As someone who considers themselves an avid consumer of quality music spanning most genres, Ed Sheeran’s particular brand of earworm pop has always presented me with a minor internal conflict. I often find myself in public places mindlessly humming to his radio-ready hits before lambasting myself for succumbing to their saccharine immediacy. I then flick back to whatever “Indier -than- thou” soundscape I think I ought to be listening to that week.. and repeat cycle. As an Irish person, specifically a proud Galway native however, Ed’s latest hit “ Galway Girl” presents a more personal affront which I was less casually able to dismiss. The opening bars of Ed’s version of “Galway Girl” meander fairly innocuously, almost indistinct from the rest of his back catalogue. Lyrically, he intersperses original “Galway Girl” lines with new quasi-rapped references to jagerbombs. The end result is peppered with jarring new geographical inaccuracies (FYI, there are no pubs on Grafton street!) So far, slightly irritating but hardly overtly offensive. At the chorus however, my discomfort escalates, hackles bristle. Jangling pseudo-Gaelic instrumentation kicks in, overlaid with heavy Autotune: a sonic “sting in the tail”. The overall effect is “Bewitched” meets “The Corrs”, and not in a sweetly Ironic 90’s-nostalgia-kinda-way. I can no longer dismiss the track as harmless pop fodder. This is a jarring misappropriation of Irish Trad Music.
Ed is often heard romanticising and championing Irish Trad music. He has legitimate Irish credentials, having Irish ancestry through his father’s family. He garnered an air of authenticity by working in Ireland with Irish Trad group Beoga to record the samples used on the track. Disappointing then that on the biggest chorus of the summer he used a regressive, shoddily Autotuned Trad sample . The implication is that he is entitled to plunder Irish culture however he pleases. As an artist with an international platform claiming admiration for Irish trad music, Ed could do infinitely better. There is a wealth of contemporary Irish artists innovatively melding Trad music with genre-bending Indie, R&B and Techno and conferring it with new relevance . (See especially, Daithi) We should be striving to bring Trad progressively forwards into the 21st century on a world stage. We don’t need Sheeran reductively and regressively dragging us back into the 90s. Perhaps in part due to Ed’s starkly Caucasian (aka ginger!) appearance, his regressive use of shoddy pseudo-Trad Irish music samples hasn’t presented an obvious affront, and has managed to fly insidiously under the critical radar. Indeed the Irish ourselves have turned a blind eye, making the song the Irish singles #1 for weeks on end this year.
In stark contrast, when middle-America’s white EDM king Diplo used a watered-down Reggae-lite music sample in his Reggae-RnB crossover project Major Lazer, he was publicly insulted by Barbadian Rihanna who snidely dismissed it as “Reggae for airports”. The lesson, when it comes to cultural appropriation in music, is to do it with maximum authenticity, otherwise leave it in the studio. Nobody wants to see their national culture lampooned on a world stage, unless its themselves making the joke.
I’m not blind to the significant financial rewards stemming from a namecheck by an artist with Ed Sheeran’s platform (hence seemingly the whole of Galway city embracing their appearances in the accompanying music video!) However we need to be mindful that our unique Trad Music culture is worth protecting and striving to progress forwards with integrity.