The Future of Modern Music?
THE feature title might seem like hyperbole and exaggeration…
but there are many who claim Ed Sheeran is the ‘sound’ of modern, British music. I do not necessarily mean his songs are what will define music in years to come but signify people’s approach to contemporary music. We have all heard about Sheeran’s singles in the top ten – I think he holds nine of those ten places?! In another era, that would seem insane but now streaming and downloading is easier, it is not so far-fetched. Before I come to the more ‘critical’ side of his music, I wanted to lay out a laudatory statement for Sheeran. He is, as proved in interviews, great value for money and one of the most genial musicians around. You cannot fault his personality and humour: always providing an interesting conversation and never boastful or egotistical. He is rumoured to appear in an upcoming episode of Game of Thrones. I do not begrudge artists that star in shows and do more outside of their profession. If he were to become over-exposed – appear all over the shop – you have to wonder, but Sheeran has only appeared in a few T.V. shows so far – plenty of other musicians have made fleeting appearances in Game of Thrones. Aside from all that, he is one of those acts that has not come from talent shows and has made his own fortune. Again, were he to be one of those X Factor rejects – and get famous from no talent or hard work – you would hate him straight away. It has not been an easy start from him so you cannot fault the guy’s rise and work-rate. His album titles are simple and have a mathematical theme. I often wonder whether he and Adele should combine album titles to form an equation or sum: 19 + 21 x 25 ÷?
Adele is another one of those artists I see a lot of good in – her ethos and voice are not to be quibbled at– but sort of falls into the same trap. I shall come to that later. Yeah, Sheeran’s mathematical symbols are a simple and memorable touch but one wonders, if he has more than one more album left in him, he will go from here?! He would either have to abandon the idea or get rather obscure and peculiar in his symbolism (a hashtag or question mark, maybe?) There is a three-year gap between his albums (+ arrived in 2011) which is one of the first gripes. In a modern age where people are fickle and go searching for new sounds – if their favourites are a little underproductive – it is a long time to go between releases. I complained that Royal Blood and London Grammar have been dormant for too long – the latter’s debut album came out in 2013! I appreciate the need to craft sounds and make sure the music is just so, but in the case of Ed Sheeran, it is not exactly a Rachmaninov symphony, is it?! If you are, like Sheeran, someone who has a huge fanbase and that expectation; what is the excuse for leaving such a chasm? I like the fact the charts are accepting streaming and downloads as part of their make-up. It means artists past and ‘older’ can get their songs in the high positions. We get a chance for all sorts of genres to have their say and opens up music much more – gone are the days when obvious Pop acts dominated the charts. I feel Sheeran’s unheard of honorific is not really indicative of the wider music scene, mind.
Given the sheer hype and promotion of ÷, that huge reaction – getting most of the album in the top-ten – was always going to be likely. That is not to say the album is THAT good. I think people get confused when it comes to the charts and how significant they are. Most of us, those who prefer music away from the mainstream, don’t really put much stock in the charts so why, might you say, am I focusing on Sheeran? Well, I worry modern British music is going to dominated by a very particular sound and type of artist. I understand why a certain demographic – normally females; largely in their teens/early-twenties – are drawn to Sheeran. He has that rather safe and commercial sound that is harmless and provides the odd good chorus and hook. It fits nicely into the modern X Factor/The Voice culture when dispensability and easy listening are more favourable than something deeper and more original. Despite my hesitations, reviews for Sheeran’s latest album, and the two that proceeded it have been somewhat solid. It is a typical three/four-star records that find some detractors but mostly positive, in terms of reviews. It has solid and polished production throughout and songs rarely outstay their welcome. Themes rarely stray from love and relations; a few road trips here and there and the odd emotional number – typical fare for the current Pop market. There is a meticulousness and calculation, ironic, given the album title, that perfectly moulds it for his target audience. It is all very pleasant and, for those who buy his records, perfectly pleasing. You can sing the choruses and relate to what is being sung. The music very much reflects Ed Sheeran as a person: all nice and likeable; inoffensive and competent. The trouble is, how long will his music endure? I am concerned music like Sheeran’s is being given so much attention and acclaim, it is taking the spotlight away from something much more troubling: are those musicians, away from the mainstream, going to struggle to find an audience?
I can’t fault Ed Sheeran’s fans and they are entitled to like his music. Music is a subjective forum and is open to everyone: each person will be able to find something they love and feel connected to. Personally, I like Sheeran the Man much more than Sheeran the Musician. To me, his albums – ÷, especially – represent the easiest and least inspired type of music. It is so conforming, safe and vanilla it is never going to appeal to any new fans. I feel every new artist should try to aim for an audience as wide as possible. If you keep making music for a certain type of person, you are likely to have a limited lifespan and struggle to endure through the decades. Sheeran is a proficient performer but writes material you can hear pretty much everywhere else. It is the kind of you hear in the background and does not stick in the mind – all nice and eager but hardly the kind you’d get excited about. When he is in ballad-mode, it is all very over-emotive and forced. Humour and wit seem rather lacklustre; a new and unique take on relationships is hard to find. He is someone who arrived in 2011 and found a particular sound with +. People connected with it but, rather than experiment and push himself as a musician, Sheeran has, essentially, produced two identikit albums. ÷ arrived with so much tease, speculation and build-up, it overshadows the music one finds on it. It has, essentially, become a marketing campaign as opposed an album release. I have heard every song on the album and there are some good numbers – Castle on the Hill and Supermarket Flowers are worth repeated listens. The trouble is three-fold: the first issue is with the number of people who put the album together. It took three years to follow X; so one would hope Sheeran was busy writing and producing something personal and ‘him’.
