Originally Posted on Billboard.com
The “Thinking Out Loud” star’s music has helped shape new projects by Shawn Mendes and Cody Simpson. How far will Ed’s influence extend?
Ed Sheeran turns 24 years old today (Feb. 17). By the time he turns 25, we will have a pretty good idea as to the extent of the U.K. singer-songwriter’s influence on popular music over the next decade. Odds are, we will be hearing the reverberations produced from a hit single like “Thinking Out Loud” for years to come.
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.”
“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; Beyonceloves 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.
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.
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.”
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” alongsideHerbie 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.