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How Ed Sheeran perfected the art of being a mainstream misfit

The British singer-songwriter is an affable, seemingly innocuous pop star. So why is he so polarizing?

Ed Sheeran performs in Amsterdam on April 3, 2017
Paul Bergen/AFP/Getty Images

People are seeing Ed Sheeran everywhere these days — even in the most unexpected places.

A photo of 2-year-old Isla Walton recently went viral, after the internet noticed her reddish-orange hair and mischievous but wary expression strongly resembled the mega-popular singer-songwriter.

It's understandable that everyone seems to have Sheeran on the brain these days: The 26-year-old has officially reached global pop culture ubiquity. In its first week of release, his third album, Divide (rendered as the mathematical symbol ÷), set a new record for Spotify streams in one week: 375 million around the world.

Sheeran’s overall chart saturation is mind-boggling. In the US, the single "Shape of You" spent 12 weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100; in the UK, all 16 tracks from the deluxe edition of Divide charted in the top 20. Unsurprisingly, Sheeran's upcoming US concert tour sold out instantly, and he's headlining the massive UK festival Glastonbury in June.

In other words, 2017 is shaping up to be Sheeran's year. And he knows it.

“I have a data sheet emailed to me every week," he told British GQ back in February. "What’s the problem with doing it? It’s so fun. You’re not going to have success by working just for the love of it. Looking at a sales sheet, you can see where you need to do that work. My benchmark for the second album was Coldplay. This album it’s Springsteen. I’m obsessed with how his career spans constantly doing stadiums and putting out work that is centre but left of centre."

As evidenced by that last benchmark, Sheeran is a meticulous student of the greats — Eric Clapton is an idol and now peer — and this sort of tedious statistical analysis is all part of his blueprint for music superstardom.

But such unabashed ambition is also one facet of the Ed Sheeran backlash, which reached epic proportions in the months leading up to and upon Divide's release.

Pitchfork skillfully eviscerated the record in its 2.8 review, saying Sheeran sells "trite innocence by the pound" and at one point during Divide "switches to a mode of bland wisdom that allows him to ponder the good and bad in people around him rather than look inwards."

Post-Glastonbury announcement, one Twitter user wrote, "Ed Sheeran is the Glastonbury headliner Brexit Britain deserves." And barely concealed schadenfreude abounded when Sheeran added the songwriters of TLC's "No Scrubs" to the credits of "Shape of You" after people noticed similarities between the two songs.

While Sheeran die-hards (lovingly called the Sheerios, a term of which he approves) remain loyal defenders and supporters, his growing legion of vocal detractors raises the question: How did a seemingly innocuous artist — an affable, slightly nerdy, acoustic guitar–toting Brit — become so polarizing?

Sheeran’s genre blending makes him a perfect fit for the modern pop scene

Sheeran's current global domination is the result of a (relatively) slow and steady ascent. Born in Suffolk, England, Sheeran was exposed to his parents' classic rock records and then had his life changed via a 2002 concert by the folk-leaning Irish songwriter Damien Rice.

"After seeing him play this small club in Ireland, I was able to meet him, and he was unbelievably cool," Sheeran told Rolling Stone in 2015. "I went straight home and started writing songs. I would not be doing what I'm doing now if he'd been a jerk." (This fandom runs so deep that he even has a tattoo of Rice's autograph on his arm.)

However, Sheeran's music is hyper-modern, embodying the way boundaries between genres continue to collapse, especially in the pop realm.

A love of hip-hop is baked into both Sheeran’s songwriting and vocal delivery, and he embraces a number of other styles, such as R&B ("Dive") or anthemic electric rock ("Castle on the Hill"), if it fits the song. And his casual pop culture references (e.g., watching Shrek 12 times in "Wake Me Up") are both clever and contemporary.

Sheeran developed this genre blindness after moving in his late teens to London, where he busked and picked up acoustic gigs wherever he could. But it was his skill as a rapper that helped him find kindred spirits in the UK hip-hop and grime scene.

Sheeran and grime artist Stormzy performed together at the Brit Awards in 2017.
Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

“Even with his rapping, he can execute it well,” grime artist Stormzy told GQ. “He’s cold with it. When Ed raps, it’s Ed. It’s not some carbon copy. It’s his truth."

Before signing a record deal, Sheeran released a slew of EPs, including 2011's No. 5 Collaborations Project, featuring UK grime stalwarts such as Wiley and Devlin.

His initial major-label releases were an extension of his independent days: 2012's The Slumdon Bridge EP was a collaboration with rapper Yelawolf, while his debut full-length LP, 2011’s Plus, boasted the stripped-down breakout singles "The A Team" and "Lego House."

That sparse style is Sheeran's sweet spot: He excels at writing acoustic-based story songs in the vein of his hero Rice, modern indie-folk artists (Ray LaMontagne, Foy Vance), and lyrical greats (Bob Dylan, Van Morrison). Sheeran's music is likable because it's classic-sounding, familiar, and welcoming.

