Harry Styles versus Ed Sheeran
Harry Styles was mobbed releasing his new album, while Ed Sheeran is breaking records and penning hits for Justin Bieber. From the girlfriends to the mega-fortunes, Phoebe Luckhurst reports on the latest pop rivals.
Titans are made not born. Acquiring status requires graft and toil: it requires strength, resilience and mettle. Titanism also requires those vanishing elements of chance - the accidents of birth and fortuitous happenstances. As such, it is unlikely to expect two titans to exist within the same intake. You cannot dare to dream.
And yet you must risk it, for it appears that we live in an age of unprecedented privilege. The world heard our fantasies and delivered us two titans simultaneously - we have been blessed with Ed Sheeran and Harry Styles. Our cup runneth over; our bounty is immeasurable.
More remarkable still is the fact that both have released albums almost at the same time: Ed's third, Divide, was released in March and broke the record for one-day Spotify streams, while Harry's frenziedly-anticipated debut solo, called Harry Styles, was released yesterday.
Styles is out of the traps and on the promo tour. He was on Radio 1 with Nick Grimshaw yesterday morning and on The One Show last night.
However, jubilation is premature. For as mythology dictates, titans are destined for rivalry. Harry has won the first round - his taster single, Sign of the Times, propelled Sheeran's Shape of You from the number one spot after 13 assured weeks there - but there is plenty more to fight for.
Familiarise yourself with the heroes.
Edward Christopher Sheeran is 26, grew up in Suffolk, and endured quite an ascetic upbringing. His parents limited television and he was banned from using games consoles like a normal adjusted child. Instead, he sang in a church choir, learned how to play the guitar and started writing songs.
He embarked on the open mic circuit in London then bought a ticket to LA on the promise of a single gig and bumped into Jamie Foxx - who was so impressed that he reportedly offered Sheeran his recording studio and a bed in his house. His first album, Plus, went platinum (six times over) and he won two Brit Awards and an Ivor Novello songwriting award for his second, Multiply.
He has a few years on Harry Edward Styles. The 23-year-old was born in 1994, which is frankly dispiriting. In his teens, he had a Saturday job in a bakery and sang in a band called White Eskimo, before auditioning as a soloist on X Factor in 2010.
He failed but the puppeteers had grand plans: the result was the five-strong One Direction, who came third in the competition and were signed by Simon Cowell's megalithic record company Syco for £2m. In 2016, Forbes ranked them the world's second highest-earning celebrities.
Sheeran has spent the past year on a gap year ahead of the release of Divide, going on a grand tour that included stops in Japan, Australia and Iceland, and reckless frolics such as bungee jumping, whitewater rafting and swimming with sharks without a cage. Like anyone who's been on holiday (or spent a bank holiday on the smash), he forgot how to do his own job. "I've relearned everything," he told BBC Radio 1. "I spent like a day relearning everything... the next time I take a break, it will be two weeks, not a year."
One Direction announced their hiatus in 2016; Styles has spent some of the time since filming for Christopher Nolan's upcoming epic Dunkirk in which he appears opposite Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh. Nolan said Styles was captivating in audition and got the part entirely on merit.
"I auditioned literally thousands of young men," Nolan told the LA Times. "And he had it."
Four days after he got back he departed for Port Antonio in Jamaica to finish writing and recording his album. Styles and his band lived on top of each other in a two-storey villa, drank at a treehouse bar and swam in a deserted cove. Rolling Stone magazine reports that it was "10% beach party and 90% musical expedition".
You're no one unless you know someone, and both Styles and Sheeran move in sets studded with stars. Sheeran's highest-profile mate is Taylor Swift. The pair collaborated on a song for her award-winning album Red, which was released in 2012, and have been friends ever since.
Their closeness fascinates; in January, Sheeran (sort of) decoded their friendship for GQ. "Taylor was never the popular kid in school. I was never the popular kid in school," he told the magazine. "Then you get to the point when you become the most popular kid in school - and we both take it a bit too far."
He's written a single, Love Yourself, for pop's wannabe reprobate Justin Bieber - it's believed he got away unscathed. In fact, it seems it is riskier to mingle with those anointed by God to lead us. It was reported that on a night in with Princess Beatrice and James Blunt, the former had inadvertently injured him with a sword while pretending to knight the latter.
Much to everyone's disappointment, this was later denied. Sheeran has been dating a schoolfriend, Cherry Beaton, for two years.
Styles is part of a rambunctious, studied cool young London set led by Nick Grimshaw, and populated by a rotating cast including Poppy Delevingne and Kate Moss. His love life has always titillated and conquests are (very much rumoured) to include Cara Delevingne and Kendall Jenner.
He hooked up with Caroline Flack when he was 17 and she was 31, and dated Swift for a few short months. The combined raw energy was too much - the relationship combusted.
Allegedly, Swift's singles Style and Into The Woods are about Harry; this week, Taylor fans (Swifties) had a cataclysmic meltdown over a close textual analysis of some leaked lyrics from Harry's new album, hypothesising that they might refer to Swift. "I write from my experiences; everyone does that," Styles told Rolling Stone last month. He appeared to confirm on Radio 1 this morning that song Two Ghosts is about Swift.
He's now dating London-based chef and model Tess Ward, a 27-year old cordon bleu chef and blogger who has worked at The River Cafe and the Ritz. Unfortunately, as is the lot of any Styles consort, it seems she might have been targeted by envious trolls. There has reportedly been a rash of one-star reviews for her book on Amazon, which until this week, had been averaging fours and fives.
But are the songs any good? Styles' song was compared flatteringly to a Bowie epic, though the chords certainly have something of the melancholy of Ziggy Stardust. It crashes through piano crescendos; his voice quivers on the edge of hoarse. The album has been well received.
Sheeran's numbers tell his story. The album debuted at number one, was the fastest-selling album by a male artist in the UK and has since topped the chart in 14 countries. The album's lead singles are Castle on the Hill and Shape of You, though fans have fallen upon Galway Girl, a folky one that Sheeran says he had to fight to get on the album. "They were really, really against Galway Girl, because apparently folk music isn't cool," he said.
The caustic music press are on tenterhooks, hoping that Harry will do a Zayn Malik and renounce One Direction. Regrettably for them, Styles seems to have no neurosis about making the transition from tweenstar to serious musician. He bridled at the Rolling Stone journalist who suggested that teenage girls lack sophistication.
"Who's to say that young girls who like pop music - short for popular, right? - have worse musical taste than a 30-year-old hipster guy? That's not up to you to say. How can you say young girls don't get it?"
Sheeran fans have a collective noun, the Sheerios. He has a superfan in the form of Desert Island Discs presenter Kirsty Young: when Sheeran appeared on her programme last Sunday, she introduced him by saying he "bridges the gap between Dylan and Eminem, a troubadour with a soft spot for hip-hop".
The art world is also seduced - Northern Ireland painter Colin Davidson has created a 4ft by 4ft oil painting of the singer, which will be hung in the National Portrait Gallery.
The Sunday Times estimates that Sheeran is worth about £52m - ranking him 72nd on their annual Rich List, which was published in the newspaper last Sunday.
One Direction served Styles well: his net worth is estimated to be £50m, placing him just two spots down at 74th equal with former bandmates Niall Horan, Liam Payne, Louis Tomlinson, and Zayn Malik.