In an age when every pop star co-writes all of his or her songs, why do we never hear in interviews how they compose their material? We know the answer, of course: it’s because they clearly have minimal or no input into their material, and are only being credited to earn lucrative publishing royalties. Pop stars can then go on chat shows or do magazine interviews, and maintain an illusion of individuality and control over their careers, never mentioning the huge teams of people who forge their product.
The notable exception to this is Ed Sheeran, the hack next door. He makes no pretence of expressing himself as an artist, instead talking openly how he schemes to sell the most records. And with a great deal of success, too. His third and latest album, ÷, is set to compete for the best-selling album of the decade. He has even stated in interviews that he is releasing his album after his competition (Beyoncé, Adele, Drake et al) had released theirs in order to gain the most attention. With no need to worry about money – Sheeran earned $33million last year, when he wasn’t even doing anything – he’s seemingly driven by pure ego.
With his acoustic guitar, mess of ginger hair and casual clothing, Sheeran is the product of a post-Adele popworld which celebrates affability and ordinariness over artifice and bombast. His audience find him, rather than his music, sincere. They don’t expect him to express any part of his life through his songs. Indeed, it’s his very lack of a credible background which allows him so effortlessly to shapeshift from single to single, from sugary sweet ballads to Justin Timberlake-style come-ons, or from dancehall rhythms to po-faced folk. It also helps that Sheeran is completely harmless and never chases controversy. When you’re competing at the highest level of pop, you don’t have to worry about being cool. Sheeran can write hits for One Direction and Justin Bieber and get away with it.
His live performances are also designed for maximum profit. When Sheeran tours, he performs with no band, no theatrics; it’s just him and an acoustic guitar. Imagine how much money Sheeran makes when he plays Wembley Stadium compared with Beyoncé or Rihanna, who produce expensive theatrical spectaculars.
When Sheeran broke on to the scene in 2011 with his + album, even his backstory reeked of professionalism – he had apparently performed nearly 300 gigs a year as an unsigned musician. Sheeran’s couch-surfing during this time has been grossly exaggerated by some to suggest he was temporarily homeless. His background is in fact comfortably middle-class: his father is an arts curator and lecturer; and his mother is a jewellery designer. The two even owned an arts consultancy firm for 20 years.