Ed Sheeran is one of the most famous and successful musicians on the planet. He just wrapped up his two-year ÷ (“divide”) tour which is currently the highest grossing and ticket-selling tour of all time. His new album, #6 Collaborations Project, a veritable “who’s who” of pop music featuring artists as diverse as Bruno Mars, Eminem, Ella Mai, and Chris Stapleton, dropped this July and quickly hit number one in more than a dozen countries.
But despite all the fame and fortune, he doesn’t live the stereotypical pop-star lifestyle. He doesn’t do social media. He married a girl from his hometown. He doesn’t tour with a band, just his guitar and a loop pedal. Despite making £75,000 a day, he only pays himself £1,000 a month. He doesn’t like to wear fancy clothes, and other than his red hair, he’s admittedly rather average looking.
Though his songs span genres from guitar ballads, to club bangers, to hip hop, his lyrics frequently depart from the usual pop star fare of fame, fortune, and sex. On the contrary, his lyrics reflect someone far more grounded than one might expect from a 28-year-old millionaire. Perhaps that’s why he continues to be so successful album after album, despite being pretty much the only current singer-songwriter on so high an echelon. He fills his songs with keen insights on life. His self-reflection prompts his listeners to do the same.
Here are a few gems I’ve gleaned from the lyrics of the ginger singer-songwriter from Suffolk.
In “Take Me Back to London,” he recounts warning London rapper Stormzy about the loneliness of success and how “when you get to the top, man, it’s never enough.” Likewise, on “Beautiful People,” he paints a picture of the LA high life complete with Lamborghinis and flashy parties, but says he fears becoming one of the “beautiful people” with “pre-nups and broken homes / surrounded but still alone.”
Lyrics like these stand out in a music scene saturated with bragging about high living and big spending. It’s also instructive for those of us trying to launch or develop a career, invest in a dream, or struggling to make ends meet. It’s easy to forget that fame and fortune come at a cost: time away from the people who really matter, anxiety about losing what we’ve gained, and the allure of pursuing more and more.
His lyrics likewise often reflect a divergent view on romantic relationships from what popular media most frequently highlights. In “Blow,” Sheeran, Bruno Mars, and Chris Stapleton swap starkly contrasting verses about the women they desire. While Mars sings about drugs and whip cream in a limousine and Stapleton refers to his lady as a “supernatural freak,” Sheeran sings about wanting to make a baby.
No doubt, this is a reference to sex, but this is not one-night stand sex. He writes songs that are sexy, but they aren’t JUST sexy. They span the gamut from first glance meeting where he notices the girl doesn’t have a wedding ring in “South of the Border” to when the couple is old and dying after a lifetime together like in “Thinking Out Loud” and “Perfect.” They’re holistically sexy. They reflect on lifelong relationships, marriages that include struggles, disappointments, children, and grandchildren. These songs remind us what sex and romance are really about: relationships, not just using one another for a physical or emotional high.
Sheeran’s songs celebrate the beauty of family relationships. He tells us, “It’s alright to cry — even my dad does sometimes.” He recounts childhood memories with his brother and friends in “Castle on a Hill” and his grandparents falling in love in “Nancy Mulligan.” An enduring theme in each of these songs is that what ultimately matters in life are meaningful relationships. In a culture that so often prioritizes career and fun over family, these songs stand on distinctly different ground.
“Small Bump” relates the anticipation of an expectant father thinking about his unborn child and the heartbreak surrounding miscarriage. In “Afire Love,” he reflects on his grandfather’s loss of memory and eventual death as well as his grandparents’ romance. It’s full of images like: “My father told me, ‘Son, it’s not his fault he doesn’t know your face;’” “black suit, black tie, standing in the rain;” and “my father and all of my family rise from the seats to sing hallelujah.”
These songs do for me what I think funerals are meant to: celebrate the beauty of life and of the person who has died. Life is beautiful and worth celebrating, even in miscarriage, even in dementia, even in death.
Just another pop star?
It’s hard to know how we’ll view the legacies of today’s stars years down the road. The temptation for many of us (especially those who fancy ourselves music aficionados) is to think all the great music and art is in the past and everything current is automatically subpar. But the depth of Sheeran’s lyrics — as well as the breadth of the human experience from which he gleans them — suggest we’ll remember them and him for years to come. I know I will.