meta-scriptEd Sheeran's Road To 'Subtract': How Grief And Tragedy Forced The Pop Troubadour To Recalculate His Musical Equation | GRAMMY.com
Ed Sheeran's Road To 'Subtract': How Grief And Tragedy Forced The Pop Troubadour To Recalculate His Musical Equation
Ed Sheeran performs at the 2023 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

Photo: Erika Goldring/Getty Image

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Ed Sheeran's Road To 'Subtract': How Grief And Tragedy Forced The Pop Troubadour To Recalculate His Musical Equation

After more than a decade of planning a series of mathematically titled albums, Ed Sheeran's world turned upside down. As he releases 'Subtract,' revisit the journey of love and loss that led to his most emotional album yet.

GRAMMYs/May 4, 2023 - 06:03 pm

Ed Sheeran has always known he's not exactly a conventional superstar. He even says as much in his new docu-series, Ed Sheeran: The Sum of It All: "I'm specky, ginger hair, really short, English, from the countryside, who stutters and beatboxes. That guy doesn't become a pop star."

And yet, on the verge of releasing his sixth studio album Subtract (out May 5), the red-headed troubadour from the county of Suffolk is undeniably a defining force in modern pop music, with four GRAMMYs, three Diamond-certified singles and more than 63 million albums sold worldwide.

A natural singer/songwriter, Sheeran became a global star upon the release of his 2011 debut album, Plus, which melded acoustic folk-pop with hip-hop rhythms — and, yes, plenty of beatboxing — on breakout hits like "The A Team," "You Need Me, I Don't Need You" and "Lego House."

Of course, like many a celebrated artist before him, the singer had toiled for years in the proverbial trenches to reach his big break. Inspired to start writing music as a preteen after seeing Damien Rice perform a secret show in Dublin, Sheeran booked his first gig in London at 14 — the same year he bought the signature loop pedal that would come to define his live shows.

To make a name for himself in the London scene, a 17-year-old Ed worked tirelessly, sleeping on friends' (or sometimes even newfound fans') couches between gigs and adopting a strategy to stand out from the pack of fellow hopefuls. "The places I really stand out are the places that you'd never really expect to see a white, ginger, chubby singer/songwriter play: rap nights, soul nights, comedy nights," he explained years later to MTV. However, it was ultimately a tale as old as the internet age — going viral on an urban music channel in London called SBTV — that catapulted Sheeran to a record deal, international fame and his first Song of the Year nomination for "The A Team."

When it came time to release his sophomore album, Multiply, in 2014, Sheeran's moonshot into the upper echelons of the music industry had clearly begat success and opportunity. New collaborators on the album included the likes of Rick Rubin, Benny Blanco and Snow Patrol's Johnny McDaid and Pharrell Williams, with the latter coaxing a more hip-hop-influenced blue-eyed soul edge out of Sheeran's songwriting on lead single "Sing."

But even with the framework of A-listers around him, Sheeran still saw himself as a regular guy from the British countryside — even if he now counted Taylor Swift as a close personal friend — and put the pressure on Multiply to prove he wasn't just a flash in the pan.

"I think this particular moment after such a successful first album, it's literally a make or break situation," he said in his 2014 documentary Nine Days and Nights with Ed Sheeran. "Everyone's watching this time, whereas the first time I could make a lot of mistakes and it didn't matter too much 'cause I was learning. This time around's a lot more of a stressful experience. It's whether I can be a career artist for the rest of my life or I had a very big album back in 2011. That's the difference: it's artist of the times or artist of…a career."

Multiply proved to be an even bigger hit than its predecessor, earning Sheeran his first No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 and a behemoth hit in "Thinking Out Loud," which won Sheeran his first two GRAMMYs in 2016 (including the coveted Song Of The Year). Anyone could argue that such runaway success would naturally quell the singer's concerns over his long-term plan, but in the closing moments of his MTV documentary, he revealed his pie-in-the-sky ambitions were only one part of the equation he was constructing for his life.

"I'd define success through ticket sales, so if I can constantly tour for the rest of my life at a high level, I'd say that's success. But I hope in 10 years I've got kids," he confessed. "There'd be nothing worse than touring 20 years from now with no kids and just [a] massive bank account, I can buy whatever I want in the world, but, like, nothing to show for it."

Vocalizing such a domestic goal might seem at disparate odds with what society expects from a contemporary pop star — particularly a male one — but it squared perfectly with the story Sheeran was telling fans on unabashed, heart-on-his-sleeve love songs like "Kiss Me," "Photograph" or "Tenerife Sea."

One year after releasing Multiply, Sheeran unexpectedly reconnected with Cherry Seaborn, a former classmate from Thomas Mills High School in his hometown of Framlingham; she'd gone off to America after graduating to play field hockey at Duke University. At the time, Seaborn was working in New York City, and the pair's romance fueled the creative process for Sheeran's next album, 2017's Divide.

"I just have a weird sense that it's gonna be the career-defining album," the singer predicted in his 2018 Apple Music film Ed Sheeran: Songwriter, which documented the recording process of the studio set. "All the songs have a thread that go through it, and it's all family."

Sheeran was right in thinking Divide would lead to yet a higher peak in his career. "Shape Of You," one of the LP's two lead singles along with the autobiographical "Castle on a Hill," rocketed to the top of the Hot 100, where it spent 12 weeks at No. 1. Its romantic, Seaborn-inspired follow-up "Perfect" became his second career chart-topper, spent another eight weeks reigning over the Hot 100, and scored a guest feature from none other than Beyoncé on its official remix. (Fun fact: as of press time, Divide, which won Sheeran the GRAMMY for Best Pop Vocal Album in 2018, also remains the most-streamed album in Spotify history with more than 12.8 billion streams.)

In the midst of his world tour in support of Divide, Sheeran took a detour from his mathematically titled studio sets to make his fourth album, No.6 Collaborations Project. A star-studded sequel to his 2011 indie EP No. 5 Collaborations Project, No. 6 found the GRAMMY winner enlisting a who's who of collaborators — from Justin Bieber to Cardi B and Camila Cabello to Eminem and 50 Cent — for an album that spanned Latin pop, R&B, country rock and U.K. hip-hop. 

