So… What Is Shawn Mendes’s Deal?

So… What Is Shawn Mendes’s Deal?
Image:Amy Sussman (Getty Images)

The water is a deep sea blue, almost navy, punctured by a cloudburst—droplets creating sundry waves as wide as the ocean stretches. In the middle of the tempest is Shawn Mendes, the 22-year-old Canadian pop performer, eyes closed and smiling wide in the direction of the gray sky, his sharp jawline obscured just beneath the surface. Above him, the title of his third full-length album, Wonder, and Netflix documentary film, In Wonder, are scribbled repetitively. No doubt a reflection of Mendes’ own obsessive journaling habit, one that routinely has him pulling a reverse Bart Simpson at the chalkboard: he writes and rewrites the same phrase, over and over again, as a meditative practice or an exercise in manifestation. His album cover doesn’t take much work to decode: In the darkness, he’s found love—a feeling of awe indistinct enough to feel universal, one he cops to being unable to describe. “I think it’s like when you see a moon or stars and you try and take a photo of it with your iPhone and then you just can’t, it just doesn’t look good,” he ponders in In Wonder. “It’s not supposed to be captured.”

So, then… what is he trying to capture? What is Shawn Mendes’s deal?

Since beginning his career on Vine, the now-defunct TikTok predecessor in which users could upload only six-seconds of video content, Mendes became an instant social media celebrity in 2013, at age 15, for his brief pop song covers. (Naturally, it makes sense that he found a personal hero in Justin Bieber, the first of the “cute boy discovered on social media launches successful pop music career” trend that continues to this day. Bieber, for those of us who can remember all the way back to 2007, was discovered on YouTube.) A year after Mendes’ Vine virality, in 2014, the teen signed to Island Records and released his first solo single, “Life of the Party,” becoming the youngest person to break the Top 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 with a debut. That same year, he opened for Fifth Harmony on Austin Mahone’s tour, a fact I remember only because I was there, where he met Camila Cabello, current girlfriend and former 5H lead. His love story—not his origin story, which is far more fascinating—with Cabello makes up a large chunk of his documentary, In Wonder, because, as he admits, “every song I ever wrote… is about [her.]”

Hyperbole aside, Wonder—the album—is clearly written from the perspective of a man infatuated, communicated in cliched platitudes. On “Dream,” he dreams of her when they’re apart, on “Teach Me How to Love”, her body’s an ocean to explore, on “Always Been You,” their love is fairytale, on the lead single and title track, “Wonder,” his world is “black and white” without her, and he spends his waking hours wondering “what it is like to be loved” by her.

But not all of his songs are about Cabello. “Monster,” his collaboration with Beiber, is a rumination on the pitfalls of stardom; “Call My Friends” is about struggling to maintain friendships when ego and career get in the way. These are themes so banal in pop music, they recall a message on a decorative throw pillow, or home decor signs that double as inspirational quotes: “do more of what makes you happy,” or “it’s not what we have in life, but who we have in our lives that matters,” massively popular and relatable sentiments that are articulated in the most unimaginative fashion. Mendes’s sonic storytelling is similar: unpretentious to a fault, taking his “I’m just a guy who loves music” identity and flattening it further, into the superficial descriptor of “nice guy.” Depth appears only in blips on the record, like in his recognition of toxic masculinity on “Wonder.” He sings, “I wonder why I’m so afraid / Of saying something wrong, I never said I was a saint / I wonder, when I cry into my hands / I’m conditioned to feel like it makes me less of a man.” Mendes points out an involved theme, but never interrogates it.

But that is not to say the songs aren’t catchy. They are. Wonder is an ambitious Mendes with a wandering ear and experimental production, his attempt at writing something classic and innovative like the repertoire of The Beach Boys or Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” as he’s told Apple Music’s Zane Lowe. (Interestingly enough, the latter song tells you everything you need to know about it in six words, not unlike Vine’s six seconds. Perhaps brevity and explication have always been Mendes’ interest, but to combine those elements in a song that has a lasting impact requires a bit more expertise. There is no Valli on Wonder, but there is a lot that is enjoyable to listen to.) Nothing about these 14 tracks are particularly timeless, but they are intentional—piano balladry and gospel choirs abound, “Teach Me How To Love” features Anderson Paak on drums and is a genuinely fun, funky romp—separating him from the bubblegum that often comes to mind when discussing teen pop. Then again, Mendes’ still aims for effervescence, but without the temporal connotation—without the bubble’s pop. But because Wonder attempts to float with the vivacity of young love, it fails to breathe—the rush becomes exhausting, and a constant high isn’t a high at all.

So, I ask once again, what is Shawn Mendes’s deal? Certainly, he is the nice, handsome Canadian boy with the angelic voice he claims to be—the one whose career began on Vine, the one who currently receives endless pop radio play for his innocuous singles and their memorable hooks, the one with a PR team actively attempting to make his romance with Cabello into something mirroring Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears’s short-lived partnership in the late ’90s and early 2000s, but what is the specific appeal?

In spending time with his record, and documentary, and a series of interviews that all seemed to produce the same kind of answer, I’ve come to the conclusion that his indistinctness is the appeal. He is broad, he is inoffensive, he pens love songs and friendship songs for people interested in love and friendship (everyone on the planet?). He exudes the fixated romanticism of John Mayer, the nice guy ethos of Ed Sheeran, the handsome folk-y pop of One Direction’s Niall Horan. It is truly impossible to hate the guy, because his songs are delightful and because he reveals so little of himself while claiming to be an open book. If there isn’t much beneath Mendes’s surface, he continues to gesture like there might be—establishing public intrigue without depth—remaining on the ocean’s surface, smiling.

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