A digital marimba intro that’s so close to Sia’s “Cheap Thrills,” she should probably demand credit. Lyrics about hitting the bar to find a date that would sound more natural coming from Pitbull. Syncopated rhythms that could have come from producer and previous collaborator Pharrell. Multitracked falsetto harmony vocals straight from Justin Timberlake’s bag of tricks. And … mercy, that chorus: a lascivious ode to a woman’s body you’d sooner expect to hear from Usher or even Justin Bieber.
Will the real Ed Sheeran please stand up?
These are the components of “Shape of You”: the latest No. 1 song on Billboard’s Hot 100, Sheeran’s first-ever chart-topper as an artist, and an amalgam of about a half-dozen pop modes. (There’s even some ersatz flamenco clapping in there.) I am reminded of a classic Simpsons episode in which pious, milquetoast neighbor Ned Flanders, thinking God has forsaken him, implores, “I’ve even kept Kosher just to be on the safe side! I’ve done everything the Bible says—even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff!” So it goes with Ed Sheeran, the Ned Flanders of 2010s pop—the acoustic-strumming Brit has done everything in his power to appease the gods of pop stardom. In Sheeran’s improbable five-year rise to become one of the decade’s biggest trans-Atlantic solo-male stars, there’s no base he won’t cover, no pop megachurch to which he won’t pledge fealty.
The question is: Would you want Ned Flanders singing about what he’d like to do with your body? (Maybe don’t answer that.) And yet here’s randy Ed, who overshares, “Now my bedsheets smell like you.” The song’s title alone may inspire revulsion. In a piece I wrote last year about “Love Yourself,” the Justin Bieber smash that gave Sheeran his first No. 1 as a songwriter but not (yet) as an artist, I called the Yorkshire lad and the Canadian cad “this decade’s two biggest solo-male crush objects.” The very idea of the cuddly 25-year-old ginger as sex symbol is somewhat laughable, even to Sheeran. But as I noted when he scored the Bieber hit last winter, Ed—who broke with his acoustic balladry but eventually reached the Top 10 with a hit whose refrain went, “Don’t fuck with my love”—has been evolving away from his nice-guy persona for several years now, even as critics continue to peg him as sappy and doubt his resilience.
The joke’s on us doubters, because “Shape of You” isn’t just sitting atop the charts—it exploded there, debuting at No. 1. This is remarkable considering Sheeran’s never had a Hot 100 leader before. A couple dozen acts in the Hot 100’s six-decade history have debuted at No. 1. But only 10 acts have started on top with a first-ever chart-topper. Remove the fluky, forgotten hits by American Idol finalists of the early–mid ’00s, and only six established acts have debuted on top with their inaugural No. 1: rockers-turned-balladeers Aerosmith, rapper-turned-chanteuse Lauryn Hill, DJ and meme-starter Baauer, teen idol–turned–electric-dance music frontman Justin Bieber, former boy-bander Zayn, and now, folkie-turned-loverman Sheeran. What virtually all these acts (save Baauer, whose hit was itself a fluke) had in common was an ability to gradually change the public’s perceptions of them, such that when they finally dropped their Top 40–radio catnip, the culture at large was receptive and eager.
Sheeran’s chart-topper also contradicts something I said here just a week ago, after “Bad and Boujee” by Migos topped the Hot 100: that most No. 1 hits from here on out will be driven by streaming, which tends to favor rap songs, not sales or radio, which favor pure pop. To be fair, “Shape of You” did very well in its first week in all three metrics that make up the Hot 100: streaming, sales, and radio. Billboard reports it’s already top 20 in airplay and top five in streaming. But its arrival on top was driven largely by digital sales: “Shape” shifted 240,000 downloads in its first week, exceptionally high for the January doldrums. In fact, that’s the highest weekly sales total for any track since Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” debuted at No. 1 last May with 379,000 downloads. It’s an apt analogy: While more than a decade in age separates them, winsome popsters Timberlake and Sheeran are basically competing from the same playbook, with purchases by rabid fans already presold on their personae. Timberlake’s gargantuan, front-loaded sales inflated the arrival of his hit, a would-be Song of Summer that spent a solitary week on top before quickly succumbing to Drake’s “One Dance.” With weaker competition in the winter, Sheeran’s “Shape” might have an easier time clinging to the top, but that’s far from guaranteed.
