42 Questions, or Why Are You Bingeing on Ed Sheeran?

Ed Sheeran onstage at Webster Hall with Rudimental, September 29, 2015EXPAND
Ed Sheeran onstage at Webster Hall with Rudimental, September 29, 2015
Nicole Fara Silver for the Village Voice

Who the fuck is Ed Sheeran, and how the hell did he get this popular?

Why do you know him on sight? How is that even possible, when you'd read nothing about the guy, nor even thought consciously about him, that you can recall, until now?

Are you alone in thinking he looks like what Pixar would come up with, if Pixar were asked to imagine a rock star?

It must be the music, right?

Is this actually his discography — two long-players and like forty EPs? Why are the proper albums given single-letter, possibly pictographic, possibly mathematical designations (x, +), while the EPs bear such comparatively long titles as Songs I Wrote With Amy? (And is something the matter with you if you find that one particularly insufferable, just on its face?)

Should any of this matter? Now that you're giving the albums a whirl, aren't you finding that none of it is what you'd call unpleasant in any way? Isn't it all melodic enough, even if a little, er, anodyne? And hey, this one, "The A Team," haven't you heard this one before? Whoa, and this "Thinking Out Loud," too, right? Is it possible you've been surrounded by this stuff for, like, several years, now, without ever quite realizing it? Why, suddenly, are you seized by the compulsion to shop for bread or hit the button on the elevator or hustle across the empty lobby of the cineplex?

But what's that? You're finding it hard to sit through a whole album of this stuff? (Would this maybe explain all the EPs?) Is it all starting to remind you of a really proficient imitator covering something you must've heard, and possibly ignored, before? Is it that the albums are kinda same-y, throughout? Is it that the odd left turn, like in "The City," is actually worse, what with those "Creep"-lite affectations? Could, in sum, the recorded output alone really be responsible for (gulp) Sheeranmania?

After all, if this were another era, can't you just imagine this sandwiched between Edwin McCain and Tonic on that station your dad always landed on while driving across town, having dialed past nu-metal and rap-rock and then declared, "What's this? This is not unpleasant" and proceeded to hum off-key the rest of the way to the Domino's?

Does the answer maybe have something to do with Sheeran being so ecumenically palatable as to have captured a swath of many disparate demos? For starters, can't you see him appealing to young girls? Can't you see how they'd love feeling exalted, the way Sheeran's narrators exalt their beautiful, tragic lovers? And wouldn't his lyrics likewise appeal to a certain breed of young male, the high school boy emoting vicariously, as he's done since the days of Dashboard, as he's done since time immemorial? How about moms shopping for bread? How about dads humming and not knowing it?

That can't be it, though, can it? Didn't ecumenical palatability once mean only that an (ahem) artist could be counted on reliably as a unit-shifter, as opposed to a full-on megastar? Has the balkanization of tastes simply lowered the tide? Is it maybe this plus the vaunted democratization of our epoch, that the spirit of the times — or whatever you want to call it — has realigned preferences so firmly in favor of the scruffy everyman?

Would this be the explanation behind — as others have pointed out — Sheeran having that "nice guy" image so carefully stewarded? Even at their most contentious, can't you just imagine all of his interview-answers coming appended with a shrug and an I don't know, I'm just your average guy? Are even those answers deliberately calculated to lend him just enough edge to lasso yet some additional demographic or subdemographic, the very same way his most dangerous lyrics only go so far as "chucking the controller at the TV"? Is this sufficient for injecting some bad-boy cred into that bleeding heart on his sleeve? He talks in the same song of "getting drunk a lot," but don't you just envision a besotted Sheeran sobbing some and then penning another tender ballad, possibly with aid of candlelight? We're not being encouraged to imagine him in any kind of "Too Drunk to Fuck"–type scenarios, are we?

Or maybe the better question is: In a vacuum, does this guy have anything to recommend him beyond vocal ability — technical, polished soundness, blandly pretty and asking very little in return, impelling the soul on to no place any farther than the empty cineplex lobby?

This has been an utter and shameless ripoff of Touré's far superior "32 Questions," written for the Voice in 1999, of which the author is a great admirer and to which he intended the present in part as loving homage.


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