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Toward A Unified Theory of Ed Sheeran

It should be possible to ignore Ed Sheeran. It is not. He is everywhere. Why?

What is it about Ed Sheeran? Allow me to answer that question with further questions: Who gets a tattoo of the Heinz label because he’s crazy about ketchup? Who, in fact, is so hooked on ketchup that he makes his entourage carry an emergency bottle at all times, lest he dine at a restaurant too posh to provide it? Did you ever think ketchup was something that anybody besides 7-year-olds and condiment historians might obsess over? Because this is Ed Sheeran: a lad who loves Heinz enough to emblazon the brand on his arm. No, it doesn’t make any sense. I think it’s breaking my brain.

And wait: Sheeran is kind of like ketchup, in that you expect to find it wherever you go. He is one of the biggest stars in pop music today. Like many other men of puzzling success, he has a woman to thank: at the moment he was poised for an international breakthrough, Taylor Swift came calling. He ended up co-writing and providing vocals for her single “Everything Has Changed,” then went on tour as her opener in 2013. The pair have never admitted to dating, though Sheeran says he’s hooked up with members of her squad, and Swift was reportedly instrumental in setting him up with his current fiancé, the U.K. hockey star Cherry Seaborn. This, I believe, is the essence of Sheeran: he’s just kinda…there, and probably as surprised about it as you are. I swear I’m not trying to be mean, but he looks like that dude at the party who hangs around the edges of conversations — Oh, him? That’s Taylor’s friend — and jumps in with an awkward quip when he can. But he’s not causing any trouble. You could run into him a week later at the grocery store, the coffee place, the bus stop, and the encounter would be roughly the same. It’s fine. It’s Ed. He seems like a nice guy. Whatever.

I can’t honestly condemn a man whose worst offense is a catalog of trite and not-very-woke lyrics. This would ascribe too much importance and agency to an individual whose métier is coincidence. Outright hating Ed Sheeran, even if you hate his music (for me it’s principally the soundtrack to bleary late-night Lyft rides and afternoons wasted at Urban Outfitters) is not a constructive use of brainpower. Steering as it does between guitar-folk and Justin Bieber-style Top 40 pastiche, his sound does arouse the contempt of a cynic, but that appears to be his advantage: “His self-proclaimed uncoolness is what makes him both cool and impervious to bad-tempered criticism,” wrote Laura Snapes in panning his latest album, ÷ (or Divide), for Pitchfork. You know who’s queen of proclaiming her uncoolness? Taylor Swift. It’s all adding up, people. No wonder Sheeran cited Coldplay as an inspiration for his next album. Coldplay!!!

Being boring is Sheeran’s superpower. He’s a bit like Facebook, which is, after all, the ketchup of the internet: mediocre, sugary, homogenizing, and subsuming. By 2020, he will have drawn almost every A-list musician into the expanding white hole of his mainstream appeal, flattening the sonic landscape till it’s just wallpaper. Clinging to his posture as a regular bloke — he sings about not having a college degree, he sports a doofy haircut, he quits social media by saying he’s “seeing the world through a screen and not my eyes” — he’s increasingly accepted as an avatar for inescapable averageness. He’s difficult to pin down precisely because he is the man without qualities; even the tattoos are randomized beyond meaning. It’s this blankness that attracts the web’s dedicated burn artists, who strive to articulate what makes him so unforgettably forgettable. The result? Infinite recursion: Sheeran is Sheeran is Sheeran:

The simple read of Sheeran is that he has achieved an innocuous notoriety facilitated by the internet and streaming services. The algorithm likes him. He’s safe. He arrived with the blessing not of faceless record execs, but Taylor Swift, another nebulous icon.

He was on Game of Thrones. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle want him to play their wedding. He did a duet with Beyoncé, and he dated Ellie Goulding. You needn’t be interesting to do any of this, only available and predictable. You can’t say he didn’t work for his celebrity, but neither can you shake the uncanny inkling that he fills empty space with more empty space, tiding us over while we wait for a more startling voice. For the moment, there are millions who appreciate that work. It’s almost never the people you assume. Your friends and family love Ed Sheeran, and you don’t even know it.

What must it be like to serve as the doughy center of anglophone taste? Sheeran cannot be oblivious to this burden. His songs occasionally confess a melancholy or hollowness at odds with the bright lights and crowds. For anyone else, it would be another cliché — and in that sense it’s completely on-brand — though cliché must ever build on a truth. I hope that in time, dissatisfaction breeds another approach. I want to see Ed Sheeran transform. Strangest of all, I believe he can, or want him to, as proof of reinvention. You don’t have to put ketchup on everything, man. We yearn for a different taste now and then. It’s a lot to ask of our boy Ed, and that is why he’s the one to ask.

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