In recent years, pop music’s landscape has been transforming more rapidly than ever. But even as genre boundaries collapse and notions of good taste invert and guitars become inherently retro, one archetype that refuses to die is the sensitive guy with an acoustic guitar. Note that American Idol‘s prospective pop messiahs are now just as likely to come strumming a Martin as strutting like a diva. Note that Idol‘s only true breakout star in recent years was Phillip Phillips, a rugged Southern singer-songwriter equal parts Marcus Mumford and Dave Matthews. Note that Justin Timberlake, our foremost song-and-dance man, can be spotted strapping on acoustic guitars on stage and screen these days. And what of the vast galaxy of balladeers working their way up the ladder from New York to Nashville to L.A.? There will always, always, always be a market for sensitive acoustic guitar music performed by breathlessly earnest young lads, and Ed Sheeran has that market cornered right now.
Sheeran is a doughy redheaded boy next door who grew up in the humble market town of Framlingham before moving to London as a teenager to pursue stardom as a singer-songwriter. He was well on his way by 2011, when Asylum and Atlantic released his debut album + after a series of self-released EPs won him favor with the likes of Elton John and Jamie Foxx. In 2012, Sheeran raked in $8 million from 31 headline shows and sold out Radio City Music Hall, a success by any measure. But things really kicked into hyperdrive when Taylor Swift got a hold of him. Sheeran co-wrote and guested on “Everything Has Changed” from Swift’s record-shattering 2012 album Red, and in 2013 he spent months opening for Swift on tour. By the time “Everything Has Changed” made it to radio last July — the whopping sixth single from Red — Sheeran had already scored his own slow-burning international hit with “The A Team,” a heartfelt ballad about a crack-addicted prostitute couched in saccharine metaphors related to crumbling pastries and angels grounded by inclement weather.
He is that sort of lyricist, a dopey oversharer whose idea of a love song sometimes involves Shrek play counts and anecdotes about throwing Nintendo controllers at the wall after losing to his love interest’s brother. Sheeran beatboxes too, and he looks like your little brother’s best friend from middle school all grown up and ready to cuddle. The public’s appetite for that shit is insatiable, so he became the kind of inescapable figure who gets nominated for Best New Artist a year after already being nominated for other Grammys. How could he not, being such a potent hybrid of milquetoast balladeer Howie Day, scatting plasticine frat bro Jason Mraz, and bleeding-heart Irish troubadour Damien Rice (a personal favorite of Sheeran’s name-checked in “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You”)? Thanks to a combination of talent, timing, and Taylor, Sheeran has become the world’s foremost sensitive guy with an acoustic guitar. And because he uses the Day-style looping pedals that are now standard issue among BW3 open-mic-night aspirants worldwide, Sheeran’s live show is utterly utilitarian; as Billboard reported in last week’s Sheeran cover story, he travels with five trucks of equipment whereas the average arena act needs 10. The guy sold out three nights straight at Madison Square Garden as a one-man show. You are now watching the throne, schmucks.
So why in the world did Sheeran just release a single that sounds like something Timberlake left on the discard pile a dozen years ago? I mean that in the most literal sense; “Sing,” produced by Pharrell because of course it was produced by Pharrell, could believably pass as a rough draft of the beat that eventually became JT’s debut solo single “Like I Love You” in 2002. It’s built on a familiar acoustic strum, but otherwise it’s all hiccuping rhythms and falsetto trills and trunk-rattling bass. You could just as easily imagine Pitbull fist-pumping over that wordless chorus. Which is to say it’s not only an odd fit for Sheeran — I can only imagine how awkward the notorious schlub will look sashaying through this thing on SNL this weekend — it also sounds hopelessly outdated even at a time when Pharrell rules the radio. For Timberlake, “Sing” would be a disappointing retread, but at least it suits his skill set. For Sheeran, it’s a puzzling choice of direction that suggests Sheeran’s upcoming sophomore set x might be a jumbled mess of crossover attempts.
That’s not to say there’s no connection to his previous material. Numerous times throughout + he indulged in Mraz-style rap-singing, and songs such as “Grade 8″ and “The City” were propelled by dance-pop rhythms. So maybe there was always a latent blue-eyed soul man under Sheeran’s everyman facade. More likely he’s forcing the transition after spending so much time with Swift, who already pulled off a similar metamorphosis, as well as UK pop stars like Harry Styles and Ellie Goulding — a short-lived flame who allegedly inspired x‘s “nasty” R&B track called “Don’t.” In that Billboard story Sheeran mentions he’s been caving to his manager’s requests for a more dapper wardrobe and that he intends to move on from his sparse stage show once he headlines a stadium with the loop pedal. Maybe he feels like he has to be everything to everyone at a time when industry bigwigs are actively seeking songs that will sell across markets and the most bankable performers — Swift, Miley Cyrus, Shakira — are dabbling in a little bit of everything.
