These days, when someone mentions a celebrity, it’s not enough to say that you’ve heard one of their songs, or seen one of their films. You have to be shook by Oscar Isaac’s most recent photoshoot, in which he was wearing cords and a shirt. You have to know what Dakota Johnson’s kitchen looks like, and you have to think it’s nice. You have to know a lot about Phoebe Bridgers, just generally.
Of course, the inverse of all this is that there is a group of celebrities whose names are marked, from whom you must perform your moral distance. Ellen DeGeneres. James Corden. Morrissey. Meghan Trainor? Chris Pratt. Jessie J.
I can kind of see how all of those people got themselves in this situation. Some have come out in support of far-right nationalism. Some are world-famous nightmares to their staff and all those around them. Some entered and won a talent show in China when they were already famous in their home country, which was weird.
I’m 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 mete out banal cruelty than to be snarky about some of the richest and most leisurely people alive. I am, however, interested in one guy who I think is on that list without reason. That guy is Ed Sheeran.
Ed Sheeran is, save Adele, the UK’s most successful artist. He has a beautiful wife, whom he first met at school. He lives on a large estate in the English countryside which boasts a personal pub, and also a “mancave.” For over a decade his adult-contemporary guitar music has made him a sell-out ticket all around the world, and he has collaborated with stars as bonafide as Beyoncé, Cardi B, and Eminem.
All of this is to say that Ed Sheeran does not need this contribution from me. I expect that neither of us will benefit from my having written it. But I’m writing it nonetheless, 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 is a toe tapper. Its propulsive and self-consciously anthemic energy makes it sound kind of like “Boys of Summer” by Don Henley, which is more than you can say for most songs on the radio nowadays. When listening to it, I find myself thinking that, had it been recorded by Carly Rae Jepsen, middle-manager gay guys in knitwear would post on Twitter that she “understood the assignment” until 2035. But no one else around me was saying anything like this.
In fact, that same week, people were interested in Ed Sheeran for something else entirely. For some reason, Ed Sheeran became the subject of a day-long internet discussion, and various headlines, for telling a podcast that:
I have a definite feminine side to the point where, when I was a kid, I thought I was gay for a bit. I definitely had a big feminine side. I love musical theatre, I love pop music, I love Britney Spears. My masculine side probably stops at drinking beer and watching football. I am not a hugely masculine person anyway. I am not a car guy. I like a nice car, but I’m not a car guy.
This seems to me like a normal thing to say, bordering on interesting. All gay guys, obviously, have a moment when we start wondering if we’re gay. Surely most straight guys check in with themselves on this too, and it seems to matter how this happens. Whether homosexuality looms over them their entire lives as a spectre, animating their every impulse for fear of sudden rediscovery, or whether it is something they think about for five minutes before stopping, seems like it has important consequences for the psyche.
Besides, Ed Sheeran is British, and so deserves at least some credit for not pensively ending the train of thought with, “These days they’d probably put me on hormones.”
But people were angry about it on the internet, in that futile way that dissipated after a day. They were angry about perpetuating stereotypes, and Ed Sheeran trivializing their struggles for headlines, and other inconsequential charges about imaginary situations in which no one is actually harmed. People have been angry about Ed Sheeran for a long time.
In 2015, someone was angry about Ed Sheeran in Pitchfork, for being a “Nice Guy.” The piece concluded, for some reason, “Getting called out on their entitlement is something a lot of dudes don’t want to hear, but someone needs to tell them. It’s the nice thing to do.” An article posted on Playboy two years later bemoaned Ed Sheeran’s “toxic masculinity” problem. It has since been removed, but a snippet of it online also somehow takes aim at “Bernie Bros.” People always seem to be grasping around for a reason to make Ed Sheeran one of the bad celebrities.
People hate Ed Sheeran’s music too. His albums are poorly reviewed in the usual places, and critics say things in those reviews that might be thought juicy, or delicious. Recalling a release day where he sold copies of his album in-store, he “looked indistinguishable from the full-time staff” (heaven forbid!). Even “at his most passionate, Sheeran sounds as threatening as a meringue peak.” (What?).
It’s fine to not like Ed Sheeran’s music. I don’t, usually, beyond a few of the jauntier tunes. I’ve never listened to one of his albums in full. But we live in a critical culture where we are constantly exhorted to recognize why it is important for middle-ranking actors to wear dresses in magazines nobody buys, where every picture of four assorted B-list celebrities leads to people “tagging themselves,” and where I am constantly supposed to process and engage with information about the private life of someone named, either by birth or through choice, “Machine Gun Kelly.” Read against all this, the widespread Sheeran contempt starts to feel like an anomaly. It’s a performance of ire against a mainstream to which basically everyone has already acquiesced.
If I were to say I liked something about Ed Sheeran, it would be that his better songs conjure the mawkish nostalgia of when you got a driving license, or of being drunk as an adult with people you loved as a teenager, in the same way that Taylor Swift can conjure the feeling of walking around in a pleasing scarf, or causing a minor workplace drama without good reason. But this is not really the point, because I am not arguing that Ed Sheeran is good, or that he should be rehabilitated into the critical consensus.
All I want to say is this: Ed Sheeran has been one of the world’s most famous people for over a decade, and has never done anything so egregiously bad that his Wikipedia has a section that attests to it. He was one of a few A-listers to not appear in Cats (2019), meaning he either turned it down or wasn’t thought appropriate for it, with either of these facts counting in his favor. I like five or so of his songs. We’ve got it wrong on Ed Sheeran. He doesn’t deserve to be one of those celebrities everyone hates. He seems fine to me.
Sean O'Neill is an Irish writer based in London.