At parties in Hollywood, it’s usually considered impolite to storm out of the room wailing, “That’s not who we are! We are not beautiful!”
The line caps Ed Sheeran and Khalid’s “Beautiful People,” a summery electroballad whose gleaming, moaning synthesizer whoosh complements a tale of glamour and woe. Our two modest, lovable, tongue-tied streaming-era superstars are stranded at an awful music-industry party, and they want to leave. Too awkward for the flashing lights, they mumble, “We don’t fit in well, cause we are just ourselves.” Sheeran looks around at the celebrities and paparazzi, aghast. “This is my only fear, that we’d become beautiful people,” declares the English singer-songwriter, before announcing to the world that he is not beautiful. If you listen closely, between the keyboard’s bounce and the click of the drum machine, you can also hear the world’s smallest violin.
“Beautiful People” is one of two Billboard Top 20 Ed Sheeran songs about hating parties. The other is “I Don’t Care,” a somewhat bubblier but musically quite similar duet with Justin Bieber. Here, the awful party is just used for contrast. At first, the room feels queasy and overwhelming, and Sheeran wants to leave: “Don’t think I fit in at this party/Everyone’s got so much to say/Always feel like I’m nobody/Who wants to fit in anyway?” But then his date seizes his hands and drags him onto the dance floor, and the night is saved. The heartwarming glow of the synthesizers during the chorus mirrors how external anxieties melt away when he’s with his baby, yeah; a rapturous cascade of ooh ooh oohs descends.
“I Don’t Care” is a clumsier version of Taylor Swift’s “Call It What You Want,” another hushed, rosy depiction of how a relationship’s comfort can feel vindicating after you’ve suffered the degradations of the outside world—how loving someone can feel like an act of defiance. But Sheeran takes more pleasure in the defiance than the relationship itself, especially when he delivers the line, “I don’t like nobody but you/I hate everyone here.”
This has been a decade of hating parties. Six or seven years ago, the custom was to denounce affluence from the inside. Drake, the Weeknd, and Lana Del Rey attended gatherings where wild, debauched acts took place, looked around with plaintive indifference, turned to face the camera, and cried out in pain. Drugs were consumed; glass tables were smashed. Buzzwords like “anhedonia” and “Bret Easton Ellis” were invoked. As if in response to rising income inequality, these characters gladly basked in luxury while simultaneously condemning themselves as symptoms of cultural decline. The tone was teary-eyed and tragic, the stuff of mock epic.
Such songs are still with us, but the tone has shifted. The voice of censure is no longer a regretful participant. He’s a character like Ed Sheeran, an average guy, down to earth, with a goofy sense of humor and his heart in the right place. He’s willing to let his friends drag him to events as long as he can wag a moralizing finger. All this schmoozing confuses him: Watching people put effort into being social offends his unaffected blokedom. Crucially, he sings with only mild annoyance. When Drake walks through a party and sees a crowd of cold, covetous faces who want to take selfies with him solely for the clout, not because they really love him, it wounds his heart. But when Ed Sheeran walks through the same party, he’ll forget his alienation as soon as he returns home, curls up on the couch, and watches a Netflix original romcom.
Imagine how the Weeknd would perform a song like Lewis Capaldi’s “Hollywood.” The conceit is perfect: heartbroken young man buries his pain in a lifestyle of decadence (“I spent some time in Hollywood trying to find/Something to get the thought of you and I off my mind”), longing for an innocent, irretrievable past (“All the streetlights/illuminate what home used to feel like”). Yet the Scottish singer-songwriter’s dopey baritone and the peppy acoustic guitar project not just cheer but romantic certainty, as the dinky resolution of the melody matches Capaldi’s assurance that his beloved will rejoin him after a period of healthy separation.
Caught between modes is Post Malone, whose music—hazy, sluggish even when it’s catchy, drenched in processed sugar and bong smoke—strains for tormented allure but doesn’t muster the requisite energy. The Texas rapper’s songs occur in the same environments that Drake and the Weeknd sing about, but the tragic emotion has dissipated: By now, these gestures have become so standard that they needn’t be performed any one way, and so Posty raps, “Hollywood’s bleeding/But we call it home” with a dorky grin.
Just as Silicon Valley-style workaholism has replaced conspicuous consumption as the standard rich-person flex, there's been a similar mood shift musically. If the new style is plainer and more tasteful, it’s also crankier. The luxury pornographers were at least conflicted about rejecting sociability, but it’s now a given. Post has a face tattoo that reads, “Always tired,” an apt slogan: Charmless everymen are symptoms of creeping exhaustion. If you hate getting out of bed in the morning and the 60-hour work week, you may find it comforting to know that some of the richest and most famous entertainers in the world also have trouble showering regularly, just like you. It’s not a surprise that these boys hate parties: The workaholic culture behind this exhaustion discourages leisure time. The way Sheeran makes a show of choosing love over socializing in “I Don’t Care” makes sense too. In an ideal world, capitalism would rather you have no life outside work at all, but it’ll settle for isolating you in a monogamous twosome.
To me, “I Don’t Care” sounds like the plight of an overworked married couple with no friends. Maybe one weekend, a co-worker coaxes them out to an event, and when they arrive, they briefly panic. “I hate everyone here,” mumbles one. “You don’t know anyone here,” replies the other. They chat with some people, annoyed to be reminded they won’t have time to develop friendships with these people in the future. They make sure to dance before they leave because it’s hard enough making time for each other.