If it’s true that each era gets the pop music it deserves – rock for the cultural revolutions of the Sixties, punk for the strike-riven Seventies, blinged-up hip-hop in the booming Nineties – what are we to make of the screamingly bland stars who dominate the pop landscape today? Taylor Swift, Meghan Trainor, George Ezra, Olly Murs – and, rising over them all, Ed Sheeran, the most commercially successful UK artist of 2014.
Sheeran’s X was the best-selling album in Britain last year. It also reached number one in America and was 2014’s most-streamed album, with more than 430 million listens on Spotify.
Despite such singular achievement, Sheeran’s defining characteristic is his ordinariness: the I-woke-up-like-this hair; the acoustic guitar slung over shoulder in the manner of journeymen musicians across the world; the Home Counties school of rapping last heard on records by artists like Kate Nash.
Sheeran’s concerns are as small bore as his style is mundane. He writes songs about love (“Give me Love”), getting drunk (“Drunk”) and falling out of love (“You Need Me and I Don’t Need You”). He’s sensible with his earnings. As he says, “Kanye West has that line, ‘White people make money and don’t spend it’ and that’s pretty much me”. And he’s already making sensible plans for the future – he’s bought a farm in Sussex, near to his parents, as the site of a future family home.
At 23, his studiedly limited ambitions are a mirror for the constrained opportunities of Generation Y kids faced with scarily high college bills, a scarcity of jobs and stratospheric house prices. More than this though, Sheeran’s success is indicative of a whole national mood. At a time of confusion and uncertainty Britain seems to be turning in on itself. We’re reacting to the stuff we can’t understand or affect – a fragile economy, rising income inequality, the threat of terrorism, cyber attacks that humiliate massive corporations, the mass movements of people and capital around the world that are the result of globalisation – by retreating into a parochial, make-believe version of Albion. A nation where UKIP is getting votes and immigration is polling as the public’s number one anxiety. A nation whose greatest pleasures are the Great British Bake Off and Downton Abbey, dressing up in vintage fashion and cooing over pictures of Prince George.
In previous decades, pop stars saw it as their role to give voice to the issues of the moment. Think of the the likes of Pulp in the Nineties or Eighties acts such as Scritti Politti and Gang of Four who mixed politics and even post-structuralist philosophy with striking songcraft. At its most thrilling, pop music isn’t an escape from the times, it’s a way to make sense of them and to find, in fellow listeners, a common spirit of resistance to the oppression of the everyday. Viewed this way though, perhaps it’s not Sheeran that’s the problem. Maybe it’s us. Maybe that when it comes to music as much as so much else at the moment, we’re just too prepared to settle for the ordinary.