Most women have probably encountered the otherworldly scorn of a male underdog. Yes, confident Bernie bros and fresh Deloitte recruits will definitely do chauvinistic things like introduce you to their moms only to ghost you and hit you up a month later for a 3 a.m. booty call. But underdogs—and by that I mean men who have never felt sufficient physically, sexually, socially or professionally—cut deep. When you date an underdog, he’ll gleefully go down on you for hours and tell you you’re the best sex he’s ever had—until you break up with him, after which he’ll call you a slut on Facebook. He’ll twist your words to prove you’re evil and post images with other women on Instagram to get your attention. In Ed Sheeran’s case, he’ll write reductive revenge songs that are low-key misogynistic while slurring in interviews about all the women who’ve been kind enough to fuck him.
We’ve all met an Ed Sheeran type. He’s the kid in middle school who you knew would snap if the teacher chastised him in class. He’s the guy at the office who sends emails that start, “To clarify…” He’s the guy who sells you pot and then asks to smoke it with you. He’s this guy.
Yes, Ed Sheeran is that kind of guy, and all grown up and famous now, he’s proving that success and wealth can’t fix a deeply broken ego. Consider his current press tour for his latest album, funnily enough titled Divide, released last week. The whole dog-and-pony show has been a raging mess of toxic masculinity—and his hit songs always have been too.
I actually tried to address this three years ago when his song “Don’t” hit the radio, but my editor at the time told me he “just wasn’t seeing it.” The rampant misogyny of “Don’t,” however, is plain in the lyrics. The first verse glorifies him calling a girl he just met “another mistake” and then goes into a long rant about being confused about her intentions, all because he can’t figure out whether she wants to fuck him or just be friends. (There’s no attempt to think that perhaps she wants to do both—or that a woman’s desires can change over time.)
At the time of its release, it was rumored the song was about Taylor Swift because of the line, “Me and her we make money the same way / four cities, two planes the same day.” Why he would write a sexualized slam of a woman who took him on tour and made his career, and who would later give him a standing ovation after he won a Grammy over her, has been highly criticized. Even worse, the last verse slut-shames his anonymous tour mate for eventually having sex with another guy while posturing the entire time that he doesn’t even care: “But you didn’t need to take him to bed that’s all / And I never saw him as a threat.” Suffice it to say, “Don’t” is one hormonal teen of a pop song.
There is something remarkably different about the way Sheeran handles being a pop star compared to Bieber.
Let’s now consider Justin Bieber’s cheekily titled “Love Yourself,” cowritten by Sheeran. Before being approved for radio play, the song was originally titled “Fuck Yourself,” and Sheeran has admitted that it’s an angry letter to a girl who dumped him. In that song, Sheeran rips his ex for only sleeping with him for his money and fame, while again, saying he was unbothered by all of it: “You think you broke my heart, oh girl for goodness sake / You think I’m crying, on my own well I ain’t.”
“Love Yourself” then wades into the stagnant, swampy waters of criticizing women for feeling themselves too much with the lyrics, “‘Cause if you like the way you look that much / Oh baby you can go and fuck yourself.” Well, if you talked to her like that, she probably is loving herself—a lot—because you probably don’t know a clitoris from a belly button. The sentiment is wildly tone deaf in today’s age of empowering, feminist pop anthems like “Worth It,” “Roar,” “Bang Bang,” and most of Lemonade’s track list that celebrate women who own their autonomy, looks and sexuality. It’s quite enough that women have to battle unrealistic beauty standards that force us to spend incredible amounts of money on our appearances. But to then have to deal with a man like Sheeran who prefers if we’d play some coy Betty Draper shit instead of feel sexy and beautiful on our own? And only because we decided he wasn’t the One? Fuck that.
Now, Sheeran is back with “Shape of You,” a song romanticizing women’s bodies from the male gaze (and with unimaginative notes that are incredibly similar to Sia’s "Cheap Thrills”)—because for Sheeran, it seems to be either pussy or brains, never both. Giving the singer his first Billboard number one, the song is driving enthusiasm for the North American World Divide tour he’s now promoting—a press junket that has been one nauseating spin after another on its own. He’s whined about Forbes featuring him in its 2015 list of wealthiest celebrities because it caused him to lose friends, saying, “I was getting texts from people with pictures of cars going, ‘I’d like this for my birthday, please. This one’s only .06 percent of your annual income’.”
