[TW: teen sex trafficking.]
I’ve loved Ed Sheeran’s “A Team” since I first heard it:
It was one of the first songs I plugged into one of the internet’s many magical infinite-loop players–apparently people other than me like listening to songs until they can hear the cracks between the notes–but I never saw it as realistic*.
The song depicts a heroin addict who sells sex dying on a cold night. It’s beautiful, but is no more a realistic portrayal of commercial sex or sex trafficking than “House of the Rising Sun” was (I can’t speak to how it portrays heroin addiction, but it feels more lovely than true). But sometimes a remix of an old favorite, like The Animals’s iconic reimagining of the “House of the Rising Sun,” yanks it back into harsh alignment with reality. Just so, with Mikill Pane’s reimagining of “A Team” in his collaboration with Ed Sheeran, “Little Lady”:
With Pane’s lyrics, we find the “angel” of Sheeran’s song is a 13 year-old being sold by her uncle. Familial trafficking does happen. In the United States, anytime someone under the age of 18 is engaged in commercial sex, they are considered a victim of sex trafficking (if they can’t consent to sex, they can’t consent to sell sex). Though pimps–traffickers–are violent, the most successful of them use fake affection and enforced loyalty to control their victims. In this, Pane’s portral of minor commercial sexual exploitation is accurate for a portion but not all victims of child sex trafficking.
What “Little Lady” does which shreds me is showing how the teen in the story thinks like a child: she assumes the police cannot save her from her pimp, perhaps because her pimp told her so; she assumes the nurse’s concern will only get her hurt, because she doesn’t know there are some in that profession trained to identify and protect victims of sex trafficking. This is how a traumatized person might think, how a child might think, and how some survivors report they did think when they were being trafficked.
Musically, I love the interplay between the picked melody and the vibrant lyrics and smooth delivery. The expanded story has a heartbreaking structure. After a few months listening to “A Team”, “Little Lady” gets right in under my guard. Suddenly, Sheeran’s whispered line about “an angel will die” doesn’t sound melancholy: it sounds urgent. When Sheeran crooned “we’re all under the upperhand” in “A Team” it sounded hipster-ish but when Pane says:
Mother had to get you out the motherland to study
That was all she struggled to have a single daughter with the upper hand
It paints an entire life of hope and struggle to give a child the upper hand in a world which dealt losing cards. Without “A Team”, “Little Lady” would be almost too brutal to listen to. But with the easy shift back to Sheeran’s voice during the choruses, I stayed just involved enough to listen for the next lyrical punch.
Not easy listening, but important listening.
*”A Team” was based on Mr Sheeran’s experience volunteering at a homeless shelter; the “A” refers to “class A” drugs like heroin.
“Oh, tell my baby sister–
Don’t do what I have done,
And shun that house in New Orleans
They call the Risin Sun.”
–Lyrics from “House of the Rising Sun”