The ordinary boys: how Ed Sheeran-inspired troubadours swept the charts

Theyre soulful, tattooed, wear hats and, from Tom Walker to Lewis Capaldi, theyre absolutely everywhere. So what does their dominance say about 2019?

By the end of 2018, critics were sounding the death knell for conventional pop. Thanks to streaming, they argued, the global accessibility of everything from Latin trap to K-pop meant that these once-niche sounds could thrive without being watered down for western audiences. What looks like the simultaneous triumph of several parallel sounds molten, streaming-oriented hip-hop; punkish Soundcloud rap; forward-thinking country music and more is in fact the ascendance of one set of ideals that define what pop music has become, wrote the New York Times Jon Caramanica.

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In this moment of international pop utopianism, Britain, naturally, has gone the other way. Our current pop stock-in-trade is a school of male singer-songwriters with exceptional voices and wilfully unexceptional images that entrench an impression of authenticity. They are all white, despite their soulful vocals, which sing of safely secular salvation (theyll provide it), epic loves (theyve had and lost them) and struggle (broadly defined). These ordinary boys bolster their yearning with a sound that homogenises sturdy rock heft, EDM dynamism and delicate electronica, with occasional intimations of hip-hop. And hats.

Last week saw a double victory for what the pop chart analyst James Masterton calls these privateer talents: Scottish songwriter Lewis Capaldi remained at No 1 with Someone You Loved (with RagnBone Mans Giant biting at his heels). Tom Walker topped the albums chart with his debut, What a Time to Be Alive, weeks after being named best British breakthrough at the 2019 Brit awards. Chasing him were Irelands Hozier, and Britains ruling, unassuming pop kings, George Ezra and Ed Sheeran.

Their successors are climbing Spotifys rankings and the Radio 1 playlist: Jack Savoretti, Tom Grennan, James Bay, and Irelands Dermot Kennedy to name a handful. Its all variations on man-with-guitar-singing-sad-songs, which has an enduring appeal, says Radio 1s head of music, Chris Price. Im not trying to reinvent the wheel, argues Capaldi. Im just writing songs that I like, and thats where Ive always come from.

Ed
Ed Sheeran: the godfather of the current crop of singer-songwriters. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Sheeran, who emerged in 2011, seems like this movements obvious godfather. Amid a background of TV talent shows and manufactured pop, he gave the public this whole new appreciation of what a guy and his guitar can do, says Alison Donald, head of creative at the music publishers Kobalt. The timing is obvious. Its the lack of artifice and the raw talent, adds Donald, who signed George Ezra and RagnBone Man in her previous role as head of Columbia UK.

Perhaps it goes back one seemingly contradictory step further. Six months before Sheeran released his debut single, Matt Cardle won X Factor, his earthy demeanour (and hat) marking a break with previous fresh-faced male winners. And a decade of television singing contests had primed the public appetite for gutsy vocals from unexpected bodies. Theres a bit of a Susan Boyle effect, where you look at these guys and you dont think theyre gonna sound how they sound, says Chris Mandle, former entertainment director of the mens magazine Shortlist.

We love that in the UK, says Radio 2 and 1Xtra presenter Trevor Nelson. Were in the throes of non-obvious pop stars. When Nelson worked at EMI in the 90s, cosmetic was a massive part of why you get a deal: do you look like a star? Thats gone out the window. Ive never seen the record industry turn so much on its head.

Sheeran marked the calcification of the everyman male pop star, and the end of labels marketing them exclusively to teenage girls and their mums. He showed how you could sell to men and women, and not in a forcefully sexual way, says Found What Ive Been Looking For singer Tom Grennan. Price says that Capaldi and Walker resonate equally between the stations male and female listeners, which Capaldi says has surprised him at gigs.

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YouTube promoted a culture of intimate DIY solo artistry (over the garage bands these young men once might have formed) and so a gentler form of male solo artist started to emerge: one unafraid to be vulnerable in his songwriting, yet for mainstream male fans still reassuringly straight, white and masculine. Men as consumers are reticent to buy into something that seems too polished, says Mandle. These balladeers look a bit bruised, their tattoos arent particularly stylish. That sort of ordinariness and blokeyness is how you get men on board. Maybe its partly trying to embellish how straight they are they are not too pretty, dancing around or choreographed. They probably spread their legs on the bus.

Tom
Tom Grennan performs at O2 Academy Brixton last year. Photograph: NurPhoto via Getty Images

That direct appeal to men has also fostered an environment where these artists can connect by discussing mental health. Theres an idea in society that men have to be really masculine, tough and unemotional and put on a hard exterior, says Grennan, who started playing guitar as part of his recovery from a violent attack and the depression that ensued. Im sometimes spoken about as being a geezer, which is weird to me as Im just a product of my environment a working-class lad from Bedford. But if that helps other geezers talk openly and drop the bravado, then great.

