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

05.30.18 1 year ago

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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.

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