"I've never, ever had features on my albums, apart from when I did No. 5 Collaborations Project," Sheeran explained to Zane Lowe for Apple Music in 2021. "And I've been careful with putting together a solo album. 'Cause, like, when I bought Bob Dylan albums as a kid, you don't buy a Dylan album and it says 'Featuring Travis Scott.' So I wanted to actually make a specific record that just fed my desire for all of that, and ticked my boxes of wanting to work with these people…Yeah, it was never in my five-album plan, it was always gonna be a side project."

He also used the album to share a glimpse into his highly guarded personal life: in the adorable music video for "Put It All On Me" featuring Ella Mai, the singer revealed to fans that he'd secretly married Seaborn in January 2019. After releasing No.6 Collaborations Project and wrapping his tour, Sheeran put his guitar down for the first time in almost a decade and took a year-long sabbatical to travel the world with his new wife.

By 2021, Sheeran was ready to get back to work, and dove headfirst into the world of dance music to craft "Bad Habits" — the lead single off his fifth album Equals. In order to work authentically in the genre, he enlisted help from Fred again.., the British DJ and record producer who had helmed the bulk of No.6 Collaborations Project, telling Lowe, "It's so easy to write an acoustic tune and put a four-on-the-floor beat over it and then just call it a dance song. But actually, Fred is such a connoisseur of dance music that he kind of guided me into it."

The song's layered synths and throbbing beats also belied surprisingly heavy subject matter, which Sheeran toyed with by playing a glitter-eyed, spiky-haired vampire in a neon-pink suit in the accompanying music video. 

"I used to do everything to excess, like real excess," Sheeran confessed after "Bad Habits" was released. "I loved drinking everything in sight and all the other stuff, and I just found when Cherry was six months pregnant, I was like, 'Right, water might break any time and I'm just gonna stop excess and just be available and be the husband that I'm meant to be. And then from there, it's just been kind of clean, healthy living."

The rest of Equals, which arrived in full October 2021, flirted with dance — particularly on Fred-assisted follow-up singles like "Shivers" and "Overpass Graffiti" — but mostly represented a return to musical form as Sheeran stepped into fatherhood for the first time. But despite the finality of its title, the album wasn't the end of the last part of the formula in the singer's head: he still had Subtract to work out.

As he later revealed, Sheeran had long envisioned Subtract as "the perfect acoustic album" and had quietly whittled away at the idea for the better part of a decade. Taylor Swift put him in touch with the National's Aaron Dessner (who had helped her create the magic of her 2020 albums folklore and evermore), and Sheeran had finally started focusing on the long-awaited album in earnest. 

But then, tragedy and hardship struck, not once or even twice, but three times in the space of a single month. First, Seaborn found a cancerous tumor in her arm while pregnant with the couple's second daughter. The prognosis wasn't good, but there was nothing that could be done until after the baby was born. Next, Sheeran was hit with a copyright lawsuit over his biggest hit, "Shape of You," with the plaintiffs accusing him of plagiarizing parts of the song. And then, his world was turned upside down when Jamal Edwards, his best friend from the SBTV days, died of a sudden heart attack brought on by cocaine and alcohol use.

Depression crashed over Sheeran like a tidal wave, with the subsequent riptide pulling him to dark places he'd never experienced. "I felt like I didn't want to live anymore," he told Rolling Stone in a March cover story. "You're under the waves drowning. You're just sort of in this thing. And you can't get out of it."

Thankfully, Seaborn's surgery was successful after she gave birth to daughter Jupiter, and Sheeran won the court case over "Shape of You." But his best friend's death was a permanent loss, and he relied on music as a form of therapy to help him work through his grief.

"I wrote without thought of what the songs would be, I just wrote whatever tumbled out. And in just over a week I replaced a decade's worth of work with my deepest darkest thoughts," the singer shared when he announced the album on social media in March.

Subtract was first preceded by "Eyes Closed," on which he laments, "I pictured this year a little bit different when it hit February/ I step in the bar, it hit me so hard/ Oh, how can it be this heavy?/ Every song reminds me you're gone/ And I feel the lump form in my throat/ 'Cause I'm here alone." Ten days before the album's arrival, he released the emotional "Boat," a quiet anthem about finding resilience in the darkest of times and refusing to let the metaphorical boat sink as the waves batter you from all sides. 

If those two songs are any indication, Sheeran's long-awaited album won't be anything like what's come before it. For starters, it'll mark the end of the pop star's decade-long mathematical era, the plan for which he spells out in The Sum of It All. (Plus was the "addition" to all the EPs he'd released, Multiply made the music exponentially "bigger," Divide was a double album — half acoustic, half R&B — and Equals was "the sum of all the parts.") 

It'll also be Sheeran's first visual album, coming with 14 different music videos to help tell the story of Subtract. But instead of hyper-fixating on creating that "perfect acoustic album" as a postscript to Equals, he threw out a decade's worth of songwriting in favor of laying his soul bare in some of the most vulnerable work of his career.

Early last month, the singer played Subtract live from start to finish at an intimate show at Brooklyn's Kings Theatre, debuting powerful, emotional album cuts like "End of Youth" and "Life Goes On." And while each song touches a raw nerve filled with painful memories, Sheeran remains certain that he made the right choice by channeling his grief into his music.  

"As an artist I didn't feel like I could credibly put a body of work into the world that didn't accurately represent where I am and how I need to express myself at this point in my life," he concluded in his Instagram post. "This album is purely that. It's opening the trapdoor into my soul. For the first time, I'm not trying to craft an album people will like, I'm merely putting something out that's honest and true to where I am in my adult life."

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17 Love Songs That Have Won GRAMMYs: "I Will Always Love You," "Drunk In Love" & More
(L-R) Usher and Alicia Keys during the Super Bowl LVIII halftime show.

