In Ed Sheeran’s song “What Do I Know?” there are multiple social issues that he is critiquing throughout the song. It does not seem like he is focusing on one specific issue, rather he is critiquing the overall status of our world’s current situation. Because much of the critiques are expressed through the lyrics of the song, I think the best way to analyze it is to go through it verse by verse. 

The opening verses of the song are as follows:

Ain’t got a soapbox I can stand upon

But God gave me a stage, a guitar and a song

My daddy told me, “Son, don’t you get involved

In politics, religions, other peoples’ quarrels.”


In this verse, Sheeran is introducing the idea that society has told people, including celebrities, that they should not get involved with issues such as politics. Right from the start, Sheeran is almost downgrading himself by stating that his artist platform is not one that should be used to talk about these social issues. Rather, his platform is one that should only be used for music. At this point in the song, it is difficult to tell if this is a critique of society, or if Sheeran agrees with this point.


I’ll paint the picture, let me set the scene,

I know when I have children, they will know what it means

And I’ll pass on these things my family’s given to me

Just love and understanding positivity


However, in this verse, Sheeran starts to introduce another idea into the song. He is referring more to how he grew up, and what he values in life. While in the first verse, he mentions his father telling him he should not get involved with politics, this verse recognizes his family’s values that include love, understanding, and positivity. From this verse, it is clear the Sheeran wants to pass on these values to other people in society. It is his subtle way of stating that society should learn to love each other, understand each other, and spread positivity rather than turning against each other. While this statement seems vague, it introduces the entire purpose of this song.


Moving on, the chorus follows with:

We could change this whole world with a piano

Add a bass, some guitar, grab a beat and away we go

I’m just a boy with a one-man show

No university, no degree, but Lord knows

Everybody’s talking ’bout exponential growth

And the stock market crashing and their portfolios

While I’ll be sitting here with a song that I wrote

Saying love could change the world in a moment

But what do I know?

Love can change the world in a moment

But what do I know?

Love can change the world in a moment


There are a lot of subtle critiques involved with the chorus of this song. Firstly, Sheeran once again mentions his background and seems to degrade himself again. He states that he did not finish his education, and instead is just a man with a guitar. This is a critique at how society judges those who take a different path in life, and how we view those without a complete education as inferior or lacking importance. It is because of these judgments that many groups of people in our society are forgotten about, or remain unheard. There are many people in this world that do not have the resources they need to achieve a full education, and yet society still seems to blame them for this problem. This line seems to be a critique of that nature by Sheeran. 

As the chorus continues, Sheeran then mentions the stock market. In these lines, Sheeran is critiquing the way society views money as the number one necessity in life. He is critiquing the way people care more about the economy, how much money they are making, and how much money they can lose, rather than caring about human beings. This point is emphasized as Sheeran continues these lines with “While I’ll be sitting here with a song that I wrote, Saying love could change the world in a moment.” It is at this point in the song that it no longer seems like Sheeran is degrading himself. Rather, he is praising himself for caring more about the wellbeing of our society than issues involving money. While he is admitting to not achieving a full education, he is criticizing those who look down on those who do not, and those who put wealth as their first priority. In the end of the chorus, Sheeran repeats the lines “Love could change the world in a moment, but what do I know?”

This further emphasizes his earlier critiques and solution from the first verses. Sheeran is stating that if people can learn to love each other, understand each other, and spread positivity, that the world can become a better place. His last phrase, “But what do I know?” adds to his admission that he is not a politician, businessman, or student. While he understands that he is just a musician, he still feels that this is something that the world needs to hear. He may not have a “soapbox” to preach on, but he has a stage to sing to others. 

The next verses are as follows:

The revolution’s coming, it’s a minute away

I saw people marching in the streets today

You know we’re all made up of love and hate

But both of them are balanced on a razor blade


I’ll paint the picture, let me set the scene

I know, I’m all for people following their dreams

Just re-remember life is more than fitting in your jeans

It’s love and understanding positivity

In these verses, Sheeran starts to mention other issues going on in our society. He speaks about the many marches and protests going on during this time. The song was released in early 2018, just following the abundance of public protests going on in 2017. These marches include those fighting for women’s rights, immigration, LGBTQ equality, racism, and both pro and anti-government. These are just a few of the social issues being rallied for, and these marches were happening worldwide.

Within these lines, it is hard to say if Sheeran is praising these protests or criticizing them. On one hand, it is possible that Sheeran is recognizing this as a possible solution. If people stick up for their rights and for what they believe in, the world could be a better place. On the other hand, it could be possible that Sheeran is criticizing these protests in that they are further dividing our country and our world. He continues with the lines “You know we’re all made up of love and hate, but both of them are balanced on a razor blade.” To me, it seems that this is his way of critiquing these protests. While it is clear that the people involved with these marches are doing it out of love for those suffering from inequality, their protests are also an act of aggression against other groups of people. It seems that Sheeran is saying to be careful about the way you are protesting, and that there is a fine line between loving each other, and hating others. 

In the following verse, there is one line that brings up another social issue. The line “I’m all for people following their dreams, just remember life is more than fitting in your jeans.” It seems that this is a critique at how people in society are constantly judging each other, and are constantly setting too high of standards for others. Whether this has to do with physical looks such as weight, or with standards on how people should live their lives, Sheeran is saying that people need to stop worrying about what other people think. He is criticizing those who sway people against doing what they want to do in life, and criticizing those who judge others for not being the same as themselves. I think these lines speak to Ed Sheeran’s persona as well. Ed Sheeran has always been known as an average-looking, heavier, ginger singer. He does not fit the ideal popstar persona. Yet, he has proved to be one of the most successful artists of this generation. In these lines, it seems that Ed Sheeran is telling others that no matter who you are, you can follow your dream, and make it happen. In this sense, Sheeran is offering the solution that if people in society can stop setting such high standards, and stop judging one another, that this world can be a better place.

Finally, the last verse of the song is as follows:

I’ll paint the picture, let me set the scene,

You know the future’s in the hands of you and me

So let’s all get together, we can all be free

Spread love and understanding positivity


This is where Sheeran emphasizes his point that society needs to learn to love one another. The line “You know the future’s in the hands of you and me” is stating that the younger generations need to set the tone for the future. If our younger generations do not come together and start making changes, then our society is never going to improve. This line could mean a lot of different things. Sheeran could be referring to the voting situation in the USA. In the last presidential election, there was a large amount of people that did not cast a vote, and it is believed that this highly effected the outcome. This could be Sheeran’s way of urging younger generations to participate in our elections to form our future. 

In addition, this is also Sheeran’s way of emphasizing that instead of protesting against each other and dividing our society, we need to learn to love one another and work together. This could be referring to politics, immigration, businesses, and interpersonal relations. 

All in all, it seems that the song is making many subtle critiques at multiple social issues going on in today’s society. Yet, Sheeran is not making any overt solutions to these problems. To me, it seems that Sheeran is using this song as a way of figuring out his place and his stance on the current mess. He is trying to figure out if he even has a say in these social issues, considering he is just a musical artist. Sheeran is clearly criticizing how society cares more about superiority, wealth, and reputation than the wellbeing of one another. Sheeran wants others to spread love, be kind to one another, and understand that every person has struggles. Yet, he is unsure how this can be done. He is unsure if or how somebody like himself can make a difference. For now, he is choosing to use his singing platform as a sort of “soapbox” to share his opinions. Yet, he is admitting that he is no expert on the subject, and that the world should come together to find a real solution.