Ed Sheeran’s Bizarre History of Musical Thievery

Last Friday, British pop star Ed Sheeran released “Bad Habits,” the first single from his forthcoming album Minus. The song, which is on track to debut at No. 1 on the U.K. charts, is a strong contender for this year’s song of the summer. But the earworm has already earned Sheeran familiar accusations of theft.

Lyrically and musically the song is nothing special, but “Bad Habits” marks a diversion from the musician’s acoustic-driven, dancehall-inspired repertoire into the ever-popular genre of dance-pop. The simultaneous release of its music video also signaled an aesthetic shift for Sheeran, who’s been both admired and ridiculed for his effortless, guy-next-door flannel-and-jeans style over the years. The lurid, high-concept video, directed by Dave Myers, features the singer in the role of a vampire flying and rampaging about town with his other fanged, punk peers in Bowie-esque glittery eye makeup, acrylic claws, blue contacts, and a hot pink suit.

Soon after the video’s release, however, viewers on Twitter began drawing comparisons to The Weeknd’s highly cinematic After Hours era, in which the Canadian R&B/pop singer embodied a nameless antihero in a bold red suit during his live performances, red carpet appearances, and music videos.

“Damn… After Hours already got sons?? It’s only been a year,” said one user in a reply to the video.

“Absolutely devastated that I’ll be forced to hear Ed Sheeran’s bad The Weeknd impression song in every store and on every radio station for the next year,” tweeted another.

The song’s themes of indulgence and self-destruction (“my bad habits lead to late nights endin’ alone / conversations with a stranger I barely know / swearing this will be the last, but it probably won’t”) set over an ’80s dance beat have also struck some as similar to The Weeknd’s blockbuster album, including The Guardian’s Alexis Petridis who highlighted his “influence in its lyrical conflation of sex with wracked, compulsive hedonism.”

It’s interesting that The Weeknd is considered a main point of reference for Sheeran’s new work, not just because his recent music is so obviously inspired by artists before him but because both musicians have attracted several plagiarism lawsuits in the relatively short time they’ve been in the public eye. While The Weeknd’s reputation has hardly been crippled by these accusations—his foray into ’80s dance-pop on After Hours has been largely interpreted as a conscious tribute as opposed to theft—Sheeran’s fast-accruing legacy of allegedly copying his peers’ homework has left a larger imprint on the way his artistry is perceived and questioned by the public, which makes “Bad Habits” feel like another liability rather than a savvy segue into the updated disco sounds of the new decade.

Sheeran’s fast-accruing legacy of allegedly copying his peers’ homework has left a larger imprint on the way his artistry is perceived and questioned by the public…

That said, the most brazen aspect of Sheeran’s latest offering is what it actually sounds like. While Sheeran’s younger fans may not be familiar with the origins of the ’80s synth lines that he—and The Weeknd—utilize so heavily on their records, several reviews claim that “Bad Habits” owes much of its sound to Bronski Beat’s 1984 hit “Smalltown Boy,” although the group is uncredited. In his review for The Independent, Alan White referred to it as an “unbilled but aggressively pilfered sample.” Additionally, Kylie Minogue fans might notice an uncanny resemblance to her 2001 chart-topper “Can’t Get You Out of My Head.”

As I hinted earlier, Sheeran is certainly not the only major artist to be sued by musicians big and small over copyright infringement (or simply called out on online). But his astronomic rise to a radio and streaming juggernaut, particularly in the midst of the huge legal battle that befell Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” led by Marvin Gaye’s estate, has made these repeated allegations more attention-grabbing and seemingly important in the ever-changing music industry. It also doesn’t help that Sheeran rose to superstar status—while simultaneously adding elements of soul, hip hop and dancehall to his sound—when cultural theft was being heavily debated on the internet, making him known as an all-around hijacker.

Curiously, the most notable and widely discussed of these allegations didn’t involve a lawsuit at all, but resulted in Sheeran accepting defeat when he preemptively credited Xscape members Kandi Burruss (also a cast member on The Real Housewives of Atlanta) and Tameka “Tiny” Harris on his smash hit “Shape of You’” in 2017 after social media users suggested that the song’s pre-chorus sounded like TLC’s “No Scrubs,” which the pair co-wrote. Just a month after that amendment, Sheeran credited songwriters Mark Harrington and Thomas Leonard on his 2014 song “Photograph,” settling a $20 million lawsuit in which the pair claimed he ripped off a song they penned for the 2010 winner of The X Factor, Matt Cardle, called “Amazing.” And a year later, in 2018, he settled another lawsuit, along with country singers Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, for a song he co-wrote with the pair called “The Rest of Our Life” that Australian musicians Sean Carey and Beau Golden alleged was a “blatant copying” of the song they wrote for artist Jasmine Rae called “When I Found You.”

But Sheeran’s legal woes are hardly in the past. Currently, his royalties for “Shape of You” are on hold by the U.K.’s High Court after an artist named Sam Chroki claimed the tune borrows the chorus to his song “Oh Why,” which he sent to Sheeran’s circle in an attempt to work with the artist. And earlier this March, a U.S. judge declined to dismiss a lawsuit from a company called Structured Asset Sales LLC, who say they own one-third of “Let’s Get It On” co-writer Ed Townsend’s estate, which is currently suing Sheeran over copyright infringement of the Marvin Gaye track, claiming that Sheeran’s smash hit “Thinking Out Loud” ripped it off. Considering the aforementioned media spectacle regarding the use of Gaye’s catalog, Sheeran is guaranteed to make more headlines as this case progresses.

As “Bad Habits” takes over the pop radio and Spotify playlists this summer, it will be interesting to see whether the party anthem will have any of his industry peers crying foul. If his extensive legal history is any indication, it won’t stop him from churning out another derivative hit, and his unsuspecting fans from eagerly consuming it.

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