Last September Ed Sheeran’s Unhealthy Habits was lastly dislodged from its seat at No 1 within the UK singles chart after 11 lengthy weeks. Its substitute? Ed Sheeran’s Shivers, which subsequently nestled on the prime for a month. That’s practically 1 / 4 of 2021’s singles charts dominated by one man. The streaming stats for each songs are mind-boggling, with mixed Spotify performs on the time of writing hovering previous 2bn, whereas their dad or mum album, = (Equals), hasn’t left the UK prime 5 in eight months.
It’s hardly shocking, then, that this week the music licensing physique, PPL, introduced Ed Sheeran because the most-played artist in the UK in 2021. The truth is, it’s an honour he’s achieved in 4 out of the final 5 years. Not solely that, however Unhealthy Habits was 2021’s most-played music, beating hits from the likes of The Weeknd (whose Blinding Lights banger Unhealthy Habits cribs from), Little Combine and Coldplay. Individuals, it appears, can’t get sufficient – however what makes Sheeran’s success so enduring?
The roots of Sheeran’s ubiquity will be traced again to his mainstream arrival a decade in the past. His success chimed with the rise of what journalist Peter Robinson known as the New Boring, a prevailing anti-fun agenda that’s since develop into deep-rooted. Set in opposition to the untouchable, deity-like superstars reminiscent of Beyoncé (who would later collaborate with Sheeran on UK Christmas No 1, Excellent), and the avant-garde meat dress-sporting likes of Woman Gaga, artists reminiscent of Sheeran, Adele and Emeli Sandé made open, emotionally simple, resolutely “genuine” music broad sufficient to depart nobody feeling alienated.
Sheeran prized relatability from the beginning – shuffling awkwardly into glitzy award exhibits in a hoodie. Somewhat than shroud his music-making in layers of thriller, or bejewel it with highfalutin ideas, Sheeran revelled in its laser-focused box-ticking. So third album ÷ (Divide)’s two lead singles, Fort on a Hill and Form of You, have been crafted to concurrently hit two completely different demographics: the previous’s drive-time rock was excellent for Radio 2, whereas the latter’s tropical-tinged R&B (the music was initially supplied to Rihanna) was aimed toward Radio 1. It shortly established him as a grasp of each worlds.
The cynicism of the songs’ creation was, after all, irrelevant to the listener. And therein lies the crux of Sheeran’s success. As an artist he hardly ever impedes the songs he creates. His world is frictionless. He can skip between genres with ease, be it indie-folk, pop, R&B, grime, hip-hop, as a result of every new persona is a projection on to a clean slate. His character hardly ever will get in the way in which of the music; his social media presence is a promotional software relatively than a distraction.
He’s additionally malleable – when he’s accomplished with hip-hop, for instance, he doesn’t want a picture overhaul to then revert to balladry. If one style isn’t to your tastes, then worry not, one other can be alongside quickly. It’s Now That’s What I Name Fundamental. Due to his penchant for far-reaching, streaming-ready collaborations, from Stormzy to Beyoncé to Carry Me The Horizon, he also can inhale the whiff of second-hand cool even when the idea stays alien to him. He can usually appear to be a contest winner stood subsequent to his favorite singer, which in flip helps him hold that unthreatening, everyman standing intact. His genuine singer-songwriter standing means he’s a reputable pop artist to pal up with, whereas his early appearances on rap channel SB:TV, and his real championing of pre-mainstream fame Stormzy, imply accusations of appropriation hardly ever stick (though his current transfer into drill actually raised eyebrows).
In an advanced world, Sheeran’s musical modus operandi is easy; to create well-crafted, expertly obscure songs that unite individuals. Politics is verboten in Sheeran’s bubble, which for some should make him a breath of contemporary air in a pop world sometimes weighed down by discourse. His songs are vessels broad sufficient to soundtrack each a primary dance and a funeral procession, a gut-punch break-up and a trawl round a harshly lit purchasing centre. They’re for all times’s large moments, with all of the cinematic fringe of a Richard Curtis movie.
At a time of basic societal exhaustion, burnout and fatigue, Ed Sheeran kindly doesn’t ask the listener to place in any work. His music, at all times simply on the endpoint of the pop zeitgeist, does all of the heavy lifting for you, whereas crumbling below nearer inspection. It’s not simply aural wallpaper that fades fully into the background, however extra the musical equal of a Stay Snort Love signal; well-meaning, vaguely uplifting however as deep as a puddle. Generally boring is what we deserve.
Michael Cragg is a music author for the Guardian and the Observer