Unsurprisingly, the songwriter, who was already popular in the UK, immediately resonated in America when he landed a 2012 tour opening for Snow Patrol. "In Orlando, there were, like, 200 people in the front row to see Ed," the band's guitarist, Johnny McDaid, told Rolling Stone. "By the middle of the tour, there were about 2,000. You could see it happening in front of you."

In the past half-decade, Sheeran has also helped shape the Top 40 from the inside out by writing hits for other artists. He penned a handful of songs for One Direction, co-wrote and appeared on the Weeknd's "Dark Times," and, oh, yeah, conceived of Justin Bieber's smash "Love Yourself."

Sheeran has cultivated a persona based in self-deprecation, humor, and unconventional pop stardom

Sheeran's career shifted into even higher gear after he landed in Taylor Swift's orbit. The pair became musical conspirators, co-writing the hit "Everything Has Changed" and touring together. They also became real-life (platonic) pals and were frequently pictured mugging for the cameras at awards shows, praising each other in interviews, or talking about how both were unpopular growing up.

Sheeran and Swift at the 2016 Grammys.
Kevin Mazur/WireImage

Swift's stamp of approval did wonders to accelerate Sheeran's standing in the US, especially once her formidable fan base embraced him and his music.

Yet even removed from Swift’s orbit, Sheeran's charisma is undeniable: He seems like someone you want to have a drink (or three) with in the pub, but also someone you'd feel comfortable introducing to your parents. After all, he lovingly mentions his family as an inspiration on Divide, and frequently does high-profile charity gigs benefiting a variety of causes.

In other words, he's a variation on the nonthreatening male pop star, giving off the vibe that he's your childhood best friend who just so happened to grow up and be famous. Only instead of having chiseled boy-band looks, he looks more like a rumpled kid brother, or the living embodiment of a Harry Potter character.

"Everybody loves him, no one's scared of him, they want to date him," Katy Perry said during a BBC Radio 1 interview earlier this year (a chat Sheeran crashed). "They can have him." By that she meant Sheeran was approachable, something underscored by their camaraderie: MTV reports that during this interview, Sheeran sniffed Perry's armpits "to get over losing at the Grammys," among other things.

The laid-back, uproarious interview underscores that Sheeran has a sense of humor about himself, which makes him feel nonthreatening. Even when he's joking around with a fellow global pop star, Sheeran feels down-to-earth.

This self-deprecation also makes him bulletproof to mockery, since he'll poke fun at himself before others can.

Sheeran's ginger doppelganger, Harry Potter actor Rupert Grint, recently starred in a recent viral MTV After Hours skit in which the actor cheekily pretended that he had been imitating Sheeran all these years, and claimed the songwriter didn't actually exist. (The skit was even more meta because Grint actually played Sheeran in the video for the hit "Lego House" as well.) Ever the good sport, Sheeran tweeted the After Hours video with an affectionate greeting for Grint.

Yet somewhat paradoxically, Sheeran's self-deprecation also feels like a way to hide anxiety about how he comes across — a defense mechanism to mask insecurity.

He often frets in interviews about how he's perceived — according to the Guardian, Sheeran asked several times during an recent interview, "Do I sound like a cunt?" — and admitted to Rolling Stone he was bothered by the internet peanut gallery a few years ago.

"Everyone online was saying, 'Ed's going bald,'" Sheeran said. "And I'm not. But I convinced myself that I was. Ginger hair is just very fair — my hair is completely fine." He added he "was also quite big at the time, so I kind of got a complex about two things I would have never given a fuck about."

Of course, keeping self-deprecation on the surface also protects Sheeran when potentially unflattering stories come to light.

For example, he recently admitted to getting "hammered" at a bar with Justin Bieber. After the pair somehow then ended up at a golf course together, Sheeran tried (and failed) to tee off on a golf ball Bieber had in his mouth, and smacked the pop star's cheek instead.

And then there was the time Sheeran had his cheek sliced by a sword while at a debauched party where British Princess Beatrice and James Blunt were also in attendance. He always seems to get himself into bizarre situations that most polished pop stars don't.

Such absurdity makes Sheeran often feel like a walking meme, a go-to source for viral content. The internet has certainly taken notice:

On the flip side, the tone of these stories also hints at a slightly darker side to Sheeran, one whose unpolished edge is the mark of a passive-aggressive lout rather than a charming rogue.

Sheeran's songs have been criticized for their retrograde attitudes toward women

As is often the case with pop stars, hatred for Sheeran has increased in proportion with his success. In recent months, low-level dislike or indifference toward him has seemed to boil over into festering disdain.

That's clear in many of Divide's reviews, which highlight the cloying and shallow elements of Sheeran's music.

According to Entertainment Weekly, "What Do I Know" "exploits his humility to avoid the risk of making even the mildest political statement." Consequence of Sound points out the "downright creepy" lyric “My bed sheets smell like you."

The Spin review gets to the heart of the Sheeran backlash, however: "For all his nice guy bona fides, perhaps that means Sheeran isn’t too different from Drake, another nonthreatening Ned with uninteresting ideas about how women are supposed to act." Pitchfork’s review echoes this sentiment when referring to "Castle on the Hill," observing how Sheeran "uses humblebraggadocio and innocence to shore up his moral high ground over shallow girls and unfair beauty standards."

