Music is a powerful element of popular culture that not only influences what we do with our spare time but the way we talk, associate, and relate to each other. It generates a feeling of unity by reminding us that all phases of life such as heartbreak, happiness, and love are universal experiences. How then could it be possible to believe that music comes solely from the elite? Our ancestors and the humans from decades ago have long communicated, celebrated and fought through life accompanied by musical hymns. Music is incredibly human. Examining more contemporary popular music, we see a transformation in music through a music industry that focuses on producing a hit a song that will contain a melody catchy enough for the radios and the online streaming programs to play it over and over again. This version of music is frankly depressing as strips away the creative humanity of music. There is hope, however, at the end of the tunnel through underground artists and singer-songwriters. The most successful story which has resulted in the #1 most listened to artist on Spotify and arguably one of the most popular artists on this planet, Ed Sheeran.
Edward Christopher Sheeran was born in Halifax, England in 1991. Since his childhood he had always felt like an outsider in his “preppy, sporty, competitive private primary school” due to his humble background with his father being an art curator and his mother being a jewelry designer.(Chesterton) Additionally he was bullied for his weird-looks and strange behaviors (though not diagnosed, it was most likely ADD). (Chesterton) While there were many difficult aspects of his infancy as he recalls that he had never won at anything, he began to learn how to play the guitar and learned to sing in the local church choir discovering music as a natural vehicle for happiness.(The Famous People)
As soon as Ed reached adolescence his hardships were only amplified by teenage angst and rebellion. His father John Sheeran, the no-nonsense son of Irish immigrants, grew tired of his son’s attitude having always pushed his children to be academically driven. He played the biggest role in influencing Ed to take initiative and work hard at the one thing he truly loved the most; music. (Chesterton) Rather than getting in trouble, Ed was driven to musical gigs of artists like Bob Dylan so that he could gain inspiration from those that made a career in music. (Chesterton) Validating his father’s determined efforts, Ed has dreamed about becoming a pop superstar since he was 13 and has never taken a day off in accomplishing this dream. (Chesterton)
Rather than turning to the entertainment industry as what could provide knowledge and guidance on making it big, Ed began to study music with the organization ‘Access to Music’ and the National Youth Theater. (The Famous People) While studying music he began to produce his own music with the sole focus of making enough to live from his passion. In his own words his first dream was “to make enough money from music to pay the rent and sell 100 CDs.”(Chesterton) By the time Sheeran was 14 years old he had already released two CDs ‘Spinning Man’ and ‘The Orange Room’ independently. (The Famous People)
Although it had been his father’s aspiration for Sheeran to get a proper education, he dropped out of high school at sixteen and began to move from place to place until 2008 when he finally decided to move to London.(Chesterton) As soon as he arrived at London his life was governed by his search for “gigs, attention and somewhere to spend the night.” (Chesterton) While searching for recognition of his own lyrics and melodies he was homeless for two and a half years famously having slept a couple of nights outside an arch of Buckingham Palace. (Her) Rather than giving up and retreating to Hallifax, Ed made it work by making important connections, “I knew where I could get a bed at a certain time of night and I knew who I could call at any time to get a floor to sleep on. Being sociable helped.” (Her) Furthermore, he formed a precise sleeping schedule allowing him to sleep on Circle Line trains after gigs waiting until around 5 am to be able to sleep on the line until 12 pm to then go to another session. (Her) While this lifestyle was incredibly troublesome it also taught him invaluable skills of determination and the ability to associate with others in an organic “human” manner. He stated that one of the keys to this was drinking at bars to socialize a technique that could potentially conflict with what any PR manager would recommend but allowed Ed to navigate the London gig circuits as an independent musician. (Her)