Photo: L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

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17 Love Songs That Have Won GRAMMYs: "I Will Always Love You," "Drunk In Love" & More

Over the GRAMMYs' 66-year history, artists from Frank Sinatra to Ed Sheeran have taken home golden gramophones for their heartfelt tunes. Take a look at some of the love songs that have won GRAMMYs.

GRAMMYs/Feb 14, 2024 - 09:42 pm

Editor's Note: This is an update to a story from 2017.

Without heart-bursting, world-shifting love songs, music wouldn't be the same. There are countless classic and chart-topping hits dedicated to love, and several of them have won GRAMMYs.

We're not looking at tunes that merely deal with shades of love or dwell in heartbreak. We're talking out-and-out, no-holds-barred musical expressions of affection — the kind of love that leaves you wobbly at the knees.

No matter how you're celebrating Valentine's Day (or not), take a look at 18 odes to that feel-good, mushy-gushy love that have taken home golden gramophones over the years.

Frank Sinatra, "Strangers In The Night"

Record Of The Year / Best Vocal Performance, Male, 1967

Ol' Blue Eyes offers but a glimmer of hope for the single crowd on Valentine's Day, gently ruminating about exchanging glances with a stranger and sharing love before the night is through.

Willie Nelson, "Always On My Mind"

Best Country Vocal Performance, Male, 1983

In this cover, Nelson sings to the woman in his life, lamenting over those small things he should have said and done, but never took the time. Don't find yourself in the same position this Valentine's Day.

Lionel Richie, "Truly"

Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male, 1983

"Truly" embodies true dedication to a loved one, and it's delivered with sincerity from the king of '80s romantic pop — who gave life to the timeless love-song classics "Endless Love," "Still" and "Three Times A Lady."

Roy Orbison, "Oh, Pretty Woman"

Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male, 1991

Orbison captures the essence of encountering a lovely woman for the first time, and offers helpful one-liners such as "No one could look as good as you" and "I couldn't help but see … you look as lovely as can be." Single men, take notes.

Whitney Houston, "I Will Always Love You"

Record Of The Year, Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female, 1994

Houston passionately delivers a message of love, remembrance and forgiveness on her version of this song, which was written by country sweetheart Dolly Parton and first nominated for a GRAMMY in 1982.

Celine Dion, "My Heart Will Go On (Love Theme From Titanic)"  

Record Of The Year, Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, 1999

This omnipresent theme song from the 1997 film Titanic was propelled to the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 as the story of Jack and Rose (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and GRAMMY winner Kate Winslet) swept the country.

Shania Twain, "You're Still The One"

Best Female Country Vocal Performance, Best Country Song, 1999

Co-written with producer and then-husband Mutt Lange, Twain speaks of beating the odds with love and perseverance in lyrics such as, "I'm so glad we made it/Look how far we've come my baby," offering a fresh coat of optimism for couples of all ages.

Usher & Alicia Keys, "My Boo"

Best R&B Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocals, 2005

"There's always that one person that will always have your heart," sings Usher in this duet with Keys, taking the listener back to that special first love. The chemistry between the longtime friends makes this ode to “My Boo” even more heartfelt, and the love was still palpable even 20 years later when they performed it on the Super Bowl halftime show stage.

Bruno Mars, "Just The Way You Are"

Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, 2011

Dating advice from Bruno Mars: If you think someone is beautiful, you should tell them every day. Whether or not it got Mars a date for Valentine's Day, it did get him a No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100.

Cee Lo Green & Melanie Fiona, "Fool For You" 

Best Traditional R&B Performance, 2012

It's a far cry from his previous GRAMMY-winning song, "F*** You," but "Fool For You" had us yearning for "that deep, that burning/ That amazing unconditional, inseparable love."

Justin Timberlake, "Pusher Love Girl" 

Best R&B Song, 2014

Timberlake is so high on the love drug he's "on the ceiling, baby." Timberlake co-wrote the track with James Fauntleroy, Jerome Harmon and Timbaland, and it's featured on his 2013 album The 20/20 Experience, which flew high to No. 1 on the Billboard 200.

Beyoncé & Jay-Z, "Drunk In Love"

Best R&B Performance / Best R&B Song, 2015

While "Drunk In Love" wasn't the first love song that won Beyoncé and Jay-Z a GRAMMY — they won two GRAMMYs for "Crazy In Love" in 2004 — it is certainly the sexiest. This quintessential 2010s bop from one of music's most formidable couples captures why their alliance set the world's hearts aflame (and so did their steamy GRAMMYs performance of it).

Ed Sheeran, "Thinking Out Loud"

Song Of The Year / Best Pop Solo Performance, 2016

Along with his abundant talent, Sheeran's boy-next-door charm is what rocketed him to the top of the pop ranks. And with swooning lyrics and a waltzing melody, "Thinking Out Loud" is proof that he's a modern-day monarch of the love song.

Lady Gaga & Bradley Cooper, "Shallow"

Best Pop Duo/Group Performance / Best Song Written For Visual Media, 2019

A Star is Born's cachet has gone up and down with its various remakes, but the 2018 iteration was a smash hit. Not only is that thanks to moving performances from Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, but particularly thanks to their impassioned, belt-along duet "Shallow."

H.E.R. & Daniel Caesar, "Best Part"

Best R&B Performance, 2019

"If life is a movie/ Know you're the best part." Who among us besotted hasn't felt their emotions so widescreen, so thunderous? Clearly, H.E.R. and Daniel Caesar have — and they poured that feeling into the GRAMMY-winning ballad "Best Part."

Kacey Musgraves, "Butterflies"

Best Country Solo Performance, 2019

As Musgraves' Album Of The Year-winning LP Golden Hour shows, the country-pop star can zoom in or out at will, capturing numberless truths about the human experience. With its starry-eyed lyrics and swirling production, "Butterflies" perfectly encapsulates the flutter in your stomach that love can often spark.

Dan + Shay & Justin Bieber, "10,000 Hours"

Best Country Duo/Group Performance, 2021

When country hook-meisters Dan + Shay teamed up with pop phenom Justin Bieber, their love song powers were unstoppable. With more than 1 billion Spotify streams alone, "10,000 Hours" has become far more than an ode to just their respective wives; it's an anthem for any lover.

