Does Ed Sheeran deserve an award? After a year in which the acoustic-guitar wielding singer-songwriter was all but inescapable, some people probably feel like they deserve an award just for putting up with his incessant loop pedal. He may have dominated the singles and albums charts, headlined Glastonbury, collaborated with Taylor Swift, Beyoncé and Eminem and more or less kept the British music business afloat single-handed, but it is fair to say that not everyone loves him. I am talking about my fellow critics, of course.
His third album, ÷, was the biggest selling in the world last year. Yet in the BBC’s 2017 poll of polls, an annual list tabulated from 30 Album of the Year lists in influential publications, Sheeran was nowhere to be found. Perhaps that is not too surprising for an album that Pitchfork accused of selling “trite innocence by the pound”, Drowned in Sound called “anodyne and bland” and Entertainment Weekly described as “horribly sentimental”. Nevertheless, it is up for Best British Album at next week’s Brit Awards. And if the ginger superstar should hold the coveted gong aloft and thank the academy for anointing his critically unloved album, there will be a kind of justice done. Because that is what the Brits is for.
The Brits is not a critic’s award. It is not about who made the greatest artistic leap, or the most profound musical creation. It’s not about what is bold, original, or cutting edge. We have the Mercury Prize for that, and, let’s face it, no two critics seem to be able to agree who deserves that in any case. The Brits is about acclaiming, proclaiming and even aggrandizing the state of British pop, which, we forget at our peril, is a term derived from the word popular. It is really not about what any faction or elite think is particularly interesting. It is about what people actually listen to. And right now, the only contemporary British artist that everyone on planet Earth is listening to is Ed Sheeran.
Pop music in the 21st century is fragmenting in ways that risk eroding a shared cultural space. In our lifetimes, pop has migrated from being the hot centre of a youth-focused culture to something at once both more universal and marginal. The singles charts, shaped by streaming services and the curatorial effect of the playlists they offer, has become almost exclusively the sensationalistic focus of young consumers. They bear precious little relation to album charts, where you can still hope to find a deeper level of artistic commitment, albeit beset by dwindling sales and the inevitable atrophy that comes with an older audience. It is as if we have music on tap, but different sounds pour out depending on who turns it on.
Yet there are a few incredibly important artists still capable of bridging the generational, cultural and technological divide, to make music that resonates across the board, and gives pop a centre that all these other strands can gravitate around.
It doesn’t happen by accident. You need strong accessible songs that have lyrical feeling and musical panache. You need an abundance of charisma, and the ability to really perform. You need the freshness of ear-pricking new sounds in balance with traditional musical craft. The last British artist to have the whole world conquering package was Adele.
That kind of mass popularity often comes with a quality of bluntness or sentimentality that offends more intensely developed tastes. You probably can’t be too experimental, sonically adventurous or lyrically audacious. Many of pop’s greatest artists are inherently polarising. But even here, we are in danger of falling behind. In that BBC Poll of Polls I mentioned earlier, British music fared extremely badly. Only four British artists featured in the top 20 most acclaimed albums of last year (Sampha, J Hus, Wolf Alice and King Krule). The first three of those are up for BRITS next week but none are household names and frankly a Brit award is unlikely to change that.
The Brits is a big people-pleasing event beamed into millions of households. It is British music’s biggest annual shop window. And in times of recession, it is surely wise to have your most coveted and admired wares on display. Right now, Britain’s waning pop empire badly needs artists who can carry the torch first lit by the Beatles, and make music for the whole world to sing. Fortunately, we have one man who is up for the challenge, and one awards show crass, brash and unabashed enough to thank him for it.