Yet Ed Sheeran did not only involve himself in musical gigs but also auditioned for “Britannia High” a British musical drama television series hoping to find some money. (The Famous People) Furthermore in 2009 he was accepted into the Academy of Contemporary Music in Guildford. (Chesterton) The key here is that while he could have received a proper music education he dismissed the opportunity contending that he could teach them a lot more about music than they could teach him, most likely due to his real life experience with performing in gigs and songwriting abilities. It was through this refusal from academies and educational institutions that he became recognizable figure in London’s gigging circuits allowing him to form relationships with artists in Hip-hop and other entertainment acts. (Chesterton) However, one of the most important steps that he made in his career was uploading his music online. It was through one of these videos that he was able to establish an invaluable connection with Example, a british rapper, singer,and songwriter. (Biography.com) Example was able to discover Ed Sheeran through online media and granting him the opportunity of performing as his opening act which drove his musical fan base and inspired him to write more songs. (Biography.com)
Nonetheless, despite his hard work and passion for music Sheeran was still without a music contract. Thus, he took another bold step in his career by moving to Los Angeles with no contacts in 2010. (Chesterton) Through his performances and musical self-promotion, Sheeran landed a gig at an all-black R&B open mic night in Los Angeles. (Chesterton) It was there, as the ginger outsider, where Sheeran was spotted by Jamie Foxx’s manager who introduced him to Foxx letting him stay in Foxx’s home but also letting him make use of his recording studio. (Chesterton) With a new fan, Sheeran was invited to make an appearance on Foxx’s Siriusxm Radio Show gaining more international recognition.(Biography.com) The following year he released his last independent EP which reached No. 2 on the iTunes Chart even though it had not been advertised for in any way. (Biography.com) This drew attention from many record companies and with that he was signed onto Atlantic Records that same month. (Biography.com) When the 2012 Brits Awards came around Sheeran won the Best British Male Solon Artist and British Breakthrough Act of the Year awards crowning him as a key player in the British music business. (The Famous People)
Getting back to the point, however, what is fascinating is identifying what is truly the key to Ed Sheeran’s success in popular music and its importance particularly in context to his story having been a partially homeless singer-songwriter. Now that the background is established, it is important to emphasize what distinguishes Sheeran from other popular music artists. Yes, he did not move to Hollywood with hopes of being manufactured in a particular way so that he could satisfy a particular target audience in the entertainment industry, in fact, it is much more than that. Ed Sheeran has quickly become the voice of the Millennial generation having collaborated with mega-artists like Taylor Swift, Pharrell Williams, The Weeknd,and Harry Styles. (Beaumont) Moreover, he has written hit songs for Justin Bieber, One Direction and the X Factor all while being the most streamed artists online in the entire world through his own music. (Beaumont) What’s exciting here is that he has taken the music industry by storm through his authenticity and sincerity with music reflecting his identity and his own truths.
One of the ways that Ed Sheeran does this is by writing about the mundane; utilizing lyrics that mention sex, drinking and love all which are incredibly real and human. (Chesterton) Take for example one of his most recent hits “Thinking out Loud ” where he sings “When your legs don’t work like they used to before/And i can’t sweep you off of your feet/Will your mouth still remember the taste of my love?/ Will your eyes still smile from your cheeks.” In this song he writes about the great but also ordinary fear of ageing and living through it all while in love. Many of us have seen this through the lenses of our grandparents, parents or maybe are even beginning to see it through our own relationships, regardless, it is a mundane topic that is incredibly touching and relatable–Ed Sheeran’s magic.
Furthermore, the specificity of Ed Sheeran’s lyrics, specifically in mentioning day-to-day products, allows for the listeners to embody themselves in Sheeran’s situations through relatable emotions all while legitimizing his stories and lyrics. (Chesterton) In the song “Don’t” which talks about a celebrity love-triangle between Ellie Goulding, Niall Horan and Ed Sheeran, he mentions eating a takeaway pizza singing “And for a couple weeks I only wanna see her /We drink away the days with a takeaway pizza/ Before a text message was the only way to reach her/ Now she’s staying at my place and loves the way I treat her”. In own of his newer songs “Galway Girl” the same technique was used; “I walked her home then she took me inside to finish some Doritos and another bottle of wine.”
