How Grown-Up Beliebers Influenced Ed Sheeran's Pop Stardom
Years after the Biebs' breakthrough, are his teen fans turning to a new male artist? Exploring the similarities between Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber.
Ed Sheeran released his second full-length album, "x" (as in "multiply") in the U.S. on Monday (June 23), and it's reasonable to expect a very healthy debut sales week. For an artist without much in the way of previous chart mega-success, Sheeran has developed quite the following since first impressing on American shores in 2011: Sheeran reportedly sold out a 2013 live date in Madison Square Garden in three minutes, and last week had fans camping out overnight for spots at his more intimate New York shows. He has nearly 10 million Twitter followers, and perhaps the greatest star in pop music in Taylor Swift as his best friend and biggest supporter. With the success of latest single "Sing" (a career-best No. 13 peak on the Hot 100, still in the Top 20 ten weeks after debuting) and the impending release of "x," he seems set to to join Swift's level in the pop stratosphere.
It would have been difficult to see this coming two years ago, to say the least. Sheeran first came to prominence in this country on the back of "The A Team," a gentle acoustic ballad with a dark lyric about drug addiction and homelessness. Coming at the height of One Direction and The Wanted mania, this was certainly a different kind of transmission from across the pond, and though it did achieve a surprising amount of crossover success for a song so out-of-step with current music trends, it fell understandably short of mega-hit status. Such a level of success seemed appropriate for a singer-songwriter like Sheeran -- a kind of thinking teen's alternative to the lighter pop fare then dominating the charts. However, the top is exactly where Sheeran seems to be finding himself these days, and it's hard not to wonder how this sensitive, scruffy storyteller with an acoustic guitar is about to become the biggest young male pop star on the planet.
An answer could be found in the void left by the prior Biggest Young Male Pop Star on the Planet status-holder. When Sheeran hit the U.S. three years ago, those honors unquestionably belonged to Canadian sensation Justin Bieber, whose audience had been growing exponentially since his YouTube breakthrough in the late '00s. In 2012, Bieber's second full-length LP of original material, "Believe," sold 374,000 copies in its first week, and its lead single, "Boyfriend," debuted on the Hot 100 at No. 2, the singer's highest charter to date.
Bieber was as big a teen star as the pop world had seen in the 21st century. But he was also about to enter a transitional phase in his career, outgrowing the puppy-love ballads and clean-cut image that he had risen to fame with. A high-profile breakup with fellow pop star Selena Gomez brought him into a darker place musically. After releasing "Believe: Acoustic," a mellower redo of most of the tracks on "Believe" with a couple of notably sad-sack-y originals, he set to work on the heartbreak ballads that would eventually comprise "Journals," releasing them one at a time on what he called "Music Mondays." The "Music Monday" songs were relatively successful--like Ed Sheeran's debuts this week, the great majority of them spent time at No. 1 on the iTunes charts. But they produced no radio hits, and suffered diminishing returns commercially with each successive release.
Meanwhile, as much trouble as Bieber may have been having on the charts, it was nothing compared to the trouble he was having in the tabloids. As 2013 turned to 2014, it seemed that every month brought a headline of greater worry to Beliebers: Justin spitting on fans, Justin driving under the influence, Justin assaulting a limo driver, and finally, Justin making racist remarks in recently unearthed video footage from his teen years. Bieber will undoubtedly return with a high-profile comeback at some point, and while it's hard to say when -- or what Bieber will look or sound like at that point -- it's equally difficult to predict how interested he will even be in winning back the fans he might have alienated over the course of his musical experimenting and his questionable real-life decision-making.
It seems fairly likely that the teen-idol phase of Justin's career is now close to over, and in any event, many of those fans have since grown up. A fan who was 12 years old when Bieber released debut single "One Time" back in 2009 would now be 17, worrying more about senior projects and college applications instead of slumber parties and celebrity crushes. Even if Bieber hadn't done so much himself to potentially drive those fans away, it's pretty likely they would have begun to drift apart soon enough, had Justin not been able to make a natural-seeming transition into young adulthood.
And this is where Sheeran comes in. Despite cultivating very different sounds and personas, Justin and Ed actually have a good deal in common as far as American audiences are concerned. They both come from a foreign (but familiar) country, they both have an increasingly pronounced fascination with hip-hop (down to both beginning to rap on their own songs), and for young pop stars, they both have an unusually DIY sort of backstory to their success (Justin rising to prominence as a prolific YouTube star and Sheeran gigging his way to attention, first across Europe and then in America).
Despite being older than Bieber, Sheeran also has an air of innocence to him, one Bieber no longer can manage since we know so many of the seamy details of his personal life. There's been no illicit sex, drugs or criminal activity cluttering Sheeran-related headlines leading up to his album's release -- when he makes the news, the story's more likely to include the words "bestie" and "needlepoint" than "marijuana" and "speeding." Which isn't to say that Sheeran self-infantilizes as a performer -- songs from "x" contain plenty of swearing and talk about obviously adult relationships.
Rather, Ed allows his young-but-maturing female fan base to have it both ways: he's obviously more grown-up than Bieber, but still feels safer, free of any of the potentially dangerous boys-will-be-boys shenanigans Justin is allegedly indulging in these days. It makes sense, in a way, that as Bieber would (at least temporarily) bow out of the limelight, someone like Sheeran should slip into it. If Bieber was the prodigious kid impressing girls with his electric singing and dancing at his middle school talent show when he started , Sheeran is now the open-mic performer impressing those same girls at coffee shops and intimate concert venues a half-decade later.
There's historical precedent for this kind of transition, and not even all that long ago. At the turn of the millennium, teen pop was at its highest point of prominence in the last 25 years. The Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync in particular set teenage hearts aflutter, and MTV's "Total Request Live" turned pop music into a gigantic popularity contest in which the prom kings and queens could be crowned daily. As 'N Sync, BSB and the rest of their boy band peers began to run out of steam as the '00s advanced, however, a new sort of pop star emerged in the form of an earnest, acoustic guitar-carrying singer/songwriter: John Mayer. Like Sheeran, Mayer was no triple-threat performer, but rather just a good-looking dude with a guitar, who had made his name as a live performer before getting major-label attention. One month before 'N Sync released its final album, "Celebrity," in July 2001, Mayer quietly released his debut, "Room For Squares," which was led by the supremely inviting single "No Such Thing."
Mayer was a little older than Sheeran -- 24 at the time of the release of his first album, 2001's "Room for Squares" -- and had aspirations as an instrumentalist that don't seem as big a priority for Sheeran. But they were both nice-seeming guys who sang sensitive songs that appealed immensely to a young-but-maturing female fan base, and they both seemed to pick that audience from where their teen-pop predecessors left off. Mayer achieved the stardom that Sheeran seems soon primed for, with five of his singles reaching the Top 20 on the Hot 100, on the way to countless Grammys and other awards, and equally innumerable celebrity relationships -- including with Sheeran's current bestie, Taylor Swift.
When teen-pop stars are at the height of their powers, as Justin Bieber was a few years ago, it sometimes seems like the enormity of their popularity and their most devoted fan base will never wane. But times change, tastes change, and audiences change, and sometimes it doesn't take much of an opportunity for someone like Ed Sheeran -- few pop fans' idea of a conventional megastar -- to come around and seize the moment. It's happened before, it'll happen again, and it certainly appears to be happening with the release of "x" this week.