Lovesick Or Sick Of Love: Listen To GRAMMY.com's Valentine's Day Playlist Featuring Taylor Swift, Doja Cat, Playboi Carti, Olivia Rodrigo, FKA Twigs & More

2023 In Review: 5 Trends That Defined Pop Music
(L-R): Taylor Swift, Tate McRae, *NSYNC, Olivia Rodrigo, Ed Sheeran

Photos (L-R): Buda Mendes/TAS23/Getty Images for TAS Rights Management, Todd Owyoung/NBC via Getty Images, Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for MTV, Mike Coppola/Getty Images for MTV, Theo Wargo/Getty Images

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2023 In Review: 5 Trends That Defined Pop Music

From massive world stages to hilarious TikTok trends, pop music was all about the fun in 2023 — which led to huge hits and pop culture moments alike.

GRAMMYs/Dec 22, 2023 - 04:15 pm

There's arguably only one way to sum up pop music in 2023: it belonged to the women.

Whether SZA or Olivia Rodrigo were revealing the cracks in their relationships through catchy hooks, or Taylor Swift was taking over stadiums around the globe, female artists dominated genre charts and trends. And even a fictional female figure helped spawn some of the year's biggest pop tracks.  

It was also a big year for legends and classic hits; pop mainstays showed just why they became superstars in the first place, and TikTok helped resurface some pop songs of old.

Below, take a deeper dive into some of 2023's biggest moments in pop.

Ex-Lovers Were Called Out

Nothing burns more than a woman scorned. This year, pop stars and rising artists were both shameless in calling out their exes for their wrongdoings.

One of the biggest moments came courtesy of SZA. The artist is known for wearing her heart on her sleeve, and SOS album highlight "Kill Bill" was a buffet of toxic "what if" scenarios. The singer let jealousy overcome her emotions as she couldn't stand to see her ex-lover move on: "I might kill my ex, I still love him though/ Rather be in jail than alone." On a similar note, Olivia Rodrigo's "vampire" finds the pop star tapping into a new level of fury. The lead single from her sophomore album, GUTS, "vampire" shoots bloody daggers at a manipulative boyfriend.

But it wasn't all about vengeance. In Miley Cyrus' case, her best form of revenge came in the form of forgiveness. Her "Flowers" anthem was thought to be inspired by Cyrus' divorce from Liam Hemsworth, but its messaging is relatable to anyone who had to learn how to move on from a broken heart. "I can take myself dancing and I can hold my own hand/ I can love me better than you can," Cyrus assures.

All three singles topped the Billboard Hot 100 this year, marking SZA's first solo No. 1, Cyrus' first in a decade and Rodrigo's first from her new album era. The singles also all earned 2024 GRAMMY nominations for both Song Of The Year (alongside Billie Eilish's "What Was I Made For?", Dua Lipa's "Dance the Night", Jon Batiste's "Butterfly", Lana Del Rey's "A&W" and Taylor Swift's "Anti-Hero") and Record Of The Year (next to Billie Eilish's What Was I Made For?", Boygenius' "Not Strong Enough", Jon Batiste's "Worship", Taylor Swift's "Anti-Hero" and Victoria Monét's "On My Mama"). 

Rising stars also joined in on the fun. After Tate McRae scored her biggest hit to date with the playful “greedy,” she delivered a fiery kiss-off anthem with “exes.” Elsewhere, Benee called her ex a "waste of f—king time" on the rowdy "Green Honda," British singer Mae Stephens contemplated all of her options on "If We Ever Broke Up," RAYE brooded over "dumb decisions" and booze on "Escapism," and Los Angeles alt-pop singer Leah Kate's jam-packed her debut album Super Over with advice on cutting off toxic relationships.

Classic Songs Made A TikTok Resurgence

TikTok has proved its social media dominance over the past few years. But aside from pop's new generation enjoying viral success, the genre's OGs also found their classic hits reborn.

Colbie Caillat's "Bubbly" single warmed our hearts when it debuted in 2007, and in true Gen Z fashion, it reemerged thanks to a meme trend. TikTok users placed the song over high-energy performance videos like those of Travis Scott, Justin Bieber and Tyler, The Creator which made for a hilarious juxtaposition. Caillat kept the momentum by making TikTok duets and even sharing an acoustic version of the song on her YouTube page.

Bridgit Mendler's 2013 single "Hurricane" also got a second wind for its 10th anniversary where female users placed it over humorous self-deprecating videos about being delusional over men. Jessie J's 2011 "Price Tag" hit sparked a dance trend with a sped-up version of the song and Lana Del Rey's "Radio" (a deep cut from 2012's Born To Die debut) inspired users to make videos that showcased how "sweet like cinnamon" their lives are.

Career-Spanning Tours Took Over The World

What better way to celebrate a decorated career than with a massive tour? Pop stars from all corners of the genre commemorated their many years (or in some cases, decades) in the music industry by going down memory lane with their fans worldwide.

The most notable trek was, of course, Taylor Swift's Eras Tour, which kicked off on March 17 and will conclude on Dec. 8, 2024. The pop star — who is arguably bigger than she's ever been, nearly 20 years into her career — used the stadium tour to pay homage to her extensive discography with a nonstop three-hour spectacle. Swift's impact quickly made history: the Eras Tour surpassed $1 billion in revenue in early December, already making it the highest-grossing music tour of all time, according to Guinness World Records. Its accompanying concert film, Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour, also became the highest-grossing concert film of all time with $250 million earned globally as of press time.

But Swift wasn't the only star celebrating their music milestones on the road. After a thrilling reunion in 2019, the Jonas Brothers continued to shock fans with what's possibly the most challenging tour of their career. Titled "Five Albums. One Night. The World Tour," the trio featured their entire discography in a set list that included over 60 songs. 

