Since the age of 14, Taylor Swift has quickly risen to be one of the most dominant performers in the music industry around the world. She is one of the most popular singer-songwriters of the last 20 years, having sold more than 40 million albums worldwide over the course of her now more than decade-long career. A lot has changed for Swift in the time since she was a teenager in Nashville looking for her big break. The most prominent change being her gradual, but dramatic shift in musical genres. A essential change in the type of music that an artist makes is something that does not often happen with the most prominent and popular artists. Of course, there are examples of artists that have crossed genre lines and had their sound change over time (which happens to most artists at one time or another). However, it is no secret that Taylor Swift has recently made an enormous shift in the foundation of her music, and it cannot be ignored.
Over the course of her last three studio albums, Speak Now (2010), Red (2012), and most recently 1989 (2014), fans and critics alike have watched as Swift has made the unlikely shift from country star to pop superstar. Her earlier albums, the self-titled Taylor Swift (2006) and Fearless (2008), rarely wavered from country, which was the genre in which she had made her home. Although always considered country from the time she began up until a few years ago, Swift has always been easier categorized in the sub-genre known as “pop-country”. This meaning that has used more mainstream sounds and writing styles aimed at reaching a larger and more mainstream audience.
To the casual listener, the first noticeable pop music influence is heard in Speak Now. This album incorporates much heavier, driving music on tracks like “The Story of Us” and “Better Than Revenge”. There still isn’t much sign of electronically created sounds, but on the whole, it just feels more pop-oriented. The album was, however, undoubtedly still country. Swift manages to maintain her roots as a country artist, as it was nominated for numerous awards, including “Best Country Album” at the 2011 Grammy Awards.
And then Red was released, and anyone who thought that Taylor was going to stay in the country genre forever became a little more nervous that this would not be the case. The entire album is heavily influenced by the pop sounds of the 2010’s. “I Knew You Were Trouble” is nothing short of a dubstep song with pop vocals, using heavy synthesizers and prominent bass lines. It is clear that the rise of dubstep during this time had a heavy influence on this song, as well as most pop music at the time. “22” also has looping synthesizers at its base, and again, a heavy bass line to accompany. “We Are Never Getting Back Together” further drives home the point that Taylor is trying to make to her audiences: “I am changing as an artist, and my music is changing”. Listening to the album straight through, it’s as if Swift is a kid standing over the metaphorical line between country and pop antagonizing us by jumping back and forth across from song to song, saying “I can do whatever I want, and you can’t stop me!”.
Swift’s most recent album 1989 abandons all elements of country as Swift makes her journey to the big city to become the mega-star we have all been watching her become. It is a carefully crafted and highly produced album loaded with songs ready to top the charts for months at a time. From the first bass-clap rhythm in “Welcome to New York” to the final soft chorus of “Clean”, this album is beat-driven and full of a litany of electronic sounds. It is a wholesome pop album, without an ounce of country to be found.
About the same time as when Swift was in Nashville trying to make it big, there was someone named Ed Sheeran across the Atlantic Ocean in the United Kingdom trying to make it big. Much like Swift, Sheeran began singing and playing guitar at a young age with dreams of becoming a star. As he became a little older, he began playing more and more gigs in London, however he began to drink a lot every day while on stage. He was often paid for gigs with beer. He recounts one instance, in his book Ed Sheeran: A Visual Journey, ‘I remembered doing a show at this place called The Ivy House and just being f*cked. Afterwards, someone came up to me and said “That was terrible, really disappointing.” It was a complete stranger.’ Sheeran now credits this stranger with changing his life, having realized that he was not going to go anywhere if he kept up the dismal performances he put on.
Whatever the beginning, we now know that Sheeran made the proper changes to his life and began making top-selling music. He was able to hit No.1 on iTunes before he ever signed with a major record label. From the first time we heard “The A Team” from 2011’s +, fans and critics enjoyed the folk-acoustic music that defined Sheeran’s sound. Most of his early songs are soft, acoustically driven songs.
His first album, + (2011), sees Sheeran influenced from the beginning by pop music, just as Swift was with her second and third albums. Tracks such as “The City” and “Grade 8” possess pop-influenced beats. For the most part, though, the album sticks to Sheeran’s established folk-acoustic sound. He is most comfortable here, and shines most as a singer-songwriter here.
X (2014) sees Sheeran experiment more frequently in pop sounds, and sees him even add backing vocals in tracks “Sing” and “Don’t”. Baking vocals are utilized heavily in pop music, especially when harmonizing and creating other effects. Just as with Swift’s Red, we can feel Sheeran already beginning to change his music to become more mainstream. We can feel his desire to continue moving up towards the eventual star he wants to become. There are still many acoustic elements to his music, and his most popular tracks are still those in which he strips down the music and just sits with his guitar and a simple drum beat in the background. “Thinking Out Loud” may be his career-defining moment, as it is a soulful ballad about everlasting love with a simple tune and easy chorus to sing along with. Sheeran even saw himself recording for the movies for this album, when he recorded “I See Fire” for Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013). Once again, Sheeran shines as he sings a stripped-down song about brotherhood and destruction.
Today, the world awaits Sheeran’s third studio album, ÷, which is set to be released in early March 2017. We have already been given two singles off of the upcoming album, and can already hear where it is headed. Sheeran is about to make the same jump that Taylor Swift made over the same metaphorical line when she crossed from her roots to her stardom. With “Shape of You”, we get electronic sounds instantly (which are extremely close to the pitched percussion sounds used in “The Greatest” by Sia), which is something we have not have an abundance of with Sheeran’s music up to this point. There is a stark absence of guitar, which for an Ed Sheeran song, is noticeable right away. The second single, “Castle on the Hill”, sounds like a softer EDM track just waiting to be remixed by DJs near and far. Before now, many critics and fans viewed Sheeran as “the cute redheaded kid that sings cute songs”. But now, Sheeran is shedding that image with more powerfully mainstream music and song topics.
Where They’re Headed
It is clear Ed Sheeran is ready to make the jump to mega-star to join Taylor Swift atop the world of music. His third studio album will be his coming out party. He has had the growing popularity and songs to get him to this point. Now that he has fully embraced the power that pop music holds in the music industry, his career will jump to the next level, just as Swift’s before him. It is only fitting that they both have left their roots and grown into much larger roles together, as the two are very close friends. If you head to Swift’s Twitter, you’ll even see her typing in all caps talking about Sheeran’s new single “Shape of You”. Swift, ever so calmly writes, “OH MY GOD OKAY IT’S HAPPENING EVERYONE STAY CALM”.
Yes Taylor, it’s happening.
Ed is coming to join you on the other side in the pop world.
“CHARTS & SALES.” Taylor Swift Now. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2017.
“Taylor Swift.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television, 06 Sept. 2016. Web. 18 Feb. 2017.
“Taylor Swift.” Taylor Swift. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2017.
“Ed Sheeran.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television, 06 July 2016. Web. 18 Feb. 2017.
“It’s Okay, Taylor Swift is Also Freaking Out About Ed Sheeran’s ‘Shape of You'” Billboard. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2017.
MailOnline, Lucy Mapstone for. “‘I drank every day and I’d be drunk on stage’: Ed Sheeran reveals difficult rise to fame.” Daily Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 23 Jan. 2015. Web. 18 Feb. 2017.