Last week, Ed Sheeran shut down rumors that he’s planning to quit music forever.
“Das bollock,” he tweeted in response to a piece that said the singer had achieved “everything there is to achieve in music” and therefore hoped to pursue a “normal” life.
And so it is written.
But I could’ve told you that Sheeran would never really abandon ship. And not just because he’s reveling in the good fortune of world domination — it’s because virtually nobody in the history of time and space has successfully “quit” music for good. Especially as we continue venturing down the path of comebacks, reunions, and more comebacks. (I mean, hi: If the Backstreet Boys can join forces in Las Vegas, no one’s ever getting out of this game scot-free.)
Granted, the idea of quitting as an absolute was easier before the internet evolved into what it is now. When Lauryn Hill retreated from the public eye at the turn of the century, it seemed like a pretty permanent move. Outside her 2001 MTV Unplugged performance and the short-lived Fugees reunion of the mid-2000s, she laid low for the better part of a decade, and that left fans to assume she’d had it.
When she started making more frequent public appearances a few years ago, even performing on Fallon in 2015, it led to endless online conversations about whether this signaled a triumphant return to the studio, where she would go from here, and what it all meant. And while think-piece culture felt like the perfect space in which to project our hopes and fears, it also defused any sense of mystery. Each high-profile performance was parsed and re-parsed as a “comeback,” not just a treat for fans. And “comebacks” typically mean you have to atone for something. Like you have lost ground to make up for. What fun is that?
There are exceptions to any rule. When Captain Beefheart quit music in the early 1980s, he meant business, and stuck to painting until he died in 2010. Bill Withers showed up to accept his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and to be honored at the Grammys, but otherwise has stayed home for decades. But almost everybody else comes back one way or another.
After announcing in 2011 that he’d quit the biz, Phil Collins announced in 2015 that he was “no longer retired” (rhymes with No Jacket Required!). And this week — two years after first teasing a reunion — Will Smith and Jazzy Jeff announced a small festival tour this summer. Garth Brooks started his retirement in 2000, only to revive his career in 2009 and again in 2014. And remember when Jay Z claimed 2003’s The Black Album would be his last? (#LOL.) Once upon a time Lily Allen also said she was tapping out of music, Toni Braxton briefly went on hiatus (under the guise of “goodbye forever”), and Ozzy Osbourne has been on no fewer than four thousand farewell tours.
Because unless you really, really, really hate music (in that music went out of its way to hurt everybody you’ve ever loved), you can’t quit it forever. You can’t turn that shit off — which is especially the case if it’s the only job you’ve ever had. (Shout-out to Justin Bieber.) Not everybody is Captain Beefheart.
Which of course Ed Sheeran knows, or he’d have embraced the controversy with a general, “Well, I can’t do this forever” blanket statement, inciting panic (and attention) around the world. But the thing is: He can do it forever. Because that’s the thing about a career in the arts: It takes a shit-ton of energy and hard work, but it really can continue for as long as your body can handle it. (Why else do you think Mick Jagger’s still dancing around a stage somewhere?)
So with that mind, let’s cool it with rumors about musicians quitting music forever. Taking a break, sure. A few years off, go for it! A period in which you find yourself while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, absolutely. But the relationship between the industry and the artist rivals that of Noah and Allie: It’s never over.