This article originally appeared on VICE UK. Ed Sheeran is the world’s biggest pop star, and he sucks. America is now waking up to this fact because this weekend Sheeran won the Grammy for Best Pop Solo Performance for "Shape of You"—over "Praying," Kesha's song about overcoming sexual abuse—but didn't even show up to collect his award, and then posted a cat picture on Instagram to celebrate his eventual double-win.
Look, here’s the cat picture:
That's annoying, isn’t it? But not all the way annoying. And therein lies Sheeran's particular allure. He falters along this blurry gray line where he is always straddling two states of being: at once charming and un-charming, a banger machine and anti-music, good at pop and bad at it, annoying and irresistible, horny and homely, a pop star and not.
We have known of the duality of Sheeran in the UK for years, and it's now time for America to stop being quite so charmed by him and see through his many faces and, through that window, find themselves in a dark little pit of something stronger, something else. Welcome, America, welcome. Come on in, the water is lovely.
Is Ed Sheeran a dickhead? An argument for the defense
Ed Sheeran is not, I’m afraid, a dickhead. He actually seems fundamentally quite decent and sound. I bet he’s absolutely fine to have a drink with. Like: fine. Not good, but fine. There are no awkward pauses—he gets the rounds in, and brings back two packets of nuts for the table. He doesn’t have any loud opinions about real ale or "commercial lager." He's decent enough at pool to not be a hindrance when you play doubles against two salty old guys who’ve insistently put 20 bucks down when it was your turn to play and said that, actually, the rule in this place is that it's winner-takes-all. You and Ed Sheeran leave the pub in different directions with a dry over-the-jacket-shoulders-hug and an empty promise of, yeah, we should do this again sometime.
Is Ed Sheeran a dickhead? No. He is not a dickhead. Are you going to text him for another pint some time? You're not. You've got other friends, better friends. He has his whole… his whole music thing going. He’s probably busy, isn’t he? He’s probably got friends, right? Better friends. So let’s just leave it.
Is Ed Sheeran a dickhead? A much, much, much, much, much longer and more convincing counterargument
I'm going to have to break this down into the four sub-truths about Ed Sheeran that make him so largely hated by everyone who does not fiercely love him. (It is difficult to be Sheeran agnostic: You either adore him with the power of a thousand suns, or you think he’s horrendous. There’s no middle ground, here.)
Ed Sheeran's staunch refusal to "glo up"
My dude is about as rich as it is possible to be from music alone (Forbes says he’s worth $37 million, and literally whenever he wants $21 million more he can just release an album or do a tour or whatever). Yet, despite that, he really very genuinely has the vibe that if his black jeans fade he will just scribble over them with a Sharpie while still wearing them, or that he just has a vague odor of damp laundry to him, or that he had a whole argument with his mom last time his mom's friend was having a wedding because he tried to wear the same trodden-down Etnies he always wears along with his suit, and when he got there he met up with some old college friends and they stole a jug of cider that was being saved for the reception and drank it, and Sheeran’s mom had to apologize to the bride because she was crying about the missing cider.
This is it: The man is a multimillionaire ,but he looks like your friend’s younger brother who broke his bed once so slept for three months across two beanbags squished in the middle and pressed into a fitted sheet. Ed Sheeran can sleep under absolutely any circumstances, I’m sure of it. I feel like I could blow Ed Sheeran's mind by slowly talking him through the concept of nail clippers. There is no way Ed Sheeran doesn't have a "formal hoodie." No other pop star alive has such a "if you spray enough Axe on you, you don’t really need a full shower" vibe as Ed Sheeran. He is a human wallet chain.
Imagine this brief scene:
You’re at your friend's house, and you are all smoking weed. It’s one of those halcyon summer days between grades: You’re all 17. Your moms have left to go to work, and you have a perfect endless summer against you—the sun outside is technicolor-bright, and the wind is softly rippling the closed curtains against your back. Close your eyes and imagine yourself back there: That acrid, sharp smoky smell on the air again; a wet roach being passed around; one of your friends is cueing up a funny video he saw on YouTube. This is before you saw and became bored of every meme in the seconds after it formed. This was before you went to Instagram to get memes to send to your Twitter friends who sent them on to their Facebook friends. There was no meme hierarchy, no urgency. Only fun. On the screen, a dog leaps on a trampoline. You all laugh. "I haven’t seen that one before," you say. "That’s amazing." Hold the feeling.
Ed Sheeran’s there, isn’t he? Ed Sheeran’s there, with his legs folded underneath him on the bed. Ed Sheeran is wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt with a short-sleeved T-shirt over the top of it. Ed Sheeran has a single leather thong necklace tight around his neck. You don’t know where Ed Sheeran came from, or how and when he infiltrated your friendship group, but here he is, drinking flat supermarket-brand cola straight from a two-liter bottle, just a split-second of backwash, every single time he swigs. "Hey dude," Ed Sheeran says to you. "Here," Sheeran says. "Pass the Dutch."
