Can Shawn Mendes Do Better?

Every time I see or hear anything about Shawn Mendes, I can’t help but wish he was more interesting than he is.

It’s hard to be a man with a guitar in 2019. The era of their ubiquitous stranglehold on pop radio is long gone. Pop-punk doesn’t seem like it’ll be making a triumphant return anytime soon as its forebearers ease into bubblegum territory, and the constant wave of mumble rappers pouring from SoundCloud into the Billboard Hot 100 doesn’t seem to be slowing down.

It’s almost spectacular that Mendes has a career at all.

When it comes to men with guitars, there has to be something that sets you apart. John Mayer is easily one of the best guitarists to see mainstream notoriety in the 21st century and Ed Sheeran has cornered the market on normcore, everyman park and pluck so resoundingly he can manage to make tracks with Stormzy and Eminem sound like mood music for a Claires. Hozier is so far and away out of all of their leagues, both sonically and lyrically, it feels almost sacrilegious to write his name in the paragraph at all.

But Mendes has neither the inventive musicality of Mayer nor the appropriate shlubbiness of Sheeran. He’s too hot to be an everyman. He’s not hot enough to sing about “making love” with anything close to believability. But sometimes, I really wish he was.

Shawn Mendes is two years younger than me, which makes me feel old in a particular and uncomfortable way. At 23, I’ve deleted and redownloaded Tinder with the kind of strictly observed routine reserved for taking the Pill. I’ve moved six times in as many years, gone through several quarter-life crises in rapid succession, and have accumulated a roster of romantic experiences that range from giddy infatuation with a boy I only talked to online to roleplaying with an ex-con at a crowded college bar. As anyone clawing their way through their twenties will tell you, never do you feel farther away from the high school version of yourself than in the years directly following it. Yet, Mendes, who is both of my generation and not, still sings about girls as if he’s nervous about asking them to the prom. In many ways, it feels like he hasn’t yet graduated.

Today’s hottest R&B artists, especially the women, have proven an ability to capture and distill the lonely, aimless reality of being in your twenties with hawk-eyed precision. SZA’s CTRL is spotless. The way Summer Walker begs for attention in “Girls Need Love”, then cancels the rest of her national tour citing social anxiety is so achingly relatable, she feels more like a best friend than a celebrity.

As a black woman, it makes sense that it’s other black women who capture my lived reality, who make me feel more seen with their music than anyone else. But I have always been alarmingly susceptible to a white man with a guitar. I listened to John Mayer’s Continuum so often, the CD was almost unrecognizable when I found it a few years ago, buried under a pile of clothes in the closet of my childhood bedroom. Battle Studies got the same treatment fours years later, the summer before I started high school. Ed Sheeran’s “Give Me Love” made it onto every single playlist I made for a year after I heard it for the first time. Its lyrics are scratched into all of my old journals and even after all these years, listening to it gives me the same pinched feeling of longing, one that starts at the bridge of my nose and slides down the rest of me like oil. I cried the first time I heard it.

Shawn Mendes has amassed a collection of perfectly serviceable songs. Hits like “In My Blood” and “There’s Nothing Holding Me Back” are fine. “Stitches”, the song that made the former Vine star a star period, is untenable. Then again, everything from his first album is hard to listen to, with the exception of “I Know What You Did Last Summer”, a delightful, campy gem I am physically unable to skip whenever it comes on.

As I write this, I’m listening to his latest album, a self-titled collection that proves he’s capable of growing up, even if he’s taking his precious time about it. “Lost in Japan”, easily the best song of the bunch, is a smooth, bouncy pop concoction in which him hopping on a flight for an early morning booty call seems not only plausible but almost confessional. Who is this girl Mendes is willing to fly out for? Is she the same one who inspired the crooning “Why”? Perhaps she’s the pixie dream girl behind “Particular Taste” who only dances to Kanye? I don’t have the energy to dig too deeply- nothing else comes close to matching the self-assured allure of “Lost in Japan”. He’s trying to be sexy, but there’s still way too much shmaltz.

It’s no surprise then, that he landed on the remix of “Lover”, the most recent in a long line of sentimental odes from Taylor Swift, queen of the schmaltzy ballad. On it, both of them do what they do best, conjuring up trite descriptions of love with all the specificity of a rom-com or a Pinterest board. There’s a Titanic reference! Shawn wants to light a bunch of candles and dance in a kitchen with you! Both of them wield the second person “you” as if to render it anonymous, despite the fact that they’re both in relationships (Swift, ruthlessly private with Joe Alwyn and Mendes, too cringy to be real, has to be some sort of performance art with “I Know What You Did” collaborator Camilla Cabello).

And this is perhaps the crux of the matter- after three full-length albums, several hit singles, and a dedicated fan base that reports on his every move with wide-eyed alacrity, I still don’t know who Shawn Mendes is. If pop is centered on the performance, then the true magic of a man with a guitar is the ability to convince us that he’s the realest thing in the room. “Your Body is a Wonderland” is guilty pleasure personified, as cheesy as Mendes dancing in a kitchen with no shoes on. But when you hear it, you can practically see John Mayer, who was twenty-three when he recorded it, fighting for space on a twin-sized bed, trying to be sexy and charming you just enough into believing that he is. Mendes can’t seem to get this trick right.

I keep going back to “Lost in Japan”. The first time I heard it, I was sitting in a friend’s car as he plugged the aux cord into his phone. “You heard this Shawn Mendes joint?” he asked, turning up the sound. Gentle piano breezed through the car, then a funky bass, simulated claps, that voice, easy and confident under the cover of that bouncing beat. When he performed it live at the 2018 Victoria Secret Fashion Show, he kept the guitar tucked behind him until the second chorus and for just a moment, there was a glimmer of something almost like a personality.

“He might have done something with this,” said my friend, bopping his head to the music. Yeah. He just might have.

Cultural observer.