Another artist who rode the ambitious train was Madonna. The pop icon's Celebration Tour was, well, a celebration of a genre-defining career spanning over four decades. Kicking off in October in London, the tour features a retrospective setlist that is a treat for diehard fans, featuring singles she hasn't performed live in decades including 1990's "Justify My Love," 1998's "Nothing Really Matters" and 2002's "Die Another Day."

On the pop-rock end, The Maine's "Sweet Sixteen Tour" highlighted the band's growth over the past 16 years through nine albums, while Boys Like Girls' anchored their comeback after an 11-year hiatus with the North American Speaking Our Language Tour.

Movies Had Major Music Moments

While music has long been a driving force in films, this year saw the pairing excitedly take over pop culture. Greta Gerwig's Barbie movie notably had the world seeing pink, with the iconic doll infiltrating everything from fashion to real estate.

Not surprisingly, the accompanying soundtrack was a pop-filled joyride. Featuring production from pop mastermind Mark Ronson, the 17-song Barbie: The Album featured the likes of Lizzo, Charli XCX, PinkPantheress, Sam Smith, GAYLE and FIFTY FIFTY. But perhaps most notably, the album dominated the Best Song Written For Visual Media category at the 2024 GRAMMYs: Dua Lipa's disco-laced "Dance The Night," Ryan Gosling's TikTok-trending "I'm Just Ken," Ice Spice's and Nicki Minaj's sparkly collaboration "Barbie World," and Billie Eilish's gripping ballad "What Was I Made For?" compete with Rihanna's Black Panther hit "Lift Me Up."

The year also called for reunions and revivals, with the biggest shock arguably belonging to NSYNC. Many fans were impatiently waiting for the boys to make a return, and they did so with "Better Place." The Trolls soundtrack highlight marked the boy band's first song after a two-decade-long music hiatus (which was accompanied by an appearance at the MTV Video Music Awards, where they presented with Best Pop Video). Under the sea, Halle Bailey refreshed a Disney classic with The Little Mermaid live-action reimagining, while the nostalgia train continued with movie musicals Wonka and Mean Girls (out in January).

Pop Titans Were Inescapable

Thanks to social media, it may seem like Gen Z artists have overthrown their elder pop counterparts. But make no mistake, the veterans are showing they aren't so easily shakeable.

This year, many preserved their legacies through various mediums. Taylor Swift wasn't the only superstar proving her staying power on the road (and in stadiums); Beyoncé's Renaissance World Tour cemented her legendary status as the highest-grossing tour by a Black artist, while Ed Sheeran's The Mathematics Tour broke attendance records worldwide.

Adele and Usher ruled Sin City with their Las Vegas residencies, with the latter set to perform at the 2024 Super Bowl halftime show. The pop titans even showed their dominance on television, with Kelly Clarkson (who also had a Vegas stint) and Jennifer Hudson gaining a new audience with their respective talk shows.

After a year filled with viral moments and comebacks, we're eager to see how artists will continue to uplift pop music in 2024.

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How Skrillex & Fred Again.. Became Dance Music's Favorite Friendship: A Timeline
Fred Again (L) & Skrillex (R) in 2023

Photos: Kate Green/Getty Images & Venla Shalin/Redferns

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How Skrillex & Fred Again.. Became Dance Music's Favorite Friendship: A Timeline

Before they both play Ill Points in Miami this October, journey back through the highlights of Skrillex and Fred again..'s party-starting bromance.

GRAMMYs/Oct 9, 2023 - 07:13 pm

Few friendships in dance music have burned as brightly as the bromance between Fred Gibson, aka Fred again.., and Sonny Moore, a.k.a. Skrillex. In a few short years, the English phenom and Los Angeles-born bass don have forged a dynamic bond as DJ partners, co-producers, and mutual muses.

Brought together as fellow Ed Sheeran collaborators, their partnership went legit on "Rumble," an instant wobbly-bass classic featuring grime MC Flowdan, which Fred teased in his star-making 2022 Boiler Room set. Mere months after "Rumble" officially dropped that January, they closed Coachella with a historic set alongside their buddy and studio secret weapon Four Tet. 

Alongside all the music and viral moments, the friendship has clearly given Skrillex — a producer always looking for his next musical evolution — a new lease on life. 

After a pinch-yourself start to the year that also included a sold-out show with Four Tet at New York’s Madison Square Garden, Skrillex and Fred again.. will meet again this October at Ill Points in Miami. While billed separately, there’s no keeping these two apart. With much more expected from this superstar pairing, we’re taking a look back through their friendship so far. 

2019: Before his breakthrough as a solo artist, Fred again.. earned his stripes as a producer for U.K. grime acts like Headie One, Stormzy and AJ Tracey, and pop stadium-filler Ed Sheeran. While hailing from different sides of the Atlantic, he and Skrillex were destined to meet some day. 

Returning as a producer on Sheeran’s 2019 album, No.6 Collaborations Project, Fred again.. intersected with Skrillex (and producer/engineer Kenny Beats) on "Take Me Back to London," featuring Stormzy. Fusing pop hooks with grime swagger, the song hinted at the crisp basslines and drums to come from future Skrillex/Fred team-ups. 

In this period, Fred played Skrillex an early iteration of "Rumble," which he’d been trading back and forth with Flowdan. "The first time I ever met Sonny, I played him the first version we had," Fred recalled in an interview with BBC Radio 1’s Jack Saunders.

Skrillex requested the "stems" (the individual isolated parts of a recording) and made a version that he worried missed the mark. "I didn’t like it," he also told Saunders. "I thought I ruined the song." He and Fred tweaked the elements until it  clicked — and their friendship was born.

2021: With COVID-19 keeping artists grounded, Fred again.. released Actual Life (April 14 - December 17 2020), a collection of achingly personal electronic elegies that cemented his signature sound.

He followed it later that year with Actual Life 2 (February 2 - October 15 2021), which explored themes of grief and catharsis through a collage of electronic production, samples and audio clips from the producer’s "actual life." Skrillex, meanwhile, kicked off the year by releasing his collaboration with Four Tet and Starrah, "Butterflies," setting the stage for more transatlantic collaborations. 