Ed Sheeran holds his hands out to you in a pinch gesture, and a thought crosses your mind. Make Sheeran do something gross for weed. And that’s how you all end up with shaky BlackBerry camera footage of Ed Sheeran licking a toilet bowl, crying, and saying, "Come on, guys!" before being allowed three small tokes on the communal joint. You can imagine it, can’t you? You can imagine that entire thing. This is the biggest pop star on the planet right now.
Ed Sheeran's "Shape of You" is a good song
Listen, OK, fine, I'll say it: "Shape of You" is good. It's good. I’m sorry about this. I’m sorry to admit this. It’s a good song! We wouldn’t be talking about him if he didn’t do enough good songs to get famous! But at the start of the year it was fucking everywhere, the same way his big fuzzy orange face (*1) was everywhere for an entire year when that came out; the same way there has not now been a single wedding since B.E. (Before Ed) that did not feature that fucking song about falling into your loving arms. Ed Sheeran is everywhere, he is everything, his ubiquity becomes an assault on the senses, and worst still he knows this. Look at this excerpt from a Guardian interview with him from last March:
He talks about how 2017 is going to be his year, how happy and settled he is with his girlfriend, Cherry Seaborn, an old school friend; how all the artists he sees as competition—“Adele, Beyoncé, Taylor, Drake, the Weeknd, Bruno”—have already put albums out, so ÷ has “kind of a clear lane.” When I ask how he would feel if it did well, but sold less than its predecessor, 2014’s 14m-shifting x, he says: “I’ll bet you anything now it won’t. I don’t think there’s any possibility it will. The next album, I promise you, will sell less, but this album will sell more. I don’t think I’ll have a year like this again.”
His ubiquity is, worst of all the things, incredibly calculated and cynical—he plays the music industry like a fun game that he just happens to be exceedingly, effortlessly good at, and he does it while acting and dressing like the meek guy who fits you every time you play paintball.
He doesn't even act famous, and it drives me absolutely fucking nuts
Every time I have seen footage of Sheeran playing live—which has always been in the middle, unannounced, of something I did want to watch, like when he did the Olympics closing ceremony in a hoodie or when he turned up at [insert name of literally any awards ceremony in the past five years]—he’s always played with a sort of inverted stage presence, like a street performer who sings the words "thank you" when you drop them money instead of just saying nothing. He is literally that kid from every town in the UK who got a loop pedal and beatboxes in the center of town every Saturday so he can pay his mom rent, but on this timeline, he is our most famous pop export.
That annoys me. As an expression of British pop, Ed Sheeran—guy from the dorms who electrocuted himself making toast, never to be seen again beyond the first week of school—is the pinnacle of it. And he still looks like he woke up from a cider-and-watching-Blackadder party where he fell asleep and got drawn on with felt-tips and had to do his entire shift at a grocery store in a big fleece so no one clocked he was still drunk.
I'm struggling to justify why I despise him beyond: the fact that he seems extremely sound is actually what makes him irritating? God, I really have no idea, do I?
Sheeran is just: He’s just that quite forgettable guy from your grade in school who nobody really knows the last name of, or who his friends are, or where he goes at lunch ("Where does Sheeran go at lunch?"—everyone at Ed Sheeran’s school, at some point), and then despite all this, despite all this, he makes absolutely irresistible hits that your body cannot help itself from liking. You cannot not pop a shoulder to "Shape of You." You cannot not feel weird and gooey while holding hands and listening to "Thinking Out Loud." But the kid who made these songs is also the guy who stood at the front of the grocery store line, begging everyone for their spare change so he could buy some snacks.
He’s just fine, isn’t he. He’s just the male Ellie Goulding: They are there, yes, and recognizable on the radio, but you’re not going to go out of your way to enjoy it. He did that annoying Game of Thrones scene and there’s something very fragile and irritating about some of the depths in his voice, and his songs are catchy but not likable, and he sometimes says some very cocky things, but I say cocky things sometimes and I’ve never made $42 million even once in my life, and that’s it: That’s what’s annoying about him. That you cannot put your finger on what is annoying about him. He’s that feeling of plunging your hands into cold, oily dishwater. He’s a bus parked in traffic that refuses to open its door for you. Ed Sheeran is that grim empty feeling you get after spending $10 on a Pret a Manger lunch you didn’t even like. He’s just there. Being so inoffensive is offensive.
Welcome to this feeling, America. We have been struggling with it for years. Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Joel Golby on Twitter. (*1) NOT a ginger thing! His face is literally orange and fuzzy! Look at the album cover! I hate it with my life! I have seen it 100 million times!