It is time to deal with Shawn Mendes, 18-year-old folk-pop cheeseball heartthrob, who this week celebrates his second straight no. 1 album, the dim Illuminate, and thusly cements his rep as the preferred first-wedding-dance music for your dullest friends. Sorry. He’s fine. Everything’s fine. It’s not his fault. Let’s keep that in mind.
He’s Canadian, which is also not his fault; he prefers acoustic guitar, which is forgivable. Sociologically, he’s the “I gave my love a chicken” guy from Animal House, secure in the knowledge that Bluto Blutarsky cannot reach through the computer screen and smash his guitar. Also, he has only now reached college age. Aesthetically, he triangulates John Mayer and Ed Sheeran, which is [hellmouth opens; sighs; resigns itself; closes]. And if you know only one thing about him, you know him as the Vine Guy, in that he rose to prominence via winsome six-second covers of everyone from One Direction to Taylor Swift to Beyoncé to Avril Lavigne to [hellmouth reopens, for different reasons] Bill Withers.
This state of affairs is expressly designed to confuse and irritate anyone over the age of 25. In a related phenomenon, it will likely remind you of Justin Bieber, whose discovery and early rise were very similar, though from the start he was a better dancer, a more convincing underwear model, and a way bigger jerkoff. But Mendes still triggered that particular alarm, if only because his big breakout moment was, yes, an angel-dusted take on the Bieb’s “As Long As You Love Me.”
There is also a shirtless version and a version where he gets bonked in the head, which is quite the blue pill/red pill conundrum. At this point you’re mostly dealing with reposts and YouTube compilations and the like to easily get to the early stuff — here’s a 23-minute supercut that functionally serves as Mendes’s biopic. His official Vine account, closing in on 5 million followers and half a billion loops, is now mostly just dull, industry-standard promo for Illuminate, which is a legitimate drag. Welcome to the machine, bub. Corporatizing this dude’s revolutionary primary outlet doesn’t seem like such a hot idea.
But then again, Illuminate is the no. 1 album in the country this week, keeping Drake at bay for the nonce, for which we are very grateful; Mendes’s 2015 full-length debut, Handwritten, topped the charts, too. Shows what we know. We know nothing. This makes no sense. Unless you are a literal teenager, it’s not supposed to. Let’s keep that in mind, also. Top 40 pop music is meant to confuse and upset and alienate and ultimately discard you as you age and it, ideally, does not. It is the way of things; it is for the best. Natural deselection. As a blossoming radio-hit machine, Mendes is nowhere near as fundamentally disorienting as, say, the delightfully bizarre rock-band-as-postmodern-meltdown antics of Twenty One Pilots. Now that he has been seized and signed and stretched out and buffed to an even blander sheen, he fits right in to the extent that he no longer stands out at all, or stands out for undesired reasons. ’Cause when it came time to convert Mendes into a plain, old three-minute-pop-song radio star, we got this.
The kindest word you could apply to his 2015 smash hit “Stitches” is insidious. It’s a cliché-ridden barnacle, a neurotic and oddly nauseating clash of backward-ballcap acoustic strums and antiseptic stomp-and-clap bleacher action. The ideal Vine cover of this song would definitely not include any lyrics. He rhymes kisses with stitches; he laments that “Your words cut deeper than a knife”; he likens himself to “a moth drawn to a flame.” It’s moderately catchy and impressively unpleasant.
Most of Handwritten is better, if less distinct; same deal for Illuminate. On record, the Ed Sheeran worship really bleeds through: the sky-blues crooning, the cheerfully clumsy quasi-rapping, the myriad friend-zone laments. The Nice Guy who yearns to be a Bad Boy. On the new one, you get light interpolations of “Blackbird” and “Your Body Is a Wonderland,” which is equally hallowed ground in this universe; there’s a sex jam called “Lights On” that is best left undiscussed. The big single is “Treat You Better,” which has a very light, Chainsmokers-esque syncopated EDM drive and a brayed “I know I can treat you better / Better than he can” hook, the strain a little too evident. It’s better, though. It’s fine.
If you are, again, over the age of 25, you were likely unaware of Mendes back in his Vine salad days, but you may still come to prefer him that way. The most fun you can have with this guy is tracking his befuddling, meteoric ascent, combing through the old loops and turning it into a game of Fantasy Music-Industry Mogul. Would you have seen the potential, the star power, the raw materials to turn him into Social Media Dashboard Confessional? Here’s a fuller, much more conventional version of his “As Long As You Love Me” cover, casually delivered amid starstruck members of his, uh, target audience, but already something’s lost: Mendes works best in solitary six-second bursts. That’s where he got much of his personality, or where it hardly mattered if he didn’t really have much of one.
The best Vine covers are a little odd, a little random, a little disorienting. Like a DJ finding the break in the strangest places. Mendes shrewdly zeroes in on the ideal moment to flaunt his vanilla-soul Justin Timberlake wail or his slick, margarine-y falsetto slide, primo dorm-room darts for a dude who was out opening for fellow teen-pop cheeseball charmer Austin Mahone while some of his buddies back home were struggling with their college application essays. It’s a bizarre but perfectly logical path to fame, as with Myspace and YouTube before it; the youth-targeted Musical.ly is the big whoop right now, and can the industry’s first Tinder superstar be far behind? What’s radical about Vine is the compression and immediate repetition, the looping haiku brevity that kept you from getting too bored or skeeved out.
His full-length albums — his full-length songs — can’t compare. He’s overstayed his welcome within 30 seconds. Sports metaphor: He’s the seven-seconds-or-less Phoenix Suns stuck now in a grinding, deadening half-court-offense rut. It’s a valid lane, sure, fine. He’s a John Mayer type who you can never imagine pulling any of the 20,000 ill-advised proto–Bad Boy boners JM has pulled lo these past 10 years. But that has its limits, and only so many charms. As with Bieber himself, turning heel will eventually reveal itself as the wisest career pivot. Maybe the only one.
Too bad. There’s a wealth of goofy details still to be mined from Mendes’s Vine Superstar era. Here alone we’ve got the hat, the laptop, the grade-school-caliber fan art, and especially the Student of the Month certificate. The kid had something. He probably still does. You could never quite tell what it was. It was better when he never gave you enough time to worry about it.