June 2022: To kick off summer, fast friends Skrillex and Fred again.. rented a house in the idyllic English village of Pangbourne to work on new music. As Skrillex recalled on Instagram, he had an album to finish, while Fred again.. was finalising music for his then-imminent Boiler Room debut. Four Tet agreed to come and hang out for a bit, bringing his toothbrush just in case he was compelled to stay. As Skrillex put it on Instagram, "This moment marked the birth of the Pangbourne House Mafia."

July 2022: When Fred again.. rolled up to his Boiler Room debut in London, no one could’ve predicted the energy to come. Surrounded on all sides by sweaty, screaming admirers, the producer blazed through a hybrid DJ-live set that blended house, U.K. garage, grime, drum & bass, and pop.

He also used the set to preview a few of his collaborations with Skrillex, including "Rumble," which sent fans clamouring for clues online. The Boiler Room session blew up on YouTube (where it now has 22 million views), catapulting Fred again.. and his to-be-released collaborations to a whole new level. 

October 2022: While promoting his third album, Actual Life 3 (January 1 - September 9 2022), Fred again.. sat down for an interview with Apple Music’s Zane Lowe at Skrillex’s house in Los Angeles. "We’ve done a home swap at the moment," the producer told Lowe, "so he’s staying at mine in London and I’m at his in L.A." Now, that’s true friendship.

January 2023: After making fans wait, Skrillex and Fred again.. Kicked off the year with a bang and finally released "Rumble" via Skrillex’s OWSLA label. The pair also grabbed Four Tet for a surprise back-to-back-to-back DJ set at London’s Electric Ballroom, which featured a whirlwind of new and unreleased music. What started as a one-off show rolled into three extremely sold-out nights at different venues, with the trio of DJs clearly having the time of their lives.

February 2023: In a career-defining month, Skrillex released his much-anticipated album Quest for Fire, which featured collaborators like Porter Robinson, Missy Elliot, Mr Oizo, Bobby Raps, and — of course — Fred again.. and Four Tet. To celebrate the release, the "Pangbourne House Mafia" casually announced a show at New York’s iconic Madison Square Garden, which sold out within three minutes. To warm up, the trio created pandemonium with an impromptu DJ set in Times Square, where they trialled some new edits ahead of the big show.

April 2023: After selling out Madison Square Garden without breaking a sweat, and releasing team-up track, "Baby again.." in March, the unlikely supergroup of Fred, Skrillex and Four Tet went looking for the next high.

As it happened, that opportunity came on the second weekend of Coachella. With Frank Ocean relinquishing his Sunday headlining spot after a divisive weekend performance, the festival left a tantalizing TBA in the final slot. Before long, the cat was out of the bag, and dance music’s new favorite trio were headed to the desert with memeable merch bearing the slogan, OMG TBA.

"I didn’t think I was gonna be back with my brothers like this for a longgggg time," Fred again.. wrote on Instagram. "Until last night. And here we are." 

Appearing on a circular stage deep in the crowd, the DJs closed down Coachella with the excitement of three friends who couldn’t quite believe their luck. 

June 2023: With the members of the "Pangbourne House Mafia" returning to life as solo artists after Coachella, Fred again.. announced a three-night run at New York’s Forest Hills Stadium in October, followed by Ill Points in Miami, and then eight shows at Shrine Expo Hall in Los Angeles. With LA being Skrillex’s hometown, the two producers are sure to cook up something new - after, this is one friendship with a lot more to give.

NEIL FRANCES Just Want To Have Fun & Get Fuzzy

11 Reasons Why 2023 Is Ed Sheeran's Definitive Year: Two Albums, Stadium Attendance Records & More
Ed Sheeran performs at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in April 2023.

Photo: Erika Goldring/Getty Images

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11 Reasons Why 2023 Is Ed Sheeran's Definitive Year: Two Albums, Stadium Attendance Records & More

What may just be Ed Sheeran's busiest year yet has arguably also been his most career-defining. From epic special guests on tour to unique fan surprises, take a look at 11 ways 2023 has been monumental for the pop superstar.

GRAMMYs/Oct 3, 2023 - 06:20 pm

It's hard to say that Ed Sheeran is having a "moment" — since his debut album + in 2011, he's had countless groundbreaking career milestones. But 2023 may just be his most monumental year yet.

Sheeran's banner 2023 came on the heels of what was arguably his hardest year to date, as his Disney+ documentary, Ed Sheeran: The Sum Of It All detailed. The four-part doc sees the star cope with losing his best friend, his wife's cancer diagnosis, and his copyright case for "Shape of You" — and in turn, channeling all of that pain and grief into his sixth album, Subtract. By the end of the doc, Sheeran says of his wife's positive prognosis and the pending album releases, "All great news. And heading into a year where, hopefully, it's all good news."

Fortunately for the four-time GRAMMY winner, 2023 has been all good news. Sheeran himself has said this year has been his best year so far, telling fans on Reddit, "The older I get, the more I feel I'm figuring it out and having more fun with it." 

His latest 2023 achievement comes in the form of Autumn Variations, Sheeran's seventh album and second in just five months. What's more, the LP arrived just one week after Sheeran broke yet another stadium attendance record at Los Angeles' SoFi Stadium, where he ended his North American Mathematics Tour on Sept. 23. (He'll play a rescheduled show in Las Vegas on Oct. 28 after experiencing production issues on Sept. 9.)

Below, check out 11 moments that helped 2023 become Ed Sheeran's definitive year.

Paying Tribute to Jamal Edwards

Sheeran started out the new year with a beautiful tribute to his late best friend, Jamal Edwards, on the YouTube channel for SBTV, which Edwards founded in 2006. Shot in Stamford Bridge — the home to Edwards' favorite football team, Chelsea F.C. — surrounded by candles, Sheeran raps about the anguish over losing his "brother" and vows to keep his legacy alive.

Edwards, who helped launch Sheeran's career in the early days, died suddenly from a drug-induced heart attack in February 2022. His death hit Sheeran hard, inspiring several songs for Subtract, including lead single "Eyes Closed." The F64 video relaunched the series for SBTV and garnered over 2 million views.

