The Week In Pop

Shawn Mendes, The Anti-Icon

Shawn Mendes was supposed to play a show in Columbus Monday, but he had to postpone. The arena full of enthusiastic fans who showed up for the rescheduled date on Tuesday didn’t seem to mind.

Perhaps they understood that Monday was a very big day for Mendes, the freshly 21-year-old pop-star singer-songwriter from Toronto. That day, after years of landing hits in the top 10, he scored his first Hot 100 #1 single with “Señorita,” a duet with Camila Cabello, who he’s reportedly dating. The real reason for the postponement, though, was his commitment later that night in Newark, New Jersey. Mendes was the only artist granted two performances at the MTV Video Music Awards, first doing his other recent smash “If I Can’t Have You” — which debuted at #2 behind “Old Town Road” back in May and is now back in the top 10 — and later returning for “Señorita” with Cabello. The two of them also won a VMA for the song, whatever that’s worth.

Mendes has been one of the biggest names in pop for several years, but he’s never been bigger than he is right now. That much was clear Tuesday, when he made his way to Columbus for the rescheduled performance. You’d think changing the date of a concert would mean some of the audience would have to bail, but the move did not seem to damage his attendance at all. Looking up toward the rafters of Nationwide Arena, I couldn’t spot an empty seat. It was crowded even by the standards of sold-out arena shows. And when not screaming in approval, seemingly every person there was providing backup vocals.

Given that Mendes plays highly accessible music and looks the part of a teen idol, it’s not so surprising that he’s built himself into a music industry behemoth. On the other hand, considering his origin story, his longevity is remarkable. Mendes found fame performing six-second covers on the late, great video app Vine. The first time I wrote about him, it was in the same context as TerRio, a viral Vine celeb whose 15 minutes of fame have long since expired. Mendes could have been a blip, too, but he’s had staying power. More than staying power, really: In just five years, he went from covering Justin Bieber on Vine to attracting competitive shade from Bieber to establishing himself as a surefire hitmaker on Bieber’s level.

Bieber’s name was often evoked in early coverage of Mendes because both of them were handsome young teens from Toronto who got famous posting videos online. But the older they’ve grown, the more their music and personas have drifted apart — so much so that Bieber works as a nice contrast for understanding where Mendes fits in the modern mainstream. Bieber emerged as a troubled soul prone to self-destructive choices, later seeking stability in institutions like marriage and religion while remaining an occasionally volatile figure. He’s always been a contentious presence. Meanwhile Mendes came across like the sort of perfect young gentleman who’d star on the soccer team and in the school play. That perception has only become slightly more nuanced as he’s matured. On last year’s hit “In My Blood,” he admitted he struggles with depression, and for years he’s responded angrily to speculations about his sexuality, but we the people never see him at his messiest. He has not suffered any major scandals. Legions stan him, but the people outside his fan base don’t seem compelled to sound off about him the way they do with Bieber.

As for their music, Bieber’s songs tend toward hip-hop, R&B, and electronic pop, his voice a wispy beam of light typically shining across artificial environs. That’s never really been Mendes’ game. He errs on the organic side, infusing a sleek pop sound with bits of blues and funk and rock and soul. The most teeny-bopper thing about him is his personal presentation, be it the deep dreamboat stares into the camera in his videos or the sleeveless outfits his stylist currently favors. (Tuesday in Columbus he was wearing something like a rockabilly bowling shirt.) His catalog’s popularity among teenagers has been proof that adult contemporary is not just for adults. I’ve previously viewed him as a more likable amalgam of two key mentor figures, John Mayer and Ed Sheeran — a guitar guy with range and the high-pitched wail of a boy band frontman. But after seeing him live, I’m beginning to find that view too limiting.

Mendes’ catalog is too soft to think of him as a rock star, but on stage he certainly took things in a rock direction. In Cabello’s absence “Señorita” became a piano-led power ballad that bloomed into full-on arena rock in the end. “Never Be Alone,” from his 2015 debut Handwritten, followed a similar trajectory, concluding with swelling power chords and huge “whoa-oh” vocals. These are Coldplay moves, and at the end of the show he made the connection explicit by actually covering “Fix You” in the lead-up to closing number “In My Blood,” the hardest rocking song in his discography so far. There were also traces of key Coldplay influence Jeff Buckley within the tumultuous buildup of Illuminate deep cut “Bad Reputation,” and that album’s big hit “Treat You Better” continues to evoke the Police, filtering of Caribbean pop sounds through a rock template.

But this was still an arena show from one of the biggest pop stars in the world, so there were the requisite elements of 2019 pop stardom: audience bracelets that light up in various colors, a burst of confetti at the grand finale, a mid-show interlude on a secondary stage near the cheap seats. Mendes used that moment to unspool a medley that traced a path through his discography — that is, after he performed a bit of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” on piano. We are long past the point where it’s novel to cover Coldplay and Whitney Houston at the same concert, but those choices paired together give you a sense of where Mendes is situated within today’s constellation of superstars.

Back at the main stage, he zigged between the rockers and softer fare. “Why” conjured Boyz II Men or Brian McKnight. “Where Were You In The Morning” could be a Justin Timberlake slow jam, while “Particular Taste” landed like JT’s attempt at Prince homage, infectious but a bit hokey. “Fallin’ All In You,” which Mendes identified as the perfect moment for aspiring lovers to make a move, reminded me of some VH1 hit from the ’80s or ’90s, while the social message song “Youth” played out like countless somber acoustic numbers before it. Among the best and hardest-hitting selections were “Mercy,” an impassioned rocker that finds common ground between Hozier and James Blake, and “If I Can’t Have You,” its Afrobeats-tinged verses affixed to an ebullient disco chorus.

