The Grotesque Is No Longer Shocking in Pop3 min read
Ed Sheeran might be the worst monster in the history of pop music. In the video for his recent single “Bad Habits,” the British singer plays a benevolent vampire. Prowling the streets in a hot pink suit, he stalks the night but maims no one. His bloodthirst is quenched, instead, by ketchup. Colorful and clogged with bad CGI, the Dave Meyers-directed clip constantly suggests the potential for violence and gore but never commits. Sheeran and his fanged cohorts pursue a frightened mob of would-be victims for apparently no reason at all (it is certainly not for their necks), sending the throng into fits of panic with a flash of their teeth. At one point, a man spews on the sidewalk, the slippery substance causing a 10-person pileup amid the stampede of bodies. When dawn reclaims the London high street, the vamps scurry to shelter as the sunlight peels off their skin like old paint. Sheeran, however, returns to his fangless human form, perched on a rooftop with his trusty six-string.
In the past, Sheeran’s visuals have leaned on PG-13-humor, fairytale romance, and the triumph of the everyman. But “Bad Habits” finds him reaching for something more… something edgy, god forbid. Timid as it may be, the video represents pop’s nice guy getting in on the grotesque, one of the most severe aesthetic trends of the past decade.
Sheeran’s Fisher-Price approach to the trend—which typically relies on bloody gore, disfigured flesh, and general putrescence—arrived almost six months after the Weeknd terminated his After Hours era, perhaps the apex of grotesque imagery within the pop sphere. The singer released a string of music videos between 2019 and early 2021, each one progressively more brutal than the last. Throughout the series, the Weeknd’s physical state deteriorates to the point of wicked farce. First he is bruised and bandaged. Then he is decapitated, his severed head brandished by his executioner on a nightclub dancefloor. You’d be wrong to think that’s the worst thing you can do with a detached head; in last year’s video for “Too Late,” the Weeknd’s cranium is discovered rolling down the road by two post-op plastic surgery addicts. Faced with the irresistible allure of the disembodied noggin, the women shuttle it back to their mansion. They hire a male escort, behead him, and sew the Weeknd’s head onto his greased-up, muscular corpse. Once their specimen is intact, they fuck it.
This stylized imagery, heinous and perversely hilarious, was once foreign to the purview of chart-topping pop stars. For years it was weaponized by hard rock and experimental artists who sought similar extremes in their music. Dating back to the late ’60s, metal and its spawn of heavier subgenres have long been the cradle of horrific stimuli—all on some Satanic mission to corrupt the American teen, as the Christian right often argued. But in the past 13 years, the gruesome and gory has been liberated from that stronghold and embraced by the status quo, a generation raised on nu metal, Hot Topic, and limitless access to shocking imagery. In 2019’s “Raising Hell,” Kesha murders her husband and drags his bloody, sheet-wrapped body down a flight of stairs; A$AP Rocky gives Tyler, the Creator a grisly face transplant halfway through 2017’s “Who Dat Boy”; Troye Sivan’s bleeding heart gets broken—and literally squeezed—by his love interest in 2019’s “Lucky Strike.” Twenty-five years ago, MTV refused to air the uncensored version of Nine Inch Nails’ iconic “Closer” visual, with its suspended beef carcasses and throbbing, anatomical heart. Now those images could easily pair with a Top 40 hit.