Studying sociology is a great opportunity to try to answer life’s big questions – why do people fall into patterns of behaviour? What enables some groups to wield power over others? And why do so many people enjoy the music of Ed Sheeran?
Sheeran is not only one of the most popular musicians in the UK right now, he’s also the most popular at weddings. Spotify recently released data on the top 10 “first dance” songs chosen by UK couples and he features three times in this list, twice for two versions of the same song (Perfect, released in 2017). Does Ed Sheeran have a formula for writing a successful wedding song?
Ed Sheeran Perfect video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Vv-BfVoq4g
Wedding music as a public but intimate choice
Making personal music choices for a public occasion is a tightrope walk, as anyone who’s planned the music for a wedding or funeral knows well. In a social setting, something like Perfect ticks all the boxes: it sets the scene, everyone knows it, it’s the right tempo for an easy waltz, and it’s middle-of-the-road enough not to cause offence. But there might be other reasons for using it that have more to do with the history of gender-segregated domestic duties.
Wedding planning as “women’s work”
Although there’s disagreement over the rate of change in the last 100 years, it’s widely accepted that domestic labour is still largely the woman’s domain in a heterosexual relationship (this 2016 report from the Office for National Statistics found that women still do 60% more unpaid work than men). Of course, domestic labour isn’t just hoovering and doing the dishes – it’s diary management and planning social engagements too, and wedding planning is often an extension of this, done almost exclusively by women (there’s academic research on this, by Tamara Sniezek and D.H. Currie, but there’s also this clip from when Monica and Chandler planned their wedding in Friends).
In 2005, Tamara Sniezek interviewed heterosexual engaged couples about their wedding planning. She found three things that are relevant to my Ed Sheeran question:
- When you ask couples about the detail of who did each part of the practical planning work, you will find that women do the overwhelming majority of it
- But when you ask vague questions like “how was the wedding work divided?” they often claim it was 50/50, and every couple interviewed by Sniezek repeatedly described it as a joint enterprise
- Couples generally use the details of their wedding, including the music, to express their “couple identity”, and this is often based around an idea of equality and teamwork… even if the person arranging all these details is doing the overwhelming bulk of the work in the face of apathy from their partner.
Perhaps this cognitive dissonance speaks to some mixed feelings about entering into the institution of marriage. The situation for women in marriage is still unfair, and still carries with it certain expectations of doing unpaid work in the home – the modern bride may be looking out for ways to say “I’m not that kind of wife, I’m this kind of wife.” To the congregation and, perhaps, to her new husband.
Using wedding music to tell a story
Aside from the speeches, the ‘first dance’ is a couple’s first opportunity to set out their stall as a respectful equal partnership, expressing their identity in opposition to the generations that have gone before. Ed Sheeran’s Perfect is the, ahem, perfect example of a pop song that gives the “right message”:
“Well I found a woman, stronger than anyone I know
She shares my dreams, I hope that someday I’ll share her home
I found a love, to carry more than just my secrets
To carry love, to carry children of our own”
It emphasises the bride’s strength, refers to her home, and tells a story of teamwork and sharing. But perhaps the couples who dance to it are unwittingly revealing some more traditional views as well. In other lines, like “I found a girl beautiful and sweet” / “the someone waiting for me” / “Be my girl, I’ll be your man”, Perfect is no different from any other romantic pop ballad, reducing the female character to a pretty “girl” with no agency.
As a whole, the song represents a balance between the traditional roles some may still see as romantic, and the modern ideal of equality.
The Perfect relationship?
We live in confusing times, where our behaviours don’t necessarily line up with our attitudes. Although most heterosexual couples want to be seen as a balanced partnership, their division of all kinds of unpaid labour are unlikely to live up to this utopia. They give us a specific public narrative at their wedding to paper over the cracks, or perhaps to create a vision of how they would like their relationship to be.
When Ed Sheeran wrote Perfect, he gave marrying couples a gender-equal message to use for this purpose, within a framework of all the familiar male and female roles, in a society where wedding planning is still part of an uneven set of wifely expectations we are clearly uncomfortable with.