When calling someone a celebrity these days, it’s not enough to say you’ve heard one of their songs or seen one of their movies. You must be shook by Oscar Isaac’s most recent photo shoot, in which he wore cords and a shirt. You have to know what Dakota Johnson’s kitchen looks like, and you have to like it. You need to know a lot about Phoebe Bridgers, just in general.
The converse of all this, of course, is that there is a group of celebrities whose names are marked, from whom you should take your moral distance. Ellen DeGeneres. James Corden. Morrissey. Meghan Trainer? Chris Pratt. jessie j.
I can kind of see how all those people put themselves in this situation. Some have come out in support of far-right nationalism. Some are world famous nightmares for their staff and everyone around them. Some entered and won a talent show in China when they were already famous in their home country, which was weird.
I am not interested in commenting on the merits of such an unspoken list. There are probably better things to do with your life, but also probably worse ways to measure banal cruelty than mocking some of the richest and most relaxed people out there. However, I am interested in a man who I think is on that list for no reason. That man is Ed Sheeran.
Ed Sheeran is the UK’s most successful recording artist after Adele. He has a beautiful wife whom he first met at school. He lives on a large estate in the English countryside with a personal pub and also a man cave. For over a decade, his adult-contemporary guitar music has made him a ticket sold out around the world, and he has collaborated with stars as bonafide as Beyoncé, Cardi B and Eminem.
All this means that Ed Sheeran does not need this contribution from me. I expect neither of us will benefit from the fact that I wrote it. But I’m writing it anyway, because Ed Sheeran seems fine to me.
I started thinking about this recently when a new song of his called “Overpass Graffiti” played on my radio (retro!). It’s a toe tapper. Its propulsive and self-assured anthemic energy makes it sound a bit like Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer”, which is more than you can say about most of the songs on the radio these days. Listening to it, I think if it had been recorded by Carly Rae Jepsen, mid-level gay men in knitwear would post on Twitter until 2035 that they “got the job.” But no one else around me said anything like this.
In fact, that same week, people were interested in Ed Sheeran for something completely different. For some reason, Ed Sheeran became the subject of a day-long internet discussion and several headlines, as he told a podcast that:
I have a distinctly feminine side to the point where when I was a kid I thought I was gay for a while. I definitely had a big feminine side. I like musical theatre, I like pop music, I like Britney Spears. My masculine side probably ends with drinking beer and watching football. I’m not a hugely masculine person anyway. I’m not a car guy. I like a nice car, but I’m not a car enthusiast.
This seems like a normal thing to say, bordering on interesting. Of course, all gay men have a moment when we wonder if we are gay. Sure, most straight men check this with themselves too, and it seems to matter how this happens. Whether homosexuality hangs over their heads like a ghost all their lives, animating all their impulses for fear of sudden rediscovery, or whether it’s something they think about for five minutes before stopping, it seems like it has important ramifications for the psyche.
By the way, Ed Sheeran is British, so at least he earns some credit for not thoughtfully ending the train of thought with, “Nowadays they would probably give me hormones.”
But people were mad about it on the internet, in that useless way that disappeared after a day. Angry about perpetuating stereotypes, Ed Sheeran downplayed their battle for headlines and other petty accusations about imaginary situations where no one is actually harmed. People have been mad about Ed Sheeran for a long time.
In 2015, someone was mad at Ed Sheeran in Pitchfork for being a “nice guy.” The piece ended for some reason “Being called out on their right is something a lot of guys don’t want to hear, but someone has to tell them. It’s the fun thing to do.” An article posted to Playboy two years later lamented Ed Sheeran’s “toxic masculinity problem.” It’s since been removed, but a snippet of it online somehow also focuses on “Bernie Bros.” People always seem to reach for a reason to make Ed Sheeran one of the bad celebrities.
People hate Ed Sheeran’s music too. His albums are poorly rated in the usual places, and critics say things in those reviews that one might think juicy, or delicious. Recalling a release day when he was selling retail copies of his album, he seemed “indistinguishable from the full-time staff” (God forbid!). Even “at its most impassioned, Sheeran sounds as menacing as a meringue spike.” (What?).
It’s okay not to like Ed Sheeran’s music. I usually don’t do more than a few of the happier tunes. I’ve never listened to one of his albums in full. But we live in a critical culture where we are constantly urged to recognize why that is so important for middle-class actors to wear dresses in magazines that no one buys, where every photo of four different B-celebrities leads people to “tag themselves”, and where I have to constantly process and use information about the private life of someone named , either by birth or by choice, “Machine Gun Kelly.” In the face of all this, Sheeran’s widespread disdain is beginning to feel like an anomaly. It’s an act of anger against a mainstream that basically everyone has already agreed to.
If I were to say I liked one thing about Ed Sheeran, it would be that his better songs evoke the wacky nostalgia of getting a driver’s license, or of being drunk as an adult with people you loved as a teenager, the same way that Taylor Swift can evoke the feeling of walking around in a pleasant scarf, or cause a little drama in the workplace for no good reason. But this isn’t really the point, because I’m not arguing that Ed Sheeran is good, or that he needs to be rehabilitated in the critical consensus.
All I’m saying is this: Ed Sheeran has been one of the world’s most famous people for over a decade and has never done anything so horribly bad that his Wikipedia has a section confirming it. He was one of the few A-listers not to appear in cats (2019), meaning he either rejected it or was deemed unfit for it, with one of these facts counting in his favor. I like about five of his songs. We’re wrong about Ed Sheeran. He doesn’t deserve to be one of those celebrities that everyone hates. He seems fine to me.
Sean O’Neill is an Irish writer based in London.