We Need to Talk About Ed
On Sunday evening I was watching Glastonbury again. I watched a lot of Glastonbury over the weekend. I like watching Glastonbury. But I was trying to watch it not simply as a consumer, sucking it all up – nor to condemn it, although there are many things it would be easy to condemn. I like to watch it as an exercise in cultural studies and mission research: what does it reveal about how people feel, think and act in our culture? What does it reveal about what people value? And how can I then use what I have learned to more effectively communicate the gospel in our culture?
Which brings us to Ed.
I was trying to work out what it is about Ed Sheeran that has made him so phenomenally successful. He is hugely talented and has some good tunes but after a while I got a little, well, bored. The whole solo-artist-with-a-guitar-and-loop-pedal thing is clever, but KT Tunstall did it at least as well back in 2004 and after a few songs I was longing for a bit more variety. So I switched over to one of the highlights packages and watched Barry Gibb. Now disco and the Bee Gees has never been my thing, but what a band! Later I watched Chic’s set the and the sensation was underlined: the almost unbelievable precision and power of a band completely on top of its game.
So Ed, and his popularity. What’s the cultural lesson? Where’s the missional application?
Sheeran’s popularity transcends the generations but he is clearly a Millennial among Millennials and has particular appeal to that generation. He projects a matey lad-next-door image that has his audience thinking they know him and thinking they could be part of his gang of mates. Even when performing in front of a crowd of tens of thousands he appears approachable. Millennials, especially, value that kind of accessibility. Of course, it is a fake accessibility. Ed is not going to be your friend! But it is the kind of accessibility that a generation raised on social media expects. Taylor Swift is another brilliant exponent of it – the faux friendliness which makes fans feel like they are in the inner ring.
Then there is the rawness of one man, a guitar and a loop pedal. It’s pretty raw, but that seems to give it an authenticity and Millennials pursue authenticity. With Ed, what you see is what you get. This also means the audience imagines that they might, perhaps, be able to do what Ed does. Watching Chic, almost no-one would think they could sing like that or play bass like that or drum like that: the standard of excellence is just too high. But pick up a guitar and strum, and do some slightly iffy white-boy rapping? Well, perhaps I’ll give that a go!
So the cultural clues I picked up were that if we want to connect with Millennials we need to be approachable, authentic and just rough enough around the edges for people to feel an invitation to join us in what we are doing. Oh, and that people love to worship! People want to sing, in a crowd, and feel the ‘connectedness’ of that.
Barry Gibb and Chic attracted vast crowds at Glastonbury too, but Ed probably teaches us the more valuable cultural lesson. We should be able to join the missional dots from that. Watch Ed Sheeran, and learn.