Sheeran arrived at the correct moment with "The A Team," his somber debut single released in 2011 and peaking in the Top 20 of the Hot 100 in January 2013; at that point, the tempo of popular music had begun an overdue process of slowing down. An immediate antecedent to the dance-pop of the Black Eyed Peas, Kesha, Taio Cruz and Dr. Luke that ruled radio at the start of this decade, the current sound of pop is defined by more contemplative fare like Hozier's "Take Me To Church," Sam Smith's "Stay With Me," John Legend's "All of Me" and, most recently, the Rihanna/Kanye West/Paul McCartney collaboration "FourFiveSeconds."
Happy Birthday Ed Sheeran: 5 Great Performances
"The Calvin Harris music, the Alesso, the [David] Guetta -- a lot of that music was great, and performed well at radio," says Sharon Dastur, iHeartMedia's senior VP of programming integration and former program director of New York's Z100. "Because we are very cyclical, when you go with one strong sound with a lot of product, it gets to a point where people are itching for that next sound. I don't think Ed's timing could have been better."
So Sheeran recognized that growing desire for a slower pace, churned out some expertly written pop-rock tracks and made himself an ambidextrous star. In the last three years, Sheeran became a Grammy darling, duetted with Taylor Swift, wrote songs for One Direction and sold enough albums and singles to justify his own arena trek, coming later this year. He has already performed to massive crowds while sharing his stage with just a guitar, drawing raves for his bold performance style. Teens love Ed Sheeran; my mom loves Ed Sheeran; Beyonce loves Ed Sheeran, too. And what's next for Sheeran does not have anything to do with his continued output, but might become the most important part of his legacy: impacting a significant number of pop artists who crave his type of singular success. Those artists aren't here yet, but they're coming.
Consider the rising stardom of Shawn Mendes, the 16-year-old Canadian singer-songwriter who used Vine videos as a launching pad for a proper pop career. Last June, Mendes became the youngest artist ever to debut in the Hot 100's top 25 with a first chart entry when his first single, "Life of the Party," a piano dirge with bleeding-heart lyrics about breaking away from social conventions, started at No. 24 on the tally. Mendes followed the song's record-setting launch by joining the summer 2014 tour of Austin Mahone, a pop artist many expected to succeed Justin Bieber as the next teen male heartthrob to dominate mainstream music; Mendes now seems a safer bet to keep the teens squealing for years to come, however, with Mahone failing to produce a hit from debut EP The Secret and Mendes being recently tapped to open on select dates of Taylor Swift's upcoming stadium tour (a slot Sheeran filled on her last stadium tour).
But Handwritten, Mendes' debut album due out in April, is less influenced by Bieber's dance swagger than by Sheeran's earnest folksiness. The sticky-sweet sentimentality of "Life of the Party" is duplicated on tracks like "Stitches" and "Never Be Alone" -- rousing sing-alongs with acoustic finger-picking up front and compassionate lyrics that the production never obscures. Mendes shines on these songs, and Sheeran's shadow looms over a lot of them -- meanwhile, the rollout of the album has presented Mendes as a performer cut from the same cloth as the British star. In the new video for album track "A Little Too Much," for instance, Mendes is seen in black-and-white, strumming a careful ballad to an empty theater with only a pianist accompanying him onstage.
Another pop artist who has recently name-checked Sheeran as an inspiration is Cody Simpson, the Australian singer-songwriter best known for dance tracks like "On My Mind" and "iYiYi" featuring Flo Rida. Unlike Mendes, who is beginning his career with guitar in hand, Simpson is actively transitioning away from dance music and embracing an easy-listening vibe on his upcoming independent album, Free. His new single, "Flower," captures the same gentle shimmer as a Sheeran track like "Tenerife Sea."
During a recent visit to Billboard, Simpson acknowledged the importance of Sheeran's success in allowing him to pursue a new sound, and says that he wants to be part of the "next generation of authentic musicians" to bring guitar-driven music back to Top 40. "I think people now are accepting of all kinds of [pop] music," says Simpson, "especially even now, hearing things on the radio that you wouldn't have heard like three years ago. You're starting to hear all live instrumentation on the radio again, and it's so cool."
Granted, neither Mendes nor Simpson is a household name in the U.S. yet, and there's no guarantee they will be. But Dastur believes that Sheeran's success is allowing these two artists -- and possibly many more to come -- to be given a mainstream shot with quieter material, not dance music, at the forefront. "From all genres, people see what a unique path Ed's created, and I can totally see people like Cody and Shawn being inspired by that," says Dastur. "I think that's something they've always had inside of them, but they weren't sure how the audience would accept it. And now they see the audience accepts it in such a big way."
So how far will Sheeran's reach extend within, and change, the genre? It's hard to say since it's just beginning, but we can certainly look to the influence of another guitar virtuoso with a knack for crafting melodic tunes for clues. Following the teenybopper explosion at the beginning of the 2000's, John Mayer's 2001 debut Room For Squares was heralded as a refreshingly guitar-based pop effort for all ages. Mayer collected the younger fans who had outgrown their boy band phases, and spent the next decade producing hits, touring arenas and, in hindsight, bringing every guitar bro out of the woodwork for their 15 minutes. Would Jack Johnson, Gavin DeGraw or Jason Mraz broken through to Top 40 without Mayer leading the way? Would Howie Day's "Collide," James Blunt's "Beautiful" or (gulp) Daniel Powter's "Bad Day" been nearly as ubiquitous without "No Such Thing" coming before them? Mayer's success allowed these artists and songs to shine on a grand stage -- at least until high-BPM pop returned at the turn of the decade.
Earlier this month, Sheeran and Mayer shared the stage at the Grammy Awards, with the elder guitarist supporting the young star on "Thinking Out Loud" alongside Herbie Hancock and Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson. Sheeran shares the appreciation of musical legends that made Mayer endearing and older listeners accepting. His albums are critically acclaimed, his singles are commercially successful and now he's starting to sway the musical direction of hopeful male pop artists. The best thing he can do at this point? Avoid doing an interview with Playboy.