Over three studio albums, three headlining tours, 14.6k tweets, and hundreds of seconds of Vine clips, Shawn Mendes has told us a lot about himself. He sometimes struggles with panic and anxiety. He idolizes John Mayer and Harry Styles. He’s a hopeless romantic. He’s close with all his hometown friends in the Toronto suburbs, and with Taylor Swift. He thinks showers are “just unreal.”
I feel like I know Shawn Mendes pretty well. I’ve never spoken with him, but I’ve listened to his albums enough that the stories in his songs feel like my own. I’ve never dared to do a meet-and-greet or been lucky enough to run into Mendes out in the real world, but everyone I know who has met him say the young pop star is incredibly kind and gracious. In the rock star profile published in Rolling Stone earlier this week, the journalist who is writing about him says that, as a rule, Mendes “never says no to a selfie.” He’ll take a photo with everyone who lines up outside his hotel to meet him.
Mendes is on the cover of the latest issue of Rolling Stone magazine, which is a huge career accomplishment; Rolling Stone is rock legacy, and artists grace its cover for the first time during peak moments in their career. Mendes is known for being honest in his music and equally open in interviews, but his candor in Rolling Stone sparked a bit of controversy. In the profile, Mendes admitted to drug use (don’t worry, just weed), tossed back shots across the table from a journalist, and hooked up with a VIP tent bartender after a festival set.
All the talk about sex, drugs, and rock and roll made for an exciting read in some ways, though the edgy singer portrayed in this piece was difficult to reconcile with the Mendes that fans know. Just last month, Mendes filmed himself juggling for Instagram Live, and hung out watching soccer on I’ll-wake-up-at-midday-and-marry-my-bed Hollywood introvert Niall Horan’s couch. In the social media storm of Monday, I heard a lot of people say that this interview reveals more about who Mendes “really” is than any of his nice-kid social media schtick. But, as someone who admires his music and follows his projects closely, is this really new information?
The article’s real controversy came when Mendes addressed all the speculation about his sexuality. The young singer told Rolling Stone that he frequently searches his own name on Twitter, and obviously, has seen all the comments insinuating he’s gay. He was terrified for Taylor Swift to post a video of him wearing sparkly eyeshadow backstage because it would only “feed the fire.” He stays up late studying his body language in interviews, noting what he needs to change to appear less feminine. “In the back of my heart, I feel like I need to go be seen with someone — like a girl — in public, to prove to people that I’m not gay,” Mendes told the magazine. “Even though in my heart I know that it’s not a bad thing. There’s still a piece of me that thinks that. And I hate that side of me.”
“In my heart I know that it’s not a bad thing. There’s still a piece of me that thinks that.” The ambiguity of these words left me reeling when I first read them. I was hurt by Mendes’ comment. He candidly admitted to an internalized homophobia that many know too well, and acknowledged the sad truth that in many ways, it’s not completely cool to be gay. I thought of how it might feel for closeted fans to read Mendes’ words on the Monday after Thanksgiving in the US, after spending a potentially painful weekend with family (or without them) and to see their favorite person put words to the sensation they might have had all through the holiday. “I hate that side of me.”
I spoke with a few fans to gather perspectives on the Rolling Stone piece, and some others echoed my disappointment upon hearing Mendes’ comment. One queer female fan, Kate, told me, “I’m 30, I have a strong sense of self, but I can’t imagine being 17 and identifying with ‘In My Blood’ or something and being so aware that my fave’s greatest fear is to be like me,” she said. Others read his words differently. Another fan, Alexis, pointed out that Mendes’ statement might have been meant to reflect homophobia and toxic masculinity as broader concepts: “I’ve also seen people describe him as homophobic, and I think they missed the point that his internalized homophobia was from the pressure of people saying he’s gay instead of being able to live his truth,” she explained.
Because the truth is, despite the blossoming careers of young queer pop artists like Hayley Kiyoko, Troye Sivan, and Kim Petras, along with legends-in-the-making like Frank Ocean and Janelle Monáe, the music industry is still undeniably homophobic.