Image: Josiah VanDien/ Wikimedia Commons

Is Shawn Mendes the victim of pop masculinity?

Most songs can and do reduce all the deprivations and coercions, as well as desires and hopes, of social and individual experience into one simple formula: needing love. Shawn Mendes’ ‘Wonder’ is no exception. But the song is far more interesting than an explicit, machine-tooled and commercialised social consciousness in which love is the answer to everything. This song, dismally pleasant as it is, embodies the prejudices which tend to keep the music industry warm at night – that people will fall for anything. Shawn’s masculine undressing in 2020 is the latest in a series of career moves we are to entertain in the coming years.

This is the general condition of pop today: pleasing in an unbearably light way. Sort of like a pudding, with no real lasting nutritional value

‘Wonder’ seems to be a love song – in the most derogatory sense of the term. Mendes sings a lot about his feelings, his doubts, the fact he’s not a saint (and never said he was), his masculine conditioning, (“I wonder, when I cry into my hands/ I’m conditioned to feel like it makes me less of a man”) and so on. This song has taught me the greatest lesson of all: too much self-observation can kill a feeling stone dead. Shawn Mendes exposes one of the worst faults of modern man- talking about the pressures of masculinity as if self-reflection frees oneself from all hang ups and flaws. It’s unfortunate that most women don’t care about the drivelling nonsense of masculine pressures, just as males can only receive news of female oppression with a kind of condescendingly sympathetic and hyper-evolved male gaze. But 21st century self-conscious gender roles are just the latest toys with which to play.

The first time I heard the song, I felt lifted higher and higher, and then I just felt bored. The lyrics arouse a quick and eager response with their bright colourings and commercial vitality but go no further. This is the general condition of pop today: pleasing in an unbearably light way, sort of like a pudding, with no real lasting nutritional value.

Music culture (and life itself) is basically homosexual in the sense that men only really care about other men. Most men sing about being a man, and most women sing about what kind of woman they’ll be for their man. Camila Cabello’s song ‘Dream of You’ from her album Romance was – I’ll risk saying it – about her relationship with Shawn Mendes. Whilst Camila Cabello’s music is a giant poster of love for Shawn Mendes (“He’s a shy singer/ Most of the time/ Unless it’s him and I”), Shawn’s music stays universal and impersonal, with less to lose if they were to break up.

Culture seems to have become paralysed by the conviction that we must always talk about our inner lives

Shawn Mendes’ central challenge, for the future of his music’s history, is that he must evolve his act or become a relic. He’s a sort of musical dinosaur in the making, trying to outrun his own extinction. Male singers of the last decade are so forgettable now, their names are just not worthy of discussion. Shawn must find a way to survive the inevitable decline and fall which hits many young male musicians once they lose their sense of mystery. It’s like some ruthless form of musical speed dating, where the dull, plain and awkward get left behind. This explains most of the careers of the members of One Direction.

Often, we lose ourselves in this era of conscious living, in which pressure to become a certain person can lead to the manufacturing of a self-alienated, artificial and slightly glib individual, and the very same is true of the leading male pop icon of our generation. Shawn risks becoming cruelly trapped between masculine realities; one of the strong-machismo lazy stereotype, and the more modern symptom of masculinity, that of aggressively trying to prove how secure they are, namely, by constantly discussing their insecurities.

Culture seems to have become paralysed by the conviction that we must always talk about our inner lives, but the intimate revelations of young men now, especially in song, are usually plagiaristic and contain such phrases as ‘societal pressures’, ‘self-esteem’ and ‘fear of intimacy’. However, Shawn seems to have championed the herculean task of staying relevant in the following lyrics: “I wonder, if I’m being real/ Do I speak my truth, or do I filter how I feel?”.

In a sense, his relationship with his audience is becoming one based in strife: he manages to combine an all American, Old Hollywood masculinity (he even sort of resembles James Dean or Elvis Presley) with a fluidity and feminine grace which is undeniably borrowed from the 21st century, just as Harry Styles seems to have recently become possessed by the ghost of David Bowie (right down to the nail polish and garish outfits).

Despite the narcissism of wondering if you’re being real or not, it is impossible to feel superior towards or sceptical of Shawn’s train ride into commercial soul-searching. People like this can afford to question their own moral worth. Us mere mortals just have to get on with things. In the entertainment industry, there is so much money and power connected with burying yourself alive in self-esteem, vulnerability, and intimacy, that it’s almost impossible to argue with a musical culture overdosed on psychoanalytical cliches.

The truth about Shawn’s irreducibly servile self-reinvention is that no-one cares. We’ve seen it so many times. The story is so old, but it goes on, dating back to Elvis, Jackson and Sinatra (who kept his career spanning several decades), that even the most morally perverse marketing ploys are cynically permitted and even enjoyed. Underlying the many songs of Mendes that I just don’t remember, he is immortalised as the archetypal youth, the 16-year-old who will never die.

I see Shawn Mendes’ career, once he has gone through several commercially orchestrated mutations and forms of decay, slowly dragging itself towards its open grave of past-time musical paradise, in which we will remember him as the guy who once sung ‘Stitches’. Whilst Shawn’s career-strengthening descent into emotional turmoil lacks a basic sense of being true, at least he knows how to avoid being boring. In times like these, one must have entertainment at all costs.

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