That song and “Señorita” are Mendes’ two biggest hits ever. Given that they arrived a year after his most recent LP, I assumed they were part of a new album cycle, but they’ve since been added to a deluxe, resequenced version of last year’s Shawn Mendes. In turn, that album is now back to the top 10, a full 15 months after its release. He’s wise not to rush out a new project if he’s not ready, but with mainstream pop churning at its swiftest pace in decades, I wonder if he’ll ever soar quite this high again. He may well recognize he’s at the peak of his powers because he chose this week to launch a charitable foundation “to amplify the causes that my fans care deeply about.” Whether the window is closing on his moment of dominance or it’s just beginning, he seems all set up for long-term success.

What became clear as the night wore on is that Mendes’ career is built not on any particular trend, style, or skill set. A large portion of his audience is there to swoon, of course, but nice-guy sex appeal isn’t necessarily the main attraction, and he’s more of a well-rounded entertainer than a prodigy at any one discipline. He flies in the face of the notion that to succeed in pop you must be iconic. More than anything he seems to be selling songs. Like Mendes himself, they aren’t especially showy songs. They’re sturdy, catchy, relatable, not particularly challenging or transgressive, rarely stunning but mostly pretty enjoyable. “Youth” notwithstanding, they’re not attempting to be generational anthems. They’re mostly striving for a different sort of immortality, a limitless afterlife in the background at malls, restaurants, and grocery stores and on the playlists of a loyal fan army. He’s living proof that if you don’t pander to the zeitgeist, it can’t leave you behind.

CREDIT: Mark Horton/Getty Images

CHART WATCH

After 19 weeks of the same #1 song, we are now back into the churn. As discussed above, Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” — which dethroned Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Old Town Road” after its record-setting run at #1 — itself is deposed this week by Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello’s “Señorita.” It’s the first #1 hit for Mendes and the second for Cabello following “Havana.” A previous Mendes/Cabello duet, 2015’s “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” peaked at #20.

After “Bad Guy” at #2 is Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” at a new #3 peak. “Old Town Road” is down to #4, while Lil Tecca’s “Ransom” rises to a new #5 peak. The rest of the top 10: Khalid’s “Talk” at #6, Chris Brown and Drake’s “No Guidance” at #7, Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber’s “I Don’t Care” at #8, Post Malone and Young Thug’s “Goodbyes” at #9, and Mendes’ “If I Can’t Have You” at #10.

Over on the Billboard 200, Young Thug has his first #1 album, and like many of today’s most popular rappers, he did it almost entirely via streaming. Per Billboard, Thugger’s So Much Fun enters atop the chart with 131,000 equivalent album units and 5,000 in sales. His 125,000 streaming equivalent units amount to 167.9 million on-demand audio streams — the fifth-best streaming week by any album this year. So Much Fun is his fifth top 10 album; previously his best-charting album was 2017’s #2-peaking Super Slimey.

Lionel Richie’s Hello From Las Vegas enters at #2 with 65,000 units, almost all of them deriving from album/ticket bundles tied to his summer tour. It’s his sixth top 10 album. His last appearance on the chart was 2012’s #2-peaking Tuskegee. And debuting at #3 is the hip-hop compilation Quality Control: Control The Streets, Volume 2, anchored by Migos, Lil Baby, City Girls, and Lil Yachty. It posted 63,000 units, 61,000 of them via streaming. The rest of the top 10: Billie Eilish, Ed Sheeran, Lizzo, Chris Brown, Rick Ross, Khalid, and Shawn Mendes.

POP FIVE

Charli XCX – “Miss U”
Charli can’t miss right now. Even her throwaways are bangers.

Tove Lo & Jax Jones – “Jacques”
“Ooh la la la” is right! I am more excited for the new Tove Lo than I thought I would be.

Jason Derulo – “Too Hot”
I can imagine an alternate reality where this became a really interesting Jeremih song, but in its current state it is atrociously obnoxious. Or is that obnoxiously atrocious?

Snakehips – “Summer Fade” (Feat. Anna Of The North)
This beat sounds like Washed Out’s “Feel It All Around” snapping back into clarity. I’m into it.

Why Don’t We – “What Am I”
Did these guys really just turn “I know what you are, but what am I” into the premise for a weepy romantic ballad? More like why don’t we not.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Taylor Swift says she has not yet planned live shows for Lover, but indicated she might not be playing stadiums for it: “Stadiums are amazing — I love stadiums, I just don’t know if we’re going to do the same thing as we did last time.” [iHeart]
  • Meanwhile Madonna has pushed back the start of her tour: “Madame X is a perfectionist and wants to give you the most unique, magical, and musical experience,” she said in a statement. “She underestimated the amount of time it would take to bring this kind of intimate theatrical experience to you and wants it to be perfect!!!” [NY Daily News]
  • Renée Zellweger duets with Sam Smith and Rufus Wainwright on the upcoming original soundtrack JUDY. [Playbill]
  • Maren Morris leads the CMA Awards nominations. [Tennesseean]
  • Jonas Brothers ended their Toronto concert early, without playing some of their biggest hits, due to “an unforeseen technical difficulty.” [Twitter]
  • In other JoBros news, Nick Jonas has teamed up with John Varvatos for a new premium tequila. [Villa One]
  • Drake released a video for “Money In The Grave” featuring Rick Ross. [YouTube]
  • Kane Brown and Marshmello will give an immersive virtual reality performance of “One Thing Right” on Good Morning America tomorrow. [ABC]
  • Ava Max is a superhero in the video for “Torn.” [YouTube]
  • Julia Michaels is not a superhero in the video for “17.” [YouTube]
  • Lewis Capaldi released a second video for “Someone You Loved.” [YouTube]
  • Finally, here’s Brie Larson covering Miley Cyrus’ “Slide Away.” [Twitter]

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