He’s also been turning a drinking story with Justin Bieber—Biebs balanced a golfball on his mouth, told Sheeran to hit it off and Sheeran accidentally knocked Bieber’s face instead—into a Rebel Without a Cause brawl wherein he flexes his masculine dominance, saying, “I got drunk and cracked Justin Bieber in the face.“ Worst of all, he’s now gracing the cover of Rolling Stone and showing off his comically tattooed arms alongside the headline "Boozy Nights and Mega Hits.”
In that cover story, journalist Patrick Doyle rightfully does nothing to cover up the immaturity and machismo he witnessed over a bender in London with the singer. “Sheeran has been going hard tonight: espresso martinis and rum-punch shots at dinner, gin and tonics at the bar. It’s my birthday, and at one point he grabs my phone, takes a selfie of us and posts to my Instagram, writing ‘It’s my birthday bitches #london #hashtag #believe #achieve #inspiration’,” Doyle writes.
Doyle rightfully suggests that aside from Bieber, “Sheeran is the biggest male pop star alive.” But there is something remarkably different about the way Sheeran handles being a pop star compared to Bieber and others like Adam Levine, Justin Timberlake and yes, even Drake. In a word, his persona feels forced. While a big, glossy magazine profile that chronicles all-night parties at his manor and tales of Elton John coming over for dinner might make it seem like Ed Sheeran is a fucking big deal, it never seems like the singer himself actually believes it. (#Believe?) Perhaps it’s because of the truth that lives on paper: Sheeran is just getting a number one hit of his own and only now headlining an American tour, which Bieber, Drake, Levine and Timberlake have done for years—and in the case of the latter two, for decades.
Conceptually, pop star is not the top descriptor falling out of mouths when people label Sheeran. That term, after all, indicates a kind of effortless sex appeal and charisma, a discography of critically acclaimed earworms, and most importantly, a public persona that is at once both relatable and mystical. In 2013, when People named him a Sexiest Man Alive, Sheeran felt it necessary to come out and say it was “ridiculous” instead of just owning it with some ginger pride. That’s not very Timberlake, or even very Joey Fatone. As a person who responds to criticism with, “I could give a fuck about what people think. Anytime anyone has a problem with me, I’m just like, My heroes like me. The people I started music for are fans of my music. So why the fuck would I care about what anyone else thinks?”, Sheeran is certainly aggressively battling something.
Because of that, he sometimes comes off as sad and out-of-control. And his attempts to own that—in both his music and his interviews—is what makes it feel like he’s dealing with a serious case of toxic masculinity, one that is constantly fueled by binge-drinking and sex. In his Rolling Stone interview, Sheeran speaks of how sexually available Taylor’s friends on tour seemed to be to him. “I was this 22-year-old awkward British kid going on tour with the biggest artist in America, who has all these famous mates,” he says. “It was very easy.” He continues to wax on about Swift throughout saying, “We’ve gotten matching Scottish folds, made each other arts and crafts Christmas presents, vacationed with our families, and had each other’s backs,” as though Swift’s approval should override his reality being brought into question, proving both that he’s willing to use a woman for credibility and that they’re both equally noxious.
Considering that Pitchfork gave Divide a 2.8 rating and scathing review, it doesn’t seem like this record, or what will likely be a tour of stadiums filled with soccer moms and 15-year-olds, are going to boost Sheeran’s confidence. In the meantime, one pro tip I have to offer the future Ed is to quit trashing women. You may be a guy who likes to up your allure by making it known how easy it is for you to reject women, but honestly, most of us just remember you as the guy who sharted on stage. And no, that shit wedding song “Thinking Out Loud,” which so cooly mentions how crowds “remember his name,” doesn’t make up for anything. The next time you feel like asserting yourself over a woman, here’s a word of advice: Don’t.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misnamed one of Sheeran’s songs. It is “Thinking Out Loud,” not “Thinking of You.”