ED SHEERAN’S “Galway Girl”: As Regressive as Bewitched and The Corrs, without the irony

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.