Shawn Mendes Is Emblematic Of A Sincere Turn In Pop That’s Still Cool

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When I was Shawn Mendes’ age, my friends and I drank Four Loko and stuck playing cards under the tab of a warm can of beer in somebody’s parents’ basement. We’d go around in a circle playing King’s Cup or some other drinking game, trying to stump each other with niche categories whenever somebody pulled a ten card (name all the tracks on Room On Fire!), eager to impress each other in Never Have I Ever, desperate to appear the Most Grown-Up in the circle.

I was 19 years old in 2013, which doesn’t really seem that long ago in the grand scheme of things. My celebrity crush was Ben Wyatt from Parks And Rec. One Direction and Calvin Harris played at my senior prom. If they had gone to school with me, I’d have been in the same grade as Justin Bieber and Harry Styles — Miley Cyrus and Ariana Grande would’ve been in the class above mine.

But, listening to Shawn Mendes, my teenage years feel distant and ancient. The markers of maturity that I (and the pop stars in my graduating class) aspired to and valued above all else feel like vestiges of a bygone era. What we thought was so grown-up doesn’t even matter anymore.

The primary marker of maturity for a former teen pop idol is to release an album that — through sexualized lyrics, clothing, and a generic move away from bubblegum pop — demonstrates they are varying degrees of bad and sexy, that they are older and cooler now. It’s the equivalent of those games of Never Have I Ever. These albums are supposed to broaden the appeal of these former tween stars to actual teens, making them edgy and cool enough for their age peers to admit to liking. Teens didn’t care about love songs. To catch our attention, pop stars needed to let us know that they could hang.

Miley Cyrus’ 2013 album Bangerz was one of the seminal albums of my sophomore year of college. “We Can’t Stop” soundtracked some of the first upperclassmen parties I went to, and “Wrecking Ball” played like a siren call from open windows every Friday night in October. One Direction’s Midnight Memories, also released in 2013, showed the band moving away from the clean-cut Europop of their first two albums toward a more rock-inspired sound. The boys were still playful, but they traded some of their treacly declarations of puppy love for lyrics about sex and fame. Midnight Memories has one song, “Alive,” that is literally about being so horny you can barely function. I didn’t notice at the time, because they were my age, but these pop singers were so young. Miley was only 20 when “We Can’t Stop” was released, and 1D were still mostly teenagers when their edgier material was getting radio play.

Apart from just letting us know that these stars “have sex now,” though, a lot of these songs had dark takes on relationship dynamics. “Growing up” for pop stars, especially the male ones, often meant broadcasting jealous feelings, and naming and taunting the girls who made them feel this way. “Cry Me A River” by Justin Timberlake might be one of the more famous examples — the staccato lyrics in the verses (“You don’t have to say! / What you did! / I already know! / I found out from hiiiiim!”) sound like he’s mocking the girl he’s singing about, and anyone who has walked past a tabloid at the grocery store knows who that song is about.

“Boyfriend” by Justin Bieber, the first song of his that was “cool enough” for my tender 17-year-old ego to admit to liking, details all the things Justin would do if he could date this girl, but the lyrics seem more like he’s trying to wear her down than win her over. To seem grown-up, the boys of pop had to turn into conquerors; they expressed desire and sang about taking whatever they wanted, knocking down whatever was in their path. Gentleness and sincerity were uncool, and we encouraged each other to squash these youthful qualities if we wanted to be adults.

But being a teen today is different than it was when Justin Timberlake was breaking out of his squeaky-clean teen image, and different even from when Bieber and Miley tried to do the same. The world is different — it’s kinder in a few ways, but vastly uglier and more brutal in many others. Teens are in danger for their gender, sexuality, or the color of their skin; they are killed in horrific acts of mass violence; lives are ended by police violence or their classmate or strangers or the demons in their heads. None of this is new, but it’s graver than it was even a few years ago. When my high school held lockdown drills, and my class had to huddle in the corner of the AP Lit classroom least visible through the windows, I remember working on my pre-calc homework and sneaking headphones into my ears. I can’t imagine being so callous now.

Kindness and sincerity are a balm against the ugliness of the world. As a teaching assistant at a four-year university, I worked with a lot of 18-20 year-olds over the past few years, and I’m amazed at how much more serious and respectful they are compared to me at the same age. They’re aware of so much and so eager to learn more. These kids are only a few years younger than I am, but I love asking what kind of music they like. Their answers are often Lorde, Troye Sivan, Khalid, Shawn Mendes — warm, compassionate pop, where music is protection against the ugly cacophony outside their headphones.

Shawn Mendes the album is emblematic of this sincere turn in pop. Mendes himself is the most wholesome Canadian teen you’ll ever meet, tall with brown eyes and an easy smile, a skilled guitarist who idolizes John Mayer. He’s been famous since he hit it big on Vine in 2013, when he was just 14 years old — Mendes has been in the public eye for a third of his life, and handles it with the grace and maturity of someone who wants to make a real, life-long career of it.