Price is also an ambassador for the charity Calm (the Campaign Against Living Miserably), which campaigns to bring the suicide rate down. I think were starting to see the beginnings of a new culture of non-toxic masculinity, he says. A song such as Dead Boys by Sam Fender about male suicide in his hometown connecting at scale with young audiences is really powerful.

Beyond gender, the ruggedness of these acts plays into Britains enduring obsession with authenticity. We separate ourselves from America, which we think of as being Hollywood-ified, says Donald. We have always had a thing about being more real, more honest, priding ourselves on originality and inventiveness that it wasnt all make-believe.

Still, it would be naive to suggest that these images havent been carefully sculpted. Columbia paid for Ezra to go Interrailing during his development phase to accrue some life experience. Capaldi admits that, after discovering Paolo Nutini and Joe Cocker as a teenager, he forced himself to emulate their gritty howls. Ive probably done some irreparable damage along the way, he says. While it is easy to be cynical about the creation of an appearance of authenticity, the general public dont necessarily notice or care, says Masterton.

It is an evolution of what Popjustices Peter Robinson coined the new boring (Adele, Sheeran and Mumford & Sons) at the start of the decade. Weve got this new wave thats self-aware, says Mandle. George Ezra and Lewis Capaldi are really funny on social media. A lot of people are coming to these singers via social media, which is how stan [obsessive fan] culture forms.

What Im saying online essentially amounts to talking about my pubic hair and going to the bathroom, Capaldi admits, aware that a female pop act wouldnt be able to get away with this kind of self-revelation. They would probably come up against more media scrutiny, which is completely wrong.

Tap Managements Ed Millett works with Kennedy and acts including Dua Lipa and Lana Del Rey. Theres an assumption that if youre a guy with a guitar, youre automatically authentic, he says. Was there a suspicion that because Dua is pretty she was inauthentic? Maybe thats more of an issue for women, unfortunately, than it is for men.

Walker recently joked on Radio 1 that he was fed up of people asking if he was RagnBone Man: this raft of visually interchangeable male stars shows up the double standards faced by their female peers. Price says the solo women performing at Radio 1s upcoming Big Weekend (Billie Eilish, Charli XCX, Mabel, Sigrid, Anne-Marie) seem to come from a broader spectrum than the solo males and, arguably, are doing more interesting and exciting things yet they are not achieving similar chart success.

The racial disparity is equally glaring. Its really bizarre that, in my time, I cannot remember a black male soul singer being a massive star in this country, says Trevor Nelson, citing Kwabs and Jacob Banks as artists who should have succeeded. Theres a lot of subconscious going on here. If the public see a black guy, they dont expect anything more interesting than a straight soul song. You look at RagnBone Man and the dimensions are endless. He could be anything. And the fact that he has this big, soulful voice makes him incredibly interesting and appealing in a bizarre way.

Nelson says he has high hopes for the south-London singer Samm Henshaw, whose gospel-pop comes from his church upbringing, but he worries about his prospects. When you know what youve got at the moment is working, why are you gonna go deeper?

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But how much longer will this format work? I worry that there probably isnt much more room, certainly on our playlist, for the next acoustic guitar-wielding troubadour, says Price.

Tom
Tom Walker: his UK success only came after the singer enjoyed a massive hit in Germany

The UK industry could be creating a self-limiting ceiling by banking on too many of these acts. The only British acts denting the US are Sheeran and Dua Lipa; even at home, domestic acts beyond Sheeran, Ezra and Jess Glynne struggle to keep a foothold in the albums Top 10. Plus, says Taps Ed Millett, Tom Walkers UK success only came after he had a massive hit in Germany, a country whose record industry is increasingly shaping our own. Toms single was re-added to Radio 1s A list because it had become a big hit across Europe. Lewis Capaldi is signed direct to Universal Germany. The German radio market likes very direct, emotional songs that an audience who dont necessarily speak English as their first language can connect with.

While the relatability of this current crop plays well domestically, Millett says that it could impede US success. Lewis Capaldi is doing really well because people in Britain love someone who doesnt get above their station. Can you imagine middle America going for that? Not being very ambitious in terms of how you present is a bit of a trap that the UK falls into when were thinking of global artists.

Donald says the situation is reflective of where were at, right now, as a country. Does she mean the demise of Britain as a global pop superpower coincides with its Brexit-induced demise as a global superpower? She laughs. Theres an element of us battening down the hatches. This sound is comforting and cosy in times of fear and uncertainty, she adds. She admits that she cant tell the difference between many of the current crop and hopes that socially conscious Sam Fender might signal a more edgy path forwards.

I think that people are always looking for something different, says Donald. But if another guy comes along with an amazing voice, a great song and a beard, hell get signed.

Original Article : HERE ; This post was curated & posted using : RealSpecific

This post was curated & Posted using : RealSpecific

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