do I actually really, really like Ed Sheeran?

I’m not sure. But, it turns out, I’m also not alone. Following closely behind Drake, Sheeran has achieved the title of the second most-streamed artist of this decade. His track “Shape of You” even reached the grand decoration of most-streamed song of the last ten years, according to Spotify. By these parameters, Ed Sheeran is, well, era-defining.

Era-defining. Yep. That could be the most boring thing about this decade. This is a man who rose to fame with 2011’s “The A Team”, and, here we all are, nine years later, rewarding him with the title “era-defining”. Perhaps, in his defence, not a lot has happened this decade.

In the past ten years, Sheeran has released four albums. All four were UK number ones, and he has spent almost four of those ten years consistently in the top 10. His latest tour, which started in 2017 lasted for two years and was the highest-grossing in history. Sheeran is, by quite a few metrics, one of the most successful pop stars in history.

Of course, this wasn’t exclusively Sheeran’s era. Grime slowly rose to the mainstream, with Stormzy ending the decade as the voice of the UK’s young black population. But somehow, somehow, Sheeran seemed to profit from that as well.

Even more jarringly, in 2018 Sheeran had the audacity to perform a duet next to Beyoncé, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. Beyoncé, by contrast, was dressed in a magical pink ball gown. Here was Sheeran, dressed casually in the face of stardom, stubborn in his desire for comfort.

But then, when you think about it, it sort of makes sense. This is an era dominated by austerity, the housing crisis and the swift rise of athleisure; a time when we are turning down hangovers for the safety of our sofas. In an era where Brexit has ruined Christmas dinners, climate change has politicised a generation and Instagram has made us all feel bad about ourselves, it makes sense that we would turn to Ed Sheeran and his boring safeness.

No matter how irritating, his safeness was appealing. We couldn’t explain why, but it was. Perhaps, secretly, all we wanted was to binge listen to something so completely risk-averse that it bordered on bland, and Ed came prepackaged, ready to fill this societal void with his extremely catchy, one-size-fits-all singles.

And so, in a twisted kind of way, it seems right that Ed Sheeran features on this A-Z of the decade. If anything summed up the musical mood of the 2010s, it was a singer mocked by many but streamed by all.

> This article is part of our A-Z of the 2010s.

 

Eleanor Peake is the New Statesman’s social media editor.