But criticism coexists with every successful act and one of the biggest critics of Sheeran happens to be Noel Gallagher, the lead guitarist from Oasis, who has declared that Ed Sheeran has essentially killed Rock and Roll music. (Hodgkinson) His reasoning behind this theatrical declaration you might ask? He argues that this new generation of singer-songwriters are unlike any other musicians before them having never struggled with their own music.(Hodgkinson) These new musicians tend to have middle class or upper class privilege that has granted them the resources to support their music dreams resulting in shutting down of major music studios.(Hodgkinson) Additionally, he critiques the millennial generation contending that, “No fucker wants to be in a band anymore because it’s too much of a struggle. So we have a generation who all studied music at college, they all had media training, and the head of PR at the major label they’re signed to told them all what to do. The generation I came were never afforded that luxury, which is why we were scallywags. We were coming up against the system rather than being a product of it.” (Hodgkinson) His argument, however compelling is completely unfounded when looking at Ed Sheeran’s life story. While his family did do their best to support him, his father was also an alcoholic and one of the main reasons why Ed decided to flee his home at age 16. From this time he was essentially on his own resulting in various encounters with homelessness all while struggling to supporting himself with his music. This story does not radiate privilege in fact it screams hard work, preparation and the seizing of opportunities. In defiance of musical institutions Sheeran himself never graduated from high school nor a musical institution in fact he picked up most of his skills through experience and mentorship.His ability to reach the top 10 of iTunes charts without a record label is the complete defiance of being a product of the music industry.
In the meantime Ed Sheeran makes sure to emphasize his authenticity not only through his lyrics but through his personality and presentation as a pop artist. As Christ Williman from Billboard states, “That’s his way: He’s the scruffy guy who doesn’t care what he wears, but turns up on the red carpet of the Vanity Fair Oscar party; the open-mic songwriter who has come up with the biggest hooker-themed radio hit since Sting sang about Roxanne. And, let’s face it, being the only guy onstage is a smart business.” (Willman) He was GQ’s Worst Dressed Man of the year in 2013 because he “still wear(s) skater hoodies, jeans and skater shoes.”(Chesterton) Now this is not a marketing ploy it just signals that he wants others to focus on what truly matters; his honest and pure well-written music.
Beaumont, M. (2017). 50 Things You Didn’t Know About Ed Sheeran – NME. NME. Retrieved 15 November 2017, from http://www.nme.com/blogs/nme-blogs/50-things-you-didnt-know-about-ed-sheeran-1999240#DVdK6uJUw4uvRTm1.99
Chesterton, G. (2017). How Ed Sheeran became the biggest male popstar on the planet. Gq-magazine.co.uk. Retrieved 15 November 2017, from http://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/article/ed-sheeran-new-album-divide
Ed Sheeran. (2017). Biography.com. Retrieved 15 November 2017, from https://www.biography.com/people/ed-sheeran
Her. (2017). Ed Sheeran Reveals He Was Homeless for Two and a Half Years | Her.ie. Her.ie. Retrieved 15 November 2017, from https://www.her.ie/music/ed-sheeran-reveals-he-was-homeless-for-two-and-a-half-years-186472
Hodgkinson, W. (2017). Ed Sheeran is killing music | Little Atoms. Littleatoms.com. Retrieved 15 November 2017, from http://littleatoms.com/film-music/ed-sheeran-killing-music
Who is Ed Sheeran? Everything You Need to Know. (2017). Thefamouspeople.com. Retrieved 15 November 2017, from https://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/ed-sheeran-29882.php
Willman, Chris. “ED SHEERAN UN-ZIPPED.” Billboard – The International Newsweekly of Music, Video and Home Entertainment Apr 12 2014: 24-9. ProQuest. Web. 12 Nov. 2017