Whatever the merits of “Shape of You,” the answer to the question “Why is this song No. 1?” is simple—and it’s akin to when Ron Howard won an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind or Kevin Hart topped the box office with Ride Along: It was Ed Sheeran’s turn. Within reason, virtually any tune he issued in early 2017 would have topped the charts. As with Howard or Hart, much of the huge arrival of “Shape” can be chalked up to affection for Sheeran himself, above and beyond the material. To be sure, Ed’s paid his dues: He came close to the Hot 100 penthouse in 2015 with the lugubrious “Thinking Out Loud,” an eight-week No. 2 hit and eventual Grammy winner for Song of the Year, and again, he wrote Bieber’s No. 1 “Love Yourself,” which Billboard declared the biggest song of 2016. (Last year, I was concern-trolling Sheeran that by scoring a chart-topper as a songwriter but not an artist, he could wind up like Bob Dylan, Randy Newman, and Bruce Springsteen, rock bards who wrote No. 1s for others but whose own recordings never got past No. 2. With “Shape,” Sheeran can forget about that fate.)
Co-written with journeymen U.K. songwriter–producers Steve Mac and Johnny McDaid (the latter of Snow Patrol and dating Courteney Cox fame), the peppy and ingratiating “Shape of You” sounds like its own radio-ready insurance policy.* By Sheeran’s own admission, the song was not originally meant for him—upon writing it, he thought it better suited for Rihanna. (There’s yet another thing it shares with Sia’s “Cheap Thrills,” a No. 1 hit expressly written and actually rejected by Rih.) Categorically, “Shape” is a club-pop song, but because Sheeran is congenitally self-effacing, the lyric tries to have it both ways, clubgoer and wallflower, from the very first line: “The club isn’t the best place to find a lover/ So the bar is where I go.” Like his friend Taylor Swift, who prizes her own awkwardness and carefully parcels out morsels of her gawky-girl persona, Sheeran knows where his appeal lies and orchestrates his ungainly relatability. As for the melody and arrangement, with its percolating, pasodoblelike clap beat and wall of chirpy harmonies, “Shape of You” will make a popular Pentatonix cover someday, maybe even before 2017 is over.
Speaking of insurance policies, Sheeran didn’t issue just one new single this month. He actually dropped two songs on the same day: “Shape” and “Castle on the Hill.” This is fairly unusual on the charts of the mid-2010s but was more common at various points throughout chart history—especially the mid-to-late ’60s, when the Beatles issued numerous “double-A-sided” singles (e.g., “We Can Work It Out”/”Day Tripper,” “Come Together”/“Something”), and the late ’00s, when iTunes incentivized superstars like Lil Wayne, Beyoncé, and T.I. to flood the zone with competing digital singles. The tactic worked brilliantly for Sheeran, who sees the pair of songs debut high, in chart firsts, on both sides of the Atlantic. In his homeland, “Shape” and “Castle” debut at Nos. 1 and 2 on the U.K. chart, a record; and over here, “Castle” arrives on the Hot 100 at No. 6 the same week “Shape” comes in at No. 1, the first time any artist has scored a pair of simultaneous U.S. top 10 debuts.
It must be said that “Castle on the Hill” is much closer to Sheeran’s perceived idiom: a soaring, wistful pop-rock song reminiscent of U2, Coldplay, and recent hitmakers Bastille. It’s also a sturdier composition, if a somewhat duller recording, than “Shape,” which is more sonically eclectic but goofier. “Castle” is quite literally a hedged bet by Sheeran—Billboard reports that his team is promoting the song mainly to alternative and adult-hits radio formats, while “Shape” is being pushed to pop radio. (The two tracks lead off Sheeran’s forthcoming third album ÷, to be pronounced Divide—the follow-up to his prior discs +, aka Plus, and x, aka Multiply; one imagines Ed is postponing the day he must finally give an album the critic-baiting title Minus.) By dropping the two tracks together, Sheeran is flaunting his range and inviting comparison between his pop modes. But he’s also cleverly generating his own Sliding Doors alternate-universe vision of what his career might have looked like if he’d gone for the path we might expect from someone who looked the way he does—trying to compete with pleasant, middlebrow troubadours like David Gray rather than the likes of the Weeknd or the Justins.
But it’s “Shape of You,” the crasser, catchier of the two tracks, that wound up atop the hit parade. It will go down in history as Sheeran’s first No. 1 hit but probably not his legacy recording—much the way Bob Seger is remembered for many better songs before his only No. 1 “Shakedown” or Aerosmith famed for many classic jams besides the chart-topping “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.” Then again, “Thinking Out Loud,” which will likely be Sheeran’s publishing perennial, is a lot less energetic than “Shape of You,” and on the latter, Ed sounds like he’s not only … um, having a lot of sex, but having fun singing about it. I write a lot in this series about pop acts’ Imperial moments—the dominant period during which a hitmaker can get away with anything—and say what you will, Sheeran is making the most of his.
*Correction, Jan. 23, 2017: This post originally misspelled Courteney Cox’s first name.