"Everyone remembers him the way the media is telling you — that he was a mogul and he set up SBTV and he was worth this and that," Sheeran emotionally told Zane Lowe in their Apple Music interview upon Subtract's May release. "But, he was just a really great, lovely, funny bloke."

Breaking Multiple Stadium Attendance Records

Throughout his Mathematics World Tour this year, Sheeran has broken several stadium attendance records — some of which were his own records. He first broke some in Melbourne, Brisbane, Wellington, and Perth in February and March;. at Melbourne's MCG Stadium, Sheeran initially broke the record by performing to a 107,000-strong crowd on March 2, but topped that record 24 hours later with 109,500 fans for this March 3 show. 

"Ed loves to break a record and he's smashed this one," Matt Gudinski, CEO of Mushroom Group, the live entertainment management group for the Mathematics World Tour, said in a press release.

In North America, Sheeran continued smashing attendance records in Santa Clara, Minneapolis, New Jersey, Seattle, Denver, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Foxborough, Chicago, Nashville, Kansas City, Vancouver, and Los Angeles. As Sheeran noted on Instagram, his biggest US attendance was at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, where he played to more than 82,000 fans. 

"My dad told me if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere, and today was really reminiscing about playing my first show at mercury lounge in 2012 to 130 people," he added in the caption. "It feels like a dream today."

Debuting A Disney+ Docuseries

In May, Sheeran released a documentary series with Disney+ alongside his Subtract release. It documented the process of the album, and showed a little more depth into Sheeran's personal life — one that he keeps very private.

His wife, Cherry Seaborn, came up with the idea of the documentary after she was diagnosed with cancer while pregnant with their second child. Fortunately, it ended up being less serious than it was initially diagnosed, but it made her reflect on her own mortality — what people's perception of her would be and what she would leave behind. 

"For Ed, the whole point is that he wants to say to people, 'I'm not just this music machine. I'm not just this robot that tries to get No. 1. I'm a father. I'm a son. I'm a friend. I'm a husband,'" Seaborn reflects in the docuseries.

Filmed throughout 2022, the series follows Sheeran as he processes his pain and grief over the loss of Edwards, while also working on his visual album. The four-episode series focused on the themes Love, Loss, Focus, and Release.

After the release of the album and documentary, Sheeran told Z100's The Elvis Duran Morning Show how much he enjoys hearing that people are connecting with both the record and docuseries despite its sad undertones. 

"What I didn't want is like, 'sad pop star does sad documentary and sad album,'" Sheeran explains. "What I wanted was to do a sort of snapshot of grief and depression and have people connect it to their own feelings. The people that made the documentary for me, two of them lost their mothers whilst we were doing the documentary. They found the process cathartic by making it and watching it. I think it's good."

Releasing Subtract

Subtract, the final album in Sheeran's mathematically titled series, arrived on May 5. It's the first of his albums to have a visual album alongside it — 14 different music videos created for each song.

During his press tour, Sheeran shared that he loved all of his albums, but Subtract reflected more of who he was at the start of his career as an acoustic singer/songwriter. Because of this, he felt uncomfortable about the release, unsure how it would do commercially.

"It's foreign territory for me," Sheeran told Zane Lowe. "Usually with Equals, Plus or Multiply, it's like you write for three years and pick the best songs and then that's the album, whereas this one I wrote for a month and all the songs came out. It's not even necessarily a risk because my fans originally liked me for my singer/songwriter stuff, but it's the unknown of not having 'Shivers' to fall back on. Each of my albums, I've always been like I've got this."

Subtract in fact has been a commercial success: Sheeran reached his sixth No. 1 on the UK Music Chart, becoming the UK's fastest-selling album of 2023 so far, shifting 76,000 chart units in its opening week. It also reached No. 1 in Australia, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Scotland, and Switzerland, and hit No. 2 on the Billboard 200 in the U.S.

Within two weeks of each other in May, Sheeran won two copyright infringement lawsuits involving his 2014 GRAMMY-winning song "Thinking Out Loud," which was sued for its similarities to Marvin Gaye's classic "Let's Get It On." He believes the verdict would help protect the creative process for songwriters in the U.S. and globally; Sheeran even claimed he would quit the music industry if he had lost the case.

"I am obviously very happy with the outcome of the case and it looks like I am not having to retire from my day job after all," he said after the rulings. "But at the same time I'm unbelievably frustrated that baseless claims like this are allowed to go to court at all."

Sheeran testified in court with his guitar, playing demos for the jury to prove the 1-3-4-5 chord progression at issue was a common "building block" of pop music and couldn't be owned. Music experts for the defense also proved that the chords were used prior to Gaye's song. After three hours of deliberations that followed the two-week trial, the jury were in favor of Sheeran, finding that he independently created his hit single. 

Performing With Luke Combs At The ACM Awards

On May 11, Sheeran made his Academy of Country Music Awards debut with his Subtract track "Life Goes On," which he performed as a duet with country superstar Luke Combs. The duet version of the song was officially released following the show.

While it was Sheeran's first ACM appearance, it wasn't the first time he and Combs have performed together. Combs — who has covered Sheeran's song "Dive" many times — brought Sheeran out as a surprise guest while singing "Dive" during his C2C Festival set in March 2022. (Combs later released an official recorded version of his cover.)

Their friendship hit a whole new level after Sheeran posted a video on Instragram of the country star teaching him how to shotgun a beer. Combs finished his beer within three seconds, to which Sheeran said, "That's really impressive."

Surprising Fans All Over The Country

In conjunction with the release of Subtract in May, Sheeran teamed up with American Express to create a weekend Subtract Pop-Up experience in New York City, Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago, and Boston. Along with giving fans an interactive take on the album, Sheeran made surprise appearances to the pop-ups in NYC, LA, and Dallas, performing several songs outside each venue.

Sheeran made surprise appearances at iconic establishments on several stops of his tour — from performing "Lego House" at the LEGO Store at the Mall of America in Minnesota, to playing barista at the Starbucks' original Pike Place location in Seattle, to serving up cheesesteaks at Philadelphia's famous Philip's Steaks. He also sang "Thinking Out Loud" for not one, but two sets of newlyweds: one at his favorite karaoke bar in Nashville, and another at Little White Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas.