Every song on the album bar two (Perfect and How Would You Feel (Paen) are co-written. Galway Girl, for some staggering justification, has NINE writers on it! I do not know how it is physically and humanly possible to have THAT many people write one song. It is almost like they were each pitching a couple of lines to earn a bit of cash – giving some young hopeful songwriters a chance to shine. Not only is it a forgettable song that struggles to scan and impress – it is a young man singing a track with so many other people in it; it has no identity or real purpose. There are a fair few producers on the album and it is, rather concerning, the sound of a mass-marketed singer-songwriter being fettled, plumped and directed by a lot of other people. You might say that is just the way things are: most chart acts have loads of writers; even Beyoncé’s Lemonade has the same cavalcade of co-writers, producers and bodies behind it. This is true but Beyoncé has the talent, songs and nuance to justify these statistics and get her music out to a huge audience. Her 2016-defining record is a collection of songs that transcends boundaries and most definitely not calculating and aimed at particular people. I worry there were too many committee meetings and pie-charts – by marketing bods and chin-scratching guys – shining and reworking each song until all emotion and humanity were bleached out of them. Another problem is Sheeran’s patented blokey-cum-everyday lad persona has not really changed since 2011.
He has seen and done a lot in the last six years so one would like to see more of this reflected in his third album. Instead, it is a continuation of his debut with the same sort of songs and sounds. Finally, it is the lack of excitement and energy that gets to me. A few Sheeran songs (Sing, for example) have a bit of kick and funk, but, for the most part, it is all rather plaintive and, well, boring. Returning to my previous point – about co-writers and modern charts – and artists like Laura Marling have shown how one person can create an album all by themselves (in terms of songwriting rather than production) and not keep it exclusively to a narrow demographic. Her latest, Semper Femina, proves how consistent she is; how she evolves with each work and what a future she has. I worry Ed Sheeran is someone who, yes, will fill venues and appeal to those young women – how many men, for example, genuinely connect with his music? It is so primed at that market I struggle to see how he will grow and experiment given the established and inflexible audience he has behind him. Now, he has to (it seems) make music for that demographic and appeal to their tastes. I, for one, would like to hear Sheeran open the taps and employ different genres; chat about something real and gritty – he is a likeable face and passionate artist capable of so much more. Is the money, sold-out venues and salivating fans really an indication of a special talent who can change the face of music? To me, no, but maybe, that is not the point. I am concerned Sheeran is just a product of the modern chart age: pleasant and marketable tunes that can be understood and replicated by everyone.
With so much competition and choice in music; so many genuinely bold and bright artists are struggling to get their dues. The fact Ed Sheeran has/had nine songs in the top ten does not mean he is so much better than his peers. In that sense, the way sales and chart positions are defined is a product of faulty syllogism and hokum algorithms. I guess the argument falls into two camps: those who like mainstream Pop and love everything Sheeran and his peers do and those who prefer the underground/less-commercial acts. I am always going to be in the latter camp and do not have a problem with anyone who likes Sheeran’s music. As I said, I like him as a person and would not have such a problem were his music so over-promoted and augmented – the preference for something anodyne and slight over other forms of music. The biggest concern is the way new artists coming through will react to Sheeran. They will see the commercial benefits and gig potentials: if we make music like that, we’ll sell-out venues and get loads of cash; make easy music and turn an easy profit. How many new artists will be compelled by Sheeran and do exactly like he does? Will we get to a stage where the charts are filled with sound-alike clones all carrying an acoustic guitar – singing those risible, gnawing songs that, when put together, are indistinguishable to the naked eye? For music to evolve, inspire and endure, we need to encourage those acts who are innovative, fantastic and care not for mainstream success and profitability. I have a real fear they are going to die out and struggle to reproduce. Yes, they will always be more credible and quality-focused but need the attention and patronage of the media too. I know Ed Sheeran is one artist in a huge musical ocean but hope his latest album does not lead to a raft of wannabes. I hope his fourth record (I can guess the symbol that will appear on the cover!) pushes boundaries and gets out of that marketable/easy sound – shows he has more in his locker than we find on ÷. He has the potential to help make positive changes in music and use his fame and support to inspire new musicians to take risks. There is such a risklessness and sense of safety with Sheeran and that is troubling. I’ll leave it there but know there are plenty of people out there, whose musical opinions I value, who have plenty of affection for Ed Sheeran. He is making a lot of people happy and creating a lot of praise. Whether you see him as a genuine star who will make positive changes or, like me, more a marketing product (than a musician), it will create a lot of debate. ÷ proves he is here to stay no matter…
WHAT you make of him.