Scrolling through Shawn Mendes’ Instagram profile, one can’t help but notice work of an extremely careful curator — an almost scientific balance of hair mussing, perfectly captured black and white candids and bare (but never too much) skin.
Social media has changed the way we interact with popular culture so thoroughly, we hardly think about it anymore. If Justin Bieber was the first artist to take full advantage of social media, Mendes is the well-oiled machine, slick and speedy. In less than five years, the 19-year-old Canadian has traveled the well-trodden path from YouTube to mainstream stardom, with albums “Handwritten” (2015) and “Illuminate” (2016) both making it to the Billboard No. 1 spot. His new self-titled album “Shawn Mendes” (also a Billboard chart-topper) treads little new territory, sticking instead with a winning formula: youth, good looks and catchy choruses. Even so, several songs on the new record stand out.
Mendes (who’s straight) grew up in the social media spotlight and was signed to a label at age 15. Bieber is still perhaps the most relevant comparison, and not just because both artists hail from Canada. Bieber, whose first several albums targeted a young demographic, did not come into his own until his fourth and most recent album “Purpose” (2015). And while Mendes has certainly matured since his debut album, the music seems to be in an awkward growth phase, similar to Bieber’s “Believe” (2012).
Consider Mendes’ single “Lost in Japan,” easily one of the best tracks on the album. Opening with spacey jazz piano chords, the song smoothly transitions into an up-tempo bass groove, the piano intro somewhat reminiscent of fellow Canadian Drake’s song “Sooner than Later.” Addressing a long-distance lover, Mendes sings the chorus in sensuous falsetto: “Do you got plans tonight?/I’m a couple hundred miles from Japan, and I/I was thinking I could fly to your hotel tonight.” The use of the non-gendered second-person “you” draws listeners into the fantasy.
Yet the album is split between these moments of relative sophistication and the inoffensive pop/rock style of “Stitches,” Treat You Better” and “There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back.” The lead single “In My Blood” falls into the latter camp. Unlike the album’s more inventive songs, it follows in the example of the previous albums, where catchy and palatable triumph over interesting. If anything, it’s symptomatic of Mendes’ growing pains.
The single “Youth,” featuring singer Khalid, trends in the opposite direction. The two young singers harmonize over what appears to be an anthem for the ceaseless tragedies witnessed over social media: “Waking up to headlines, filled with devastation again/My heart is broken, but I keep going.” The chorus strikes a defiant tone: “As long as I wake up today/You can’t take my youth away.” Without a doubt, this is Mendes’ better side.
The album is also an interesting example of the way we discover, interact with and understand music in the digital age. Music marketing has become as savvy and ubiquitous as fashion advertising, and the two are often indistinguishable. (See Mendes’ 2016 shoot for L’Uomo Vogue.) Social media platforms allow us to curate our online image in a careful, deliberate way that is impossible under normal circumstances. They have allowed Mendes to cement his identity as the ever dreamy, always fashionable charmer. But as the self-titled album naming suggests, Shawn Mendes is not just the artist — he is the product.
It is perhaps worth remembering the single greatest truism of marketing: Sex sells. This holds true for music as well as for fashion. While Mendes has made progress in developing his sound, the music remains inseparable from his carefully crafted image — big smiles and Yves Saint Laurent boots. In part, this illusory product is what makes him so addictive to fans. And Mendes makes it hard not to indulge.