It’s been a long journey for me, I’m still reeling from the disappointment of seeing Ed Sheeran on the track-list of the disaffected dark edgelord Abel Teysfare (The Weeknd)’s upcoming album Beauty Behind the Madness . I’m still praying that Kanye doesn’t lose his judgement and employ the Ginger bard’s services for the upcoming Swish. I’ll level with my readers here and admit that I do not enjoy the music of Ed Sheeran, I find it unbearably banal and disingenuous. The fake sincerity echoing the faux-depressing half-sincere wailing of Chris Martin or Sam Smith puts me to sleep and infinitely less offensive to me than any of David Guetta’s formulaic club muzak or anything the Bieb and gus associates put out (must reiterate that Where are Ü Now is a stroke of genius). The only stuff I can really get on board with is a couple of the funkier catchy tunes from the recent album X like Sing (watered-down Justified– era JT) and Don’t.
This is not however an article dedicated to slagging off Ed Sheeran but one designed to be an analysis of his appeal to the masses and resulting success. Un-stylish, non particularly attractive and lacking in charisma, Sheeran is clearly a departure from the popstars of old. His sound shies away from any boldness or experimentation and there’s no real compelling back-story.
There are likely a multitude of causes for Ed Sheeran’s success but the most important, in my view, is the fact that his brand as an artist and public figure of note is based around encapsulating the character of Middle England and being a projection of their innate desires. Some analysts claim that the term ‘Middle England’ is not a particularly useful one, such as Ben Page from IPSOS Mori’s Social Research Institute who dismisses the label as ‘a convenient shorthand for the 25 per cent of the population who are not surgically wedded to one of the main parties – and who happen to live in marginal constituencies.’ There is likely a certain fairness to this observation and it’s unfair to generalize but the Labour voting, cosmopolitan, often better-educated and more socially pluralistic Guardian/Vice/i-D reading 18-30 year-olds of the capital are liable to forget that they are the demographic exception rather than the rule. Middle Englanders are often written off by metropolitan left-leaning liberals as a bunch of closet-racist sexist homophobes (all the wrong types of ists, ics and obes) who’s small mindedness would match us towards a Conservative-UKIP coalition at the next election but there’s more to them than that. Certainly they march in their droves to pick up the Daily Mail from Tesco and Morrisons, they fear waves of invading foreigners coming here to absorb their tax money through the welfare state and ban their bacon, they worry about the state of public finances and are naturally suspicious of the supposed Metropolitan elite. They are however more complex than this simplistic caricature suggests due to being a diverse group in terms of class-origin. Middle England, in my view, seems to be made up of a mixture of those descending from families that were more well-off before the economic paradigm shift that took place in the late 70s and early 80s who retain their conservative hierarchical view of society despite having less considerable means, and descendants of the upwardly-mobile skilled working class who felt their quality of life improve during the Thatcher, Major and Blair premierships who value personal responsibility, hard toil and self-improvement whilst still feeling a sense of inferiority compounded by the aloofness of Cosmopolitan Londoners and remnants of the British class system. This cocktail of demographic shifts originating in the latter part of the 20th century means that those whom we call Middle Englanders are in fact as complex and contradictory as anyone else. This means that they are as prone to Like something such as a photo of Will and Kate with baby George or a meme about benefit money going on Anjem Choudry’s beard-cream rather than our brave troops on Facebook as they are to Share an article about homelessness or Tory excesses in NHS cuts/privatization. They make big financial sacrifices for their children, they don’t want someone who doesn’t want to work to be more comfortable, they feel like the Guardianista outrage over Jeremy Clarkson’s quarterly racist (sexist, classist, homophobic) jokes is an example of the PC establishment trying to diminish the genuine enjoyment that they get from watching Top Gear, they fear radical social change for the sake of themselves and their families and despite maintaining good relations with the patron of their local curry house and cheering on Andy Murray every year, they feel like British culture is under attack from Islam-via-the-EU-open-boarder and Nicola Sturgeon clambering over Hadrian’s Wall with the tartan hordes behind her.
Enter Ed Sheeran, not a typical ME (his parents are Art Curators) but one nonetheless (he’s from a Tory constituency). Going from relative obscurity collaborating with Grime legends such as Wiley and JME (I’m still crying a bit about this) and gigging daily for peanuts in half-neglected pub and bar venues across the country to writing songs for One Direction and Taylor Swift, Sheeran’s rise to the centre of the UK’s pop culture sphere provides with a combination of a safe amount of danger and a comforting amount of familiarity. He had gained attention and sympathy for apparently being homeless (something he has since been forced to deny) for periods while trying to make it as a musician and for speaking out against wealthy fans getting VIP seating at concerts whilst simultaneouly mastering the distinctly British art of banality and mediocrity so applauded by England’s silent everyone-knowing-their-place-majority. The fact that he’s a middle class white guy with a guitar forever plays out in his favour and the patronizing simplicity of early tracks like ‘A-Team’ where he doles our sympathy for homeless people plays well with Middle England’s platitudinous concern for the less fortunate. The obligatory celebrity philanthropy also allows Sheeran’s appeal to overlap with the outside-of-London bourgeois; those who own Small to medium sized businesses, members of Countryside Alliance, ‘Shy Torys’, small time Accountants and Solicitors living in the small town on the outskirts of big cities- they read the Mail but have a basic understanding of wine and went to better universities. His beaded necklaces, casual vagabondism and oblivious disposition remind them of the son they have that plays guitar all day in his room and volunteered building a school in Togo for 2 months. Ed is the nice kid who maybe smokes a little weed and wasn’t headed for a Russell Group Uni but did work hard with his music thing and deserves credit for not getting help from anyone and sticking to his guns. His humble manner also nicely reflects the inoffensiveness that the majority craves making him endlessly endearing.
If there’s one parallel I can draw between the result of May’s General Election result and Ed Sheeran’s success it’s that like politicians and pollsters, marketers and Agency folk alike shouldn’t underestimate the quiet power of Middle England– our silent majority. I for one have learnt that there’s a world outside of the trendy weirdos and armchair socialist gender-theorists that make up my Facebook and Twitter feeds beyond my somewhat conservative grandparents.