It's difficult to listen to commercial pop music with a critical mind, and that is said with no hint of irony. You would think that commercial pop’s mainstream accessibility and focus-grouped nature would make artists of the genre easy to evaluate, but if anything, the corporate nature of such music makes it even more of a challenge.
Even if an artist is, in fact, an “industry plant,” he or she still has (presumably) sincere creative aspirations and an underlying desire to express who they truly are. Getting a sense of an artist’s identity in a club setting is easy — the real challenge is looking beneath the MasterCard-sponsored meet-and-greets and the overwhelming iHeartMedia presence to find authenticity and distinctiveness within the artist.
Shawn Mendes’ Monday night show at American Airlines Center was a strenuous challenge in this regard, and this is coming from a writer who once wrote a positive review about Kane Brown. On one hand, Mendes is exceptionally talented. On the other hand, I had virtually no idea who Mendes was going into this, and even after seeing him in concert and conducting research, that is still the case.
This wouldn’t be so frustrating if Mendes weren't such a skilled artist. His vocal range is far wider than that of most trained vocalists, and he pulls off a consistently bold delivery regardless of the octave. He is a surprisingly proficient guitar and piano player. He takes the stage with confidence and knows how to make a crowd feel special. He is also stylistically versatile — only this attribute is possessed to an enormous fault.
At his Monday show, Mendes sounded like Freddie Mercury at times, and he can channel the late Queen frontman better than Adam Lambert. His cover of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” was one of the highlights of the performance. He played only a snippet of it, however, and used it to transition into a medley of “A Little Too Much,” “Because I Had You” and “Patience.”
Mendes draws from the styles of Maroon 5, Justin Timberlake, Bruno Mars, Kings of Leon and Coldplay, but cannot seem to commit to a stylistic puree. Sure, maybe a fusion between Coldplay and Kings of Leon would sound horrible, but you’ll never know until you try. Worst-case scenario, you come up with a blend of influences that turns into a musical Frankenstein’s monster, but at least in that instance, you would have a distinctive sound nobody would be able to mistake for that of another artist.
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Mendes doesn’t seem to want to take this risk, and it shows in the way he channels other artists’ styles. When he sounds like Maroon 5, he really sounds like Maroon 5 (“Lost in Japan”). When he sounds like Bruno Mars, he really sounds like Bruno Mars (“Particular Taste”). When he sounds like Kings of Leon, he sounds like he’s fronting a Kings of Leon cover band that decided to stop doing covers (“In My Blood”). Mendes nails these styles and does them complete justice, but he makes no attempts at putting his own spin on them, so at best, he sounds like if a Now That’s What I Call Music CD was recorded by a single artist.
And sure, people have criticized Bruno Mars for sounding identical to Michael Jackson, but Mendes makes Mars look like GG Allin, and when you listen to a Bruno Mars song on the radio, you know it’s Bruno Mars — even if you’ve never heard the song.
In Mendes’ case, there seems to be a reverse-Bruno Mars effect: Anybody who has ever gone out in public over the last three years has almost certainly heard “Treat You Better,” but it’s likely they don’t even know who sings it when they hear it (side note: in the age of incels, the whole “I’ll treat you like a gentleman better than he ever will” message is not a good look). Musically, there doesn’t seem to be anything about Shawn Mendes that makes him … well, Shawn Mendes.
Still, a hollowly corporate artist, he is not. When you look beneath the commercialized nature of Mendes’ sound, there is more to be found beneath the surface. Unfortunately, what is found is a young artist with insurmountable potential who is not being as great as he could be.