The counterargument: Wasn’t this just two pop stars living up to their highly specific branding? Wouldn’t it be weirder if Sheeran had come out in a tux, given how he almost always looks as if he’s about to take out the trash on a 40-degree morning? Tweeted the writer Andrew LaSane, “Not saying there isn’t a double standard when it comes to men and women and how they’re expected to dress … But y’all really choosing Beyonce and Ed Sheeran as examples? The most extra and least extra musicians of our time? Chill out.”
What’s so interesting about the story of the double tee and the orchid dress is that the two interpretations—gender and race on display versus pop stars wearing their respective uniforms—overlap. Sheeran’s projected persona is that of the “regular guy,” and the fact that regular means being held to very low expectations and not needing to impress anyone is indeed a privileged thing. A “regular girl”—whoever might be deciding what that means—would probably at least wear makeup to a headlining gig.
Beyoncé’s shtick, meanwhile, is that she’s not regular. She’s an epitome, someone working to wow at every level. In part, this is pop’s comfort with artifice allowing for an inspirational superhuman fantasy of waking up flawless. In part, it’s a reaction to being underestimated for reasons of race and gender. Janet Mock’s quote, as heard on Blood Orange’s latest album, nicely nails the mentality: “People try to put us down by saying ‘She’s doing the most,’ or ‘He’s way too much.’ But, like, why would we want to do the least?”
But not all viewers pick up on, or are persuaded by, Beyoncé’s assertion of power through visuals. And for them, there is Sheeran. He dresses the way he does not simply because he can. He’s making a point, and on some level it does have to do with the Beyoncés of the world. You can see it clearly in the backlash to the original criticism of his outfit, with fans defending Sheeran by calling Beyoncé fake and try-hard for how she dresses.
In pop, image typically follows sound. The acoustic-guitar love song—Sheeran’s commodity—has a standard costume: jeans and tee. To see how tightly linked clothes and genre are, look to Nashville, or to the flashy pop icons who’ve had rock and country phases. To pluck out just one example, in 2015, Kanye West made an acoustic ballad with Rihanna and Paul McCartney, and for the related visuals, they all wore denim. Of course, when pop or hip-hop crosses over to folk, it usually comes with notably polished and tweaked versions of rootsy outfits. You really can’t get less effortful than Sheeran does.
Which is ironic because Sheeran is so successful not solely because he’s “normal”—the ultimate plainspoken white boy staying in his lane. Rather, it’s because he has a talent for songwriting that reaches outside the authentic-acoustic realm for which he’s known. Sheeran is a huge fan of hip-hop and R&B, whose innovations are often key to his songs. “Sing” from 2014 was stacked with fast and feisty #bars, co-created by Pharrell. The biggest smash of Sheeran’s career, “Shape of You,” used calypso-influenced sounds and hip-hop cadences, and was so reminiscent of TLC’s “No Scrubs” that he had to hand over a songwriting credit to its writers (Sheeran originally intended for Rihanna to sing it). His latest album, Divide, was co-executive-produced by Benny Blanco, who’s shaped many of the hugest hits across the glittering, artificial charts landscape and who started his career dabbling as a rapper.