The dents in the armor of Sheeran’s nice-guy shtick are well-documented, but tolerance for his passive-aggressive, sensitive-dude veneer is seemingly at an all-time low.

"We’ve all met an Ed Sheeran type," Chloe Stillwell wrote in a Playboy article about his "toxic masculinity" problem. "He’s the kid in middle school who you knew would snap if the teacher chastised him in class. He’s the guy at the office who sends emails that start, 'To clarify…' He’s the guy who sells you pot and then asks to smoke it with you."

Sheeran and Justin Bieber at the 2015 EMAs.
Dave Hogan/Getty Images for MTV

Sheeran’s tendency to be overly candid in interviews hasn't helped his cause.

"I try to be as honest as possible," he told the Guardian, "because I think the moment you’re media-trained and hold back things, you become one of them, but it’s getting harder because … every time I give an interview, there’s three news stories about what I’ve said in it the next day."

His obsession with selling records can come across as bragging. "I love my album," he told GQ. "It’s the best album I could have made — it’s the best creative thing — so why not want to win? Why not want to sell 20 million [copies]?”

A recent Rolling Stone cover interview also had some eyebrow-raising moments. He admitted he slept with a member of Swift’s squad, and reveals that he "tested" his girlfriend, Cherry, on their second date by letting her hang out by herself for a few hours.

"One of the main points of being in a relationship with me," he told the magazine, "[is] you have to be really fucking sociable and good at talking to people, because I will be dragged away loads at parties and events.”

As illustrated in these interviews, Sheeran can come off as callous, insecure, and insensitive — exactly the type of guy that women are taught to stay away from, and the polar opposite of the approachable, affable persona he exudes at other times.

His songs don't necessarily portray women in the best light either. "The Man," for example, features a protagonist whose anger boils over at an ex who's started dating someone else: "I'll make your little secret public it's nothing / I'm just disgusted with the skeletons you sleep with in your closet to get back at me."

And that heartfelt Bieber hit "Love Yourself"? Sheeran revealed recently that the original lyrics of the song were actually the harsher, "Baby, you should go and fuck yourself."

Like Sheeran, Bieber has received his fair share of criticism for song lyrics. The latter's "What Do You Mean," for example, caused controversy because it seemed to promote rape culture.

In 2017, being a male pop star who purports to be sensitive — or who wields sensitivity as a selling point — means having to defend lyrics that don't necessarily fit a good-guy image. Sentiments perceived as sexist and misogynist will be called out, and don't fly like they might have in the days before social media.

Bieber attempted to explain himself in an interview with Ryan Seacrest: "Well, like, girls are often like, they’re just flip-floppy … they say something and then they mean something else, you know? So it’s like, I want to, like: 'What do you mean?'"

Still, the entire thing was a bit of a charade. Bieber knows that no amount of media criticism would dampen his fans' support — just as Sheeran knows he'll continue to sell records and concert tickets, and enjoy devoted fan support, no matter how much his lyrics are criticized.

Sheeran is a commercial juggernaut that shows no signs of slowing down

Sheeran’s “Shape of You,” featuring the lyric “and now my bedsheets smell like you,” spent 12 weeks at the top of the Billboard charts.
Stefania D'Alessandro/Getty Images

Unfortunately for his haters, Sheeran probably isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

The third single from Divide is the Celtic-inspired "Galway Girl," a collaboration with the Irish band Beoga. The song, a love story about an Englishman meeting a fun-loving Irish musician in a bar, has already hit No. 1 in Scotland and Ireland and No. 2 in the UK, Denmark, and Australia. (Since actress Saoirse Ronan stars in the upcoming video for the song, expect it to have some staying power.)

Sheeran also has plans to expand his pop culture reach beyond his own musical career.

There's talk of him overseeing the formation of a boy band, while a cameo on Game of Thrones season seven is also in the works. He also has own label imprint, Gingerbread Man Records, which released Foy Vance's last record.

Sheeran's plan to diversify not only takes a page out of pal Taylor Swift's empire-building playbook — it's also a very 2017 move. Being a superstar musician, and a major architect of today's Top 40 and the overall pop music landscape, isn't enough. Multifaceted, multidisciplinary cultural domination is the goal.

This bold ambition could seem at odds with Sheeran's roots as a low-key busker, but it exemplifies the bundle of contradictions that are central to his success. He's humble but boastful, sensitive but callous, self-conscious but overly self-confident.

There's a Sheeran for everyone, in a sense. And he shows so many different sides of himself that it's easy to excuse the unsavory parts. There's always a positive analog to whatever behavior is causing disdain.

Being all things to all people — while still holding on to enough quirky signifiers to seem like an outsider — is a good summary of where pop music is in 2017. And Sheeran especially has perfected the art of being a mainstream misfit, meaning escaping his ginger-powered influence seems out of the question for now.

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