Belfast Telegraph

Tanya Sweeney: How did today's pop music become so bland?

Tanya Sweeney bemoans the huge success of Ed Sheeran and his ilk during an anodyne decade

Ed Sheeran
Ed Sheeran

By Tanya Sweeney

The annals of rock'n'roll contain many a maverick, a firestarter and a groundbreaker. Elvis' hip-swivelling birthed the phenomenon that was the teenager; Beatlemania gave young women licence to shriek like banshees in the street with lust; punk gave disaffected youngsters something to pogo with joyous fury about.

The gender-bending of New Romantics, the ebullience of Britpop, the seismic glamour of hip-hop... each decade produced an artist that not only broke through barriers, they ended up encapsulating the decade as a whole.

As we wave farewell to the 2010s, the Official Charts Company have bestowed their honour of artist of the decade. With 12 No 1s across the official singles and albums chart in the 2010s, more than any other artist, this honour goes to... Ed Sheeran.

Now, I've nothing against Sheeran. By all accounts, he is an incredibly affable, decent fellow, ready to help out a charity and good-natured enough to take the mick out of himself.

He'd probably be the first to tell you that he's a busker who got very lucky. Even he seems to be puzzled by his sheer omnipresence.

But let's just call it. For all his amenable qualities, his is not music designed, nor destined, to set the world alight. Some might call Sheeran's music feel-good (or feel-little) pop; less charitable types would deem it fantastically boring, low-calorie fare. Punk, it ain't.

The secret of Sheeran's success is precisely that he has delivered beige, lowest-common-denominator music. It speaks to everyone, but doesn't say anything offensive, incendiary or challenging.

Real deal: the Sex Pistols epitomised youthful rebellion in the ’70s
Real deal: the Sex Pistols epitomised youthful rebellion in the ’70s

An even less forgivable mark against Sheeran is that dozens more watery troubadours were created in his image.

He's not in the business of breaking the mould: this is easily digested and pleasant fare, ready for mass consumption.

And consume they did in their masses: and we're talking shifting millions of records here. Your granny doesn't mind him. Your eight-year-old cousin adores him.

Your 15-year-old niece went to all nine of his sold-out shows last year in Belfast and the Republic. Whatever about the formulaic music, music industry executives couldn't have foreseen Sheeran-mania.

Which prompts an question: if Ed Sheeran is the artist that encapsulates a whole decade, exactly how much of a non-event, musically speaking, did this decade have to be?

It's been an eventful decade in many respects: Trump, Brexit, Snapchat, terrorist attacks, environmentalism... usually, these types of political and social change fuel the most urgent, angry, poignant music - music that in turn becomes era-defining. Often, it's to the tribes that subcultures birth that young people turn to in socially uncertain times.

Kurt Cobain
Kurt Cobain

But not any more. Instead of looking towards pop culture for some sort of way to articulate feelings of despair and teenage unrest, Gen Z have turned their attentions, and their idolatry, towards each other. The biggest entertainment figures in the world aren't music stars like Idles, Stormzy and Lizzo (though they certainly should be). Rather, they are YouTubers and gamers and Kardashians and influencers - the idols of the (very) small screen. It's no longer about how many records you can shift; it's about how many Instagram followers you can amass.

And really, is it any wonder that Sheeran romped to such commercial success? His fare is an upbeat salve for the masses in uncertain times. It's catchy, though makes no demands on your energy, nor your mind. His unrelenting niceness seems to be enough to make the entire package work.

As a singer, Sheeran can't hold a candle to even half of the contestants that darkened the door of the X Factor in the past decade, many of which sound like angelic theremins.

But his check shirts, crumpled hair and guitar playing have acted as a sort of 'real' or 'authentic' counterpart to Simon Cowell's 'synthetic' stars.

The busker backstory only works in his favour. Of course there are hundreds, even thousands, of new artists who are saying stuff through their music, and important, resonant stuff at that.

And there's doubtless an audience for them out there.

Stormzy
Stormzy

The good news is that when the charts become particularly anodyne, an enchanting musical underworld is bubbling away, out of sight of most people (think of Nirvana, waiting to assault a pop chart dominated by Boyz II Men and Color Me Badd).

Whichever way you slice it, Ed Sheeran's music clearly means the world to millions of people. It speaks to them.

Does it say the same things that the Sex Pistols said to their young fans, or Kurt Cobain did to the disenfranchised youth of the early '90s? I doubt it.

To lament Sheeran's global dominance smacks of music snobbery, and I'd be the first to admit to that.

But only because I'm old enough to remember the good old days. As in, the really, really good old days.

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