How to survive shit music: Ed Sheeran’s ‘Shape of You’

I’m lucky to no longer work in an environment where generic Top 40 radio is seen as the default diplomatic, democratic choice for soundtracking the work day. If I want to listen to music, I can put my headphones on, select whatever anonymous noise I want and get on with it. There’s no communal work music, therefore no debates about what such music should sound like, therefore no reliance on commercial radio because ‘it has something for everyone’. But I did used to work in that environment and, let me tell you, it sucked. Mainstream radio is filled with the most annoying, lowest-common-denominator dreck that exists, almost as if it was designed exclusively to be filler between ad breaks (which it is).

However, the only thing worse than listening to bullshit radio for an entire shift is not listening to anything at all – the monotony of silence is so much worse than the monotony of something that at least changes (to some other form of monotony) every four minutes. So, in order to maintain sanity in a world of shit music, I developed a coping strategy: I listened out for a small sliver of goodness in each godawful song. If I were to use a climbing analogy (which I shouldn’t, because I don’t know how to climb), the song was a particularly challenging cliff face, with these minuscule highlights representing the finger- and toeholds that would help me get through it.

Let’s take Ed Sheeran’s ‘Shape of You’ as an example. It’s a pile of shit, and contains lyrics like ‘Me and my friends doing shots at the table / drinkin’ fast then we talk slow’, like that’s at all interesting or noteworthy. It’s borderline intolerable, but even this song, which I hate, has a few isolated moments that I can look forward to as waypoints in the long slog til the end.

0:07 – Straight off the bat, there’s the intro. It lets you know, ‘Shit, that Ed Sheeran song’s coming on,’ but you still have seven or eight seconds before the fucker actually starts singing. It gives you time to steel yourself, and for that, you should be thankful.

0:10 – Also before he starts singing, there’s this rattly little percussive acoustic guitar sound which, if you close your eyes and try to tune out the main melody, sounds a bit like Rodrigo y Gabriela, which is a far better option. You can pretend for a moment you’re actually listening to one of their songs.

0:24 – I switched video here because (a) I didn’t want to see his face, and (b) I needed to double-check the lyrics, because I always thought he said ‘Now put your hands up’ in reference to Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies (Put a Ring on it)’. I was gonna say how, no matter how bad a song may be, I appreciate any effort to make reference to wider pop culture. Most songs live in their own self-contained universe, so it’s comparatively rare when one song gives a nod to another, especially by another artist.

Now of course, Ed doesn’t actually say that – he says, ‘Take my hand – STOP!’ or some such bullshit – but I think there’s a case to be made for the way he sings it purposefully echoing the way Beyonce sings ‘Now put your hands UP!’ Look, I know I’m grasping at straws – that’s what this whole exercise is all about. Let’s carry on.

0:33 – Another lyrical mis-hearing, but it’s on purpose this time. ‘Your love was handmade for somebody like me’ is such a shit line that I always automatically change it to ‘Your love is handy for somebody like me’, which speaks much more to what a callous dickhead I think Ed Sheeran is actually like as a lover. ‘Scuse me, darling – I need I random body to stick it in tonight and, well, you’re nearby. You’re handy.’ Did I mention before that part of this survival strategy is, in a large part, just making shit up? No? Well, it is.

0:42 – I’m trying my best to focus on the positives of the song as a method of getting through it, so I’m making a lot of effort not to spend a whole lot of time talking about how shit it is in the first place, but my god, it’s SO. SHIT. I’d say this bit where Ed puts on a falsetto so he can duet with himself (Christ, what a dickhead) is among the worst bits, but there are so many contenders. So many.

1:02 – Ok, some genuine, non-ironic praise for Ed Sheeran here: not enough pop songs talk about how icky sex is. It’s sticky, it smells funny, there are bodily fluids involved and weird noises. Sex feels fucking amazing, don’t get me wrong, and in context those things can all be important elements of the experience,  but in the immediate aftermath, there’s a lot of ‘pass me something to wipe this up’ and ‘I better take a shower’, because sex, when you get down to it, is manky.

And despite there being countless songs about sex (and if you believe Morrissey, that’s all of them), very few of them deal with the grossness of it. Die Antwoord are pretty dependable, of course, but there’s no way they’re getting mainstream airplay. Lily Allen tried to squeeze a bit in at the start of the second verse in ‘Not Fair’ (‘I lie here in the wet patch in the middle of the bed‘), but the words ‘wet patch’ always got censored on the radio (leading me to constantly wonder what horrendous swearwords she’d managed to crowbar into those two syllables. Shitstain?). And now, Ed Sheeran has made an oblique reference to the physical residue of sex by saying his bedsheets smell like his lover. It’s not exactly ‘You were sweatin’ something fierce during our bang-sesh last night, my love’, but I’ll take it.

Although hang on – wasn’t Ed going to the bar to ‘find a lover’? I.E. a new lover, someone with whom he had not previously slept? Or is this song taking place over several nights? Or are they doing that thing where they pretend to be strangers so it’s more exciting and they don’t have to invest in an actual grown-up relationship? These questions need answers, Sheeran. It’s sloppy songcraft.

1:05 – My bad – ‘Every day discovering something brand new’ suggests this does take place over more than one night. Sorry Ed. Please continue.

3:53 – Or don’t. Christ, I forgot how bad the rest of the song was. There is literally no redeeming feature for NEARLY THREE WHOLE MINUTES until, mercifully, it ends, quite sharply, without an interminable fade-out or anything. Like, I’m not just being chippy, being glad that’s over (although that’s true too) – it is a genuinely tight ending. The chorus doesn’t hang about for half a second longer than it has to.

And thank fuck for that.

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