Before his Chicago concert at Soldier Field, Sheeran stepped behind the counter of The Wieners Circle, a restaurant notoriously known for hurling insults at their customers while serving hot dogs. According to a tweet from the establishment, Sheeran's stint seemingly held up his reputation as one of the nicest guys in the industry: "Our newest trainee @edsheeran has a lot to learn, he's way too proper and friendly."

He added to the fun with Autumn Variations, performing tracks from the album in fans' homes, which he unveiled in a series of videos and an album version titled Autumn Variations (Fan Living Room Sessions).

Giving Intimate Subtract Concerts

Alongside Sheeran's North American stadium shows, he played a series of intimate performances of Subtract in its entirety (as well as his biggest songs) at much smaller venues. The Subtract Tour was inspired by Sheeran's performance at London's Union Chapel, where he played the tracks in front of a crowd for the first time. As he was performing, he began to weep — a rare occurrence for the star, but an important learning moment.

"Every time you release music, it starts to just belong to the public. That's why music is really special because whenever an artist releases music, it does belong to you guys. It does become your stories and your thoughts," Sheeran said during his Subtract Tour show in Los Angeles. "And what I wanted with this album was to come out and play it more so I can feel less sad about it. It's kind of a grieving process for me to sort of stand on stage and sing these songs."

Performing Alongside His Heroes & Fellow Superstars

It's no surprise that a global superstar like Ed Sheeran would draw a number of famous folks to his concerts — like Chef Gordon Ramsey, Chris Hemsworth, Lil Nas X, and Matt Damon, who all paid Sheeran a surprise visit at his Metlife show.

But it was the guests that appeared next to him on stage that surprised the fans, too. Ontario-bred singer Shawn Mendes surprised the crowd at Rogers Centre in Toronto, where the pair sang Sheeran's 2011 single "Lego House" and Mendes' 2017 hit, "There's Nothin' Holding Me Back." Mendes had originally wanted to attend the concert, but Sheeran suggested, "You can't just come to the show. You gotta come up and sing a song."

When Sheeran's opener Khalid couldn't perform in Foxborough, Massachusetts, Sheeran called on some friends to help out: John Mayer on June 30 and Little Big Town on July 1. After Mayer opened the show, he later joined Sheeran on stage to sing "Thinking Out Loud" which they've performed together the 2015 GRAMMYs and again at Mayer's show in Tokyo in 2019.

"When Ed asked me, the idea was just too intriguing to pass up," Mayer wrote on Instagram. "I love the opportunity to help cover for two of my friends at the same time."

Two weeks later, Sheeran asked his Detroit crowd if he could perform a cover of the city's rap icon Eminem. In the middle of singing "Lose Yourself," Eminem emerged from beneath the stage and joined in on the song. They continued their duets with Eminem's 2000 hit "Stan," which the duo performed together during the rapper's induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame last year.

"I remember spraying my hair yellow and rapping Eminem in the school talent show when I was 11, insane to be able to bring him out to my show in Detroit," Sheeran reminisced on Instagram. "Really a moment I will never forget, a real career and life highlight."

Sheeran continued the trend of bringing out a performer from their hometown with Macklemore at Lumen Field in Seattle. Sheeran caught up with Macklemore that day — as he told the crowd, they've been friends for 10 years — and invited him to perform alongside him that night."

The duo, who performed together back in 2014 at the iHeartRadio Music Festival, sang Macklemore's hits "Thrift Shop" and "Can't Hold Us." 

Opening For John Mayer At The Wiltern

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After opening for Sheeran at Gillette Stadium, John Mayer called on his friend to repay the favor to support a good cause at LA's The Wiltern on Sept. 19. The show benefitted the Heart and Armor Foundation, which supports the health of veterans of war.

Sheeran kicked off the evening with seven songs, including "Castle on the Hill," "Bad Habits," "Shivers," and "Shape of You." He later joined Mayer on stage to duet on 2006's Continuum fan favorite, "Slow Dancing in a Burning Room," and a cover of Tom Petty's "Free Fallin." 

Following the duets, the two hugged and Sheeran told the crowd, "I just said to John, 'I feel like I'm going to watch that on YouTube for the rest of my life.' That was so special."

Releasing His First Album On His Own Label

As personal as Subtract was for Sheeran, Autumn Variations is truly his very own. It marks his first album released on his own label, Gingerbread Man Records.

Like he did on Subtract, Sheeran teamed up with The National's Aaron Dessner to create Autumn Variations, which he released on Sept. 29. Inspired by the composer Sir Edward Elgar — who composed Enigma Variations, where each of the 14 compositions were about a different one of his friends — Sheeran wanted to do the same about his own pals. In the fall of 2021, Sheeran and Dessner started working on music together, which Sheeran said in a statement "captured the feeling of autumn so wonderfully." 

"When I went through a difficult time at the start of last year, writing songs helped me understand my feelings and come to terms with what was going on, and when I learned about my friends' different situations, I wrote songs, some from their perspectives, some from mine, to capture how they and I viewed the world at that time," he added. "There were highs of falling in love and new friendships among lows of heartbreak, depression, loneliness and confusion."

By going through his own record label, Autumn Variations will mark the first studio album that Sheeran will own the copyrights to. With ownership of his work, Sheeran has more freedom to release whatever he wants and however he wants to — and not worry about industry pressures. 

As Sheeran revealed in an "Ask Me Anything" session on his Instagram stories on the eve of Autumn Variations' release, he has no expectations for the album to perform as well commercially as his past releases. The past year reminded him why he originally wanted to become an artist: to be able to release music that he wants out there.

"I haven't released an album independently since I was 19," Sheeran said. "I'm super excited to just put an album out for the sake of putting an album out and not having any sort of commercial pressures around that. And yeah, no singles, no videos and I hope you love it. It's meant to just feel like a warm hug."

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