Who is Ed Sheeran, and why is he selling so many albums and singles?
On first glance, he looks harmless enough. His folksy, mildly soulful pop songs are well-structured and innocuous. He seems fairly pleasant, when interviewed on television. He's played Buffalo a few times, including as part of Kissmas Bash 2012, where he stood out for the simple reason that he was playing an instrument – guitar – fairly well.
He looks like a Harry Potter cast-member, not a depraved rock star. I mean, your kids could be listening to worse.
But I'm here to tell you that you should all be afraid. Sheeran's success is going to encourage more of the same – from him, from young artists eager to share in his success by imitating him, and from a music business willing to accept Sheeran's success as a mandate to churn out more mediocrity.
That's the conclusion I come to. The guy is so middle-of-the-road that he's practically an extremist. His music is whiter than a loaf of Wonder Bread, to borrow the musician's bandstand vernacular. It is devoid of anything resembling an edge. At its best, it sounds like Dave Matthews Band, minus the killer drumming. At its worst, it sounds like ... Ed Sheeran.
"Well, if he's so boring, why has he sold so many albums? He must be doing something right." Let me stop you there. Yes, Sheeran is doing something right. Witness the press release that landed in my mailbox this week.
"Earlier today, global superstar Ed Sheeran took to Instagram to share the news that he has made history once more with the Diamond certification of his Grammy winning smash 'Thinking Out Loud.' The single... has achieved sales and streams exceeding 10 million, becoming only the 15th song to do so since the RIAA first implemented the Diamond certification nearly 20 years ago.
Sheeran recently celebrated the 2x-Platinum certification of his... album '÷' (pronounced 'divide') and the 7x-Platinum certification of ... single 'Shape Of You' during his sold-out, 3 night stand at Brooklyn’s Barclays Arena."
There's an awful lot to unpack there. And most of it is annoying, beginning with the fact that Sheeran took to Instagram to brag about it all. (In a few years, these kinds of Instagram boasts will be dismissed with a simple "OMG, that's so totally 2017!" I hope.) The Diamond certification signifies 10 million in sales and streams, which is huge, when you consider that it takes in the area of 1 billion streams to qualify as 1 million sales. (Fuzzy math, but whatever.)
So the truth must be faced: Sheeran is totally crushing it, sales-wise. He's also packing vast arenas - including KeyBank Center over the summer - with people paying an average of $130 per ticket, according to SeatGeek.com. (Tickets to the sold-out Buffalo show were $39.50 to $89.50.)
Sheeran's having all of this success thanks to a batch of middling tunes with dumb lyrics and generic production values that make Coldplay sound like radical freaks out to tear down pop conventions. (Here's a sample of Sheeran poetry, culled from "Thinking Out Loud," the ditty the Grammys considered the "Song of the Year": "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?"
I don't think Bob Dylan has anything to worry about.
It's difficult to say "This is bad music" and "This is good music" in the world of pop, which is all about emotion, attitude, accessibility, and whether your peer group has deemed it acceptable to like. In fact, I wish Sheeran simply made bad music. But he doesn’t. He makes indifferent music. And that's even worse.
For it reveals the cultural rot at play in a world where a guy like Sheeran is exalted beyond his artistic worth, and the cynicism at the core of a cowardly music business that insists making big money justifies signing off on bad art.
It doesn't. And it never has.