Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber’s new song: Weepiness cranked up to 11

I Don’t Care is a pop mind-meld where it’s difficult to say where Bieber ends and Sheeran begins

Pop soulmates... Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber. Photograph: Atlantic Records

Pop soulmates... Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber. Photograph: Atlantic Records

 

The faintest whiff of a novelty hook-up hangs over I Don’t Care, the new single from Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber. The two are usually regarded as existing at opposing ends of the pop spectrum – of respectively embodying sleek chart candyfloss and slightly saccharine campfire rock. Yet on I Don’t Care teen poppet and god of ginger rock find common cause, voices interweaving in a valentine to romantic bliss and the ordeal of having to grin and bear it at a-list parties.

The biggest surprise is perhaps how interchangeable they sound. With production by hit-wrangler Max Martin (assisted by Shellback and FRED), the 3 minutesw and 39 seconds nugget was never going to be mistaken for an outtake from William Basinski’s the Disintegration Loops. Nonetheless, it’s striking how effectively it succeeds as heads-down pop – untroubled either by the whiny delivery that has been a latter day Biebs hallmark or by Sheeran’s strangulated earnestness.

Skipping on a mid-tempo beat and a hiccuping acoustic refrain, I Don’t Care is bittersweet chart fodder with the weepiness cranked up all the way. It plunges into the psyches of the singers and uncover, under the pop star exteriors, vulnerable young men who, just like the rest of us, occasionally feel adrift in the world. Maybe that explains why they appear to have undergone a pop mind-meld to the point where it’s difficult to say where Bieber ends and Sheeran begins (the track could have been credited to “Justin Sheeran” or “Ed Bieber”).

True, there are moments when Bieber is definitely at the mic – that syrupy style unmistakable even under Martin’s blizzard-strength production. And, towards the end, you might fancy you can hear Sheeran’s grainier voice crack a little. Mostly, though, this is a two-headed chart monster, our heroes sacrificing their individuality at the alter of good-to-great pop music.

Quite what they hope to gain from the collaboration is hard to say (they have, it should be remembered, previously worked together, with Sheeran penning the 2015 Bieber single Love Yourself).

Sheeran, who this week overtook Adele as contemporary pop’s biggest earner, hardly needs an image makeover. Granted, his reputation as stone-cold hitmaker suffered a wobble following his underwhelming Westlife single Hello My Love. That was more “goodbye credibility”, with Westlife dragging him down rather than, as was presumably the hope, Sheeran elevating them (we are reminded of the old show business maxim: never work with animals, children or middle-aged Irish boybands).

 Nonetheless, he is the supreme champion of crossover acoustic pop and has absolutely nothing to prove to anyone.

Bieber, by contrast, is still trying to cast aside the shackles of teen stardom. How disinterested he looked playing Dublin’s RDS in 2017. Like many at the concert I initially took his mopeyness for intensity, only for it later to dawn just how decoupled he was from his audience. His boredom almost had a centrifugal pull so that you found yourself weirdly mesmerised by his indifference.

But having tied the knot with Hailey Baldwin and spent the past several years lying relatively low, the now 25 year-old would seem have left behind his adolescent miscreant years. When last was he in the news for Instagramming his bum or abandoning his monkey? (calm down – that isn’t a euphemism).

So he would appear to be in a more solid place personality – and that sense of wellbeing with the world is discernible on I Don’t Care. The song’s ultimate message is that, so long as you have someone to love, all the other noise doesn’t matter. It’s a lesson with which Sheeran will also be familiar, after secretly married Cherry Seaborn earlier this year.

All of which might explain the track’s slightly middle-aged underpinning. It’s ultimately about wanting to ghost away from a shindig, put your feet up and spend quality time with your significant other. In other words – about wanting to be a bit of a boring fuddy.  “I don’t care/ I can deal with the bad nights,” Sheeran and Bieber sing. “When I’m with my baby, yeah.”

Nothing wrong with that and how encouraging our pop stars are now chronicling life’s smaller moments, rather than focusing on the big melodramas. What’s great is that they solder these autumnal sentiments to a low-key catchy tune – a song that doesn’t bang down the door and demand you love it (cough, Taylor Swift, cough) but instead wends its way into your affections by increments. It’s subtle – but borderline sublime too. And it may well have birthed the entirely new genre of codger-pop.

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