Or maybe he’s just tired of being predictable. The singer-songwriter format Sheeran has mastered is as popular and profitable as McDonald’s (and just as likely to add a layer of fat around your heart), and its adherents demand the same reliable high-fructose flavor. Sheeran does this exceptionally well — the gentle yet powerful voice, the personal yet universal lyrics, the intuitive ability to whip up an emotional tidal wave — and he could keep doing it forever if he wanted. There are musicians whose livelihood depends on pushing limits and repeatedly reinventing themselves, but Sheeran seems more like the type who builds his empires on fulfilled expectations. For some reason he’s opting to be interesting instead, albeit in the most boring way possible. “Sing” is far more entertaining as a career move than it is as a pop song. Maybe he pulls it off, invents a new archetype for pop stardom, and proves himself more of a visionary than any of us realized. Maybe he faceplants. Either way, as spectators, we’re better off watching Sheeran paddle into waters where he very well might sink than dozing off while he churns out another volume of his own personal Grey’s Anatomy soundtrack.
The Frozen soundtrack is #1 on the Billboard 200 for a ninth nonconsecutive week, putting it just one week shy of The Lion King‘s record among animated movie soundtracks. But Anna, Elsa, and the gang are old news by now, so the fun part lately has been finding out who debuted at #2. This week that’s 5 Seconds Of Summer, an Australian boy band disguised as pop-punks. The group’s EP She Looks So Perfect sold 143,000 copies last week, and as Billboard notes, 75 percent of those sales were digital downloads. That’s less than the 150,000-200,000 they were hoping for but far better than the other top 10 debuts: rockers Chevelle’s La Gargola (#3, 45,000), pop singer Christina Perri’s Head Or Heart (#4, 40,000), country duo Dan + Shay’s Where It All Began (#6, 29,000), and Chris Thile’s reunited bluegrass-pop group Nickel Creek’s A Dotted Line (#7, 27,000).
With Pharrell’s “Happy” still at #1 for a seventh straight week — I heard it on my local Top 40 and rap/R&B stations simultaneously this week — a similar “Who’s #2?” game is developing on the Hot 100 singles chart. For the third straight week that’s John Legend’s “All Of Me,” Legend’s highest-charting single ever. The rest of the top 10 is ridiculously static, with Katy Perry, Jason DeRulo, Idina Menzel, Bastille, and Lorde locked in at numbers 3-7. As ever, I’m hoping for an influx of fresh summer jams soon. At least Paramore’s delightful “Ain’t It Fun” is up from #41 to #34, as Billboard points out.
James Fauntleroy – “Peace”
How Frank Oceanic does Fauntleroy sound here? The guy has lent his songwriting and singing to quality work by Drake, Justin Timberlake, and Ocean himself, so I’m stoked if he’s moving towards releasing some music of his own.
Katy Perry – “Birthday”
Oh, just Katy bakin’ some cakes.
X priest X – “Sophie K”
As Idolator points out, the fact that Madeline Priest and Dave Kazyk hail from Florida and not Scandinavia is bonkers. “Sophie K” is a beautiful bit of post-Chvrches post-Robyn post-Bonnie Tyler post-everything synth-pop.
Elle Varner – “Little Did You Know”
“Little Did You Know” is a great title for Varner, who’s been accumulating a stellar catalog without the hype storm her more experimental contemporaries benefit from. Varner doesn’t push the envelope here, but the combination of that woozy funk bass, those gleaming guitar strums, and classy orchestral flourishes are the only background she needs to deliver a showstopper.
Ellie Goulding – “Holding Onto Heaven”
Goulding has proven she can sound great delivering cyborg serenades over state-of-the-art digital production, but on this Kodaline cover she verifies her humanity.
Pitbull & Jennifer Lopez – “We Are One (Ole Ola)”
What is it about Latin pop stars that gets the World Cup committee all caliente y mojada? As official World Cup theme songs go, this is no match for “The Cup Of Life.” Shit, it’s not even as good as “Waka Waka (This Time For Africa).” If this is the sound the whole world can rally behind, maybe we’d be better off retreating to our separate corners and dying in isolation.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Get ready, world: Taylor Swift is officially on Tumblr. [Tumblr]
- Lady Gaga hopes to release a sequel to ARTPOP “soon.” [NME]
- Pharrell celebrated his forty-first birthday with a Spongebob-themed party. [Rap-Up]
- Spike Lee is directing a “short film” for “Headlights,” Eminem’s song with Nate Ruess from Fun. [Instagram]
- Fox is adapting 50 Cent’s young adult novel into a TV series. [Idolator]
- A$AP Rocky is allegedly engaged to Victoria’s Secret model Chanel Iman. [WENN]
- Somebody stole a bra belonging to Madonna worth $2,545. [Pret-a-Reporter]
- Behold the will.i.am smartwatch. [Vibe]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
Just woke up with 7 mosquito bites :(
— KATY B (@KatyB) April 8, 2014
One bite is in the middle of my forehead!
— KATY B (@KatyB) April 8, 2014
One is on my boob!
— KATY B (@KatyB) April 8, 2014
2 on my bum :(
— KATY B (@KatyB) April 8, 2014
[Ed Sheeran photo by CBS.]