His voice is lovely, and getting more impressive on each album. Being a Canadian internet star who amassed a following of preteen girls with his sweet falsetto and Golden Retriever eyes, Mendes has, predictably, been compared to Justin Bieber. But where Justin grew up when he started singing about sex and embracing hip-hop influences, Mendes is content to grow within his lane, a non-noxious Ed Sheeran sweetheart with a guitar, unafraid to strum about his feelings.

The album opener, “In My Blood,” is about mental health and fighting against impossible pressure. The verses, backed by an instrumental that sounds pulled from a Daughter song I used to put on 8tracks mixes for my friends, is mournful and sad, but the song explodes into electric catharsis in the chorus. The lyrics are dramatic in a way that takes me back to how it was to be 18, when every feeling was so oversized it nearly crushes you: “Keep telling me that it gets better / Does it ever?” Shawn Mendes was only 11 years old when Kid Cudi’s Man On The Moon came out, but I wonder if he ever listened to it on repeat one summer, wandering through some sleepy neighborhood at dusk, cicadas buzzing and his heart somehow empty and bursting at the same time.

“Nervous,” “Lost in Japan,” and “Particular Taste” are the most radio-friendly pop songs on the album, and they’re refreshingly bouncy and youthful. The Julia Michaels-penned “Nervous” sounds a bit like Selena Gomez’s “Bad Liar,” but looser and more playful. The lyrics are literally about being nervous, getting anxious and giddy around a crush: “I get a little bit nervous around you / I get a little bit stressed out when I think about you.” “Lost In Japan” and “Particular Taste” have a Timberlake flavor, but are absent of the bitterness in most of Justified. Maybe this reference dates me, but these songs sound like they were written by someone who was a kid during One Direction’s peak — they’re songs that exalt youth, feeling, and friendship, basking in boyishness rather than trying to grow up too fast.

It’s fitting, then, that toward the end of the album comes a track literally titled “Youth.” The song, which features Khalid, is the only dreary cut on the otherwise bouncy album. “Youth” comes right after “Queen,” a song about getting slighted by a stuck-up peer. The juxtaposition of the petty mundanity in “Queen” and the gloomy setting of “Youth” (“Waking up to headlines, filled with devastation again / My heart is broken, but I keep going”) is jarring at first. The first few times I heard the song, I didn’t like it, put off by Mendes and Khalid’s usually elastic voices on such a downbeat, monotone song.

At the Billboard Music Awards earlier this month, Mendes and Khalid performed “Youth” with the Marjory Stoneman Douglas show choir. Dressed down in t-shirts and hoodies, Mendes and Khalid looked like regular kids. Accompanied by the 12 members of the Stoneman Douglas choir, the song’s chorus — “You can’t take my youth away / This soul of mine will never break / As long as I wake up today / You can’t take my youth away” — finally hit for me.

In the context of the album, sandwiched between one song about feeling petty towards a peer and one about leaving a one-sided relationship, the song makes up part of the portrait of what it’s like to be young in 2018. There’s devastation, but also joy and community. There’s something especially moving, too, about the refrain of “you can’t take my youth away.” Being earnest, sincere, playful, and asserting your right to living is a survival tactic in 2018.

When asked by People magazine why he named the album after himself, Mendes responded that he wanted to freeze a moment in time, this moment when he was 19 and felt more like himself than he ever has before.

“I feel like out of all my albums, this is the most honest and truthful one yet,” Mendes said. “It’s so easy to fall into the trap of taking yourself too seriously.” It is so easy to fall into the trap of taking yourself too seriously. I think of all the time and effort I spent, at Mendes’ age, comparing myself to my more mature and more experienced friends, tracking my achievements against Justin Bieber and Harry Styles, always feeling girlish and behind and ashamed. I think of the cynicism I built as a coping strategy, the self-seriousness and denial that I thought made me seem cooler, how we chased debauchery because you weren’t a grown-up if you weren’t a little bit bad.

Shawn Mendes is the future — and I don’t mean that hyperbolically. He’s kind, he’s respectful, he’s aware, he knows so much and wants to learn so much more. I’m now an Old, and through the impenetrable wall of Juul smoke, I can only see a fraction of the admiration Mendes gets from teenage fans, members of his own peer group. But Mendes is huge, and only growing. It’s thrilling to see someone with so much potential finding himself as an artist, and to see how he embraces his sincerity and earnestness, and how it hits for a generation of young people who are tired of detachment and cynicism.

Mendes will play arenas across the world next summer. Trying to get tickets for Houston five minutes after they went on sale, nearly all the floor seats had already been snapped up — and this is for a show 14 months from now. I hope I can get one, though. Being on the floor, surrounded by thousands of bright and earnest faces, brave and embracing their friends and singing along with Mendes’ anthems — I already know it’ll warm my cynical, old heart.

Shawn Mendes is out now via Island Records. Get it here.