“You’ll never see him in a venue of this size again,” a friend of mine says, approximately 10 minutes after Canadian pop-rockstar-du-jour Shawn Mendes shut down the house at the 20,000 capacity O2 Arena in London; the first of three nights he’s sold out. That’s a statement usually reserved for fresh-faced artists playing an arse-dive rock venue somewhere in North London, but for Mendes, who’s tallied up a slew of Number One records comprised of soft, John Mayer-cum-Kings of Leon rock songs that both kids and their parents love, it still applies.
The O2 feels too cosy for the 20-year-old’s ambitions.
Mendes has managed to carve a particularly Gen Z-shaped groove in the progression of male mainstream rock acts and how they’ll perform in future. He is, in my eyes, the closest thing we have to Bruce Springsteen. No, stay with me.
While the traditional ‘male genius’ types carry troubled backstories or a sort of faux rejection of all things ‘of the era’, Mendes owes his career to it. A singer who got his breakthrough singing six-second covers on the now defunct app Vine as a 15-year-old (a fact that will follow him around somewhat unnecessarily until he’s about 30), he’s never shied away from utilising the internet – now through Instagram and Twitter mainly – as a platform to get his music and thoughts into the ears of a keen fanbase.
There’s a through-line of Springsteen and Mendes’ approach to singing about women. In a feature for NPR Music, journalist Ann Powers called Springsteen “a good feminist egg by rock’s historic standards, eschewing the music’s more tasteless forms of female objectification,” which is true of Mendes too. He has, by choice, been rock music’s nice guy: either the heartbroken one or a boy who bounces back without vile bitterness or slut-shaming.
Springsteen is a man with nothing to prove but who gives everything at each and every show. Watching Mendes thrash his way through a 21-song set of singles and album deep cuts to a crowd of 20,000 people is a weird kind of exhilaration. It feels like watching someone with so much energy exert every ounce of what they have in a desperate attempt to prove themselves, which is entirely justified because Shawn Mendes still battles the preconceptions of old rock critics and fans who struggle to see him as anything more than a teeny bopper. He’s still compared to Bieber, despite harbouring few creative similarities to the other sought after Canadian megastar.
Before you dismiss Mendes for not having a ‘Born to Run’ under his belt yet, bear in mind that you’re watching a kid born in 1998 play gigantic rock ballads to a crowd of teenage boys and girls, and that one day those teenage boys and girls will turn into men and women who, in 20 or 30 years time, will be watching this Canadian occupy the same stages that Springsteen does right now, playing music that may well be seen as classics of the era. There’s time for him to make a true knockout record that wins over critics who right now see him as a top-tier act in a genre saturated with the unremarkable – but that doesn’t need to mean he’ll be making music like Springsteen. If we can’t progress and understand that the good old days are old news for a reason, well then, we’re heading towards a poor place for modern pop occupied by nobody.
I guess that’s because we like to focus our stance on artist’s excellence based on their ‘organic’ route to stardom, but if Springsteen had come around in the age of social media, who’s to say he wouldn’t have taken advantage of the same platforms that made Shawn Mendes a star? We can’t discount artists based on their journey to success because sometimes talent – something Mendes, a fine singer and instrumentalist who can flex both while somehow making a sea of young women shriek, has plenty of – quashes whatever preconceptions we have of where people come from, or who they’re aligned with, or whether or not their careers are completely autonomous and self-controlled. His O2 stint might be a rock show cut with scalpel like precision, but it still harbours the soul of a star who has space for more sporadic things in future.
Put simply, the weathered, drug-addled, misogyny-laced narrative of the troubled rockstar is no longer a responsible one, and you’ll struggle to find a musician worth trusting who’ll attest to anything other than that. Sure, Shawn Mendes’ hustle was more straightforward and supported by a major label than many of the rockstars of yore, and he’s so strait-laced you’re almost crying out for him to say ‘fuck’ just once, but don’t doubt that he has another four decades of music in him. And in two years time, he’ll be playing the same stadium stages that Springsteen treads. People fear the future, but Shawn Mendes is a sign that we have so much to look forward to, and that rock music for the masses can still be euphoric, and is there for us to enjoy. This boy is right where he needs to be.
Shawn Mendes plays The O2 tonight (Wednesday 17th April) and Friday 19th April