Once upon a time, breaking into the music business required trekking from Dayton or Des Moines to Los Angeles or Nashville, paying your dues, living in squalor on a bus boy's tips, playing myriad gigs in dilapidated dives and hoping beyond hope that someone would take notice of just how talented you really were.
Then came the Internet.
A would-be superstar's odds of making it big arguably aren't much better today than they were back in the day. But the process, if you're really lucky, isn't nearly as tortured. Just record some creative covers of popular songs, upload them to YouTube and wait for critical cultural mass. That's the strategy Justin Bieber used. And it's the one 18-year-old Austin Mahone has employed too. "I would go on the iTunes chart and see the hottest songs, then I'd cover them," Mahone told Details last year. "People would go on YouTube and search for those songs. That's how I got my views."
It didn't hurt, of course, that Mahone sported a decidedly Bieber-esque hairdo. And a flair for the romantic. The comparisons don't end there. Like Bieber, Mahone was raised by a devoted single mom (after his father died). Like Bieber, Mahone comes from a family that values faith (he and his mom are regular attenders at their Catholic church in San Antonio, Tex.). Like Bieber, Mahone's growing YouTube presence eventually netted him a music contract (on Chase Records, a subsidiary of Universal Republic).
Like Bieber, Mahone's presence is often greeted by throngs of screaming young female fans—fans who are no doubt thrilled to finally be able to hear his big Secret.
"Next to You" vows commitment while sweet-talking a would-be girlfriend ("Hey girl, you're one of a kind/Perfect as one can be/ … You'll never be alone, believe me/I will, I will/I will be next to you"). Loads more over-the-top romantic declarations fill "Can't Fight This Love," "All I Ever Need" and "The One I've Waited For." We hear lines like "Girl, I'm hooked for sure/I can't hide what I feel/ … Can't fight this love," "Believe me, you're everything/That just makes my world complete/ … You're all I ever need/Baby, you're amazing," and "It may be you and me for eternity/'Cause you are the one I've waited for/With this love, this love, this love."
On "Till I Find You," a young man says he's OK with letting his guard down and even abandoning his well-cultivated public image for the sake of a muse who mesmerized him, then disappeared ("Every minute I'm without you, I lose/'Cause an angel touched my heart and took my cool/Every second burns like fire/I'm doomed/ … Till I find you").
Several songs value young women just for their sultry looks. On "Next to You," for instance, Mahone croons, "Hey, girl, just look at you/So beautiful and drop-dead hot." Next up is "Mmm Yeah": "When I saw her/Walking down the street/She looked so fine." Elsewhere on that song, guest Pitbull mentors Austin in the "fine" art of leering ("Mmm, mmm, yeah, yeah/She look so good but she bad, bad/You can see that back from the front, front/Booty like Kris Kross, jump, jump"). Meanwhile, several lines on "All I Ever Need" could be construed as a sexual come on when Mahone tells the object of his attention, "We can do anything you like/I know we both can get it right tonight/ … I can tell by looking in your eyes." That track compares a woman's influence to an intoxicating substance ("Baby, I'm addicted/You're like a drug, no rehab can fix it").
Mild rebellion creeps into "All I Ever Need" as Austin articulates his version of the no limits, no rules rock cliché: "Rock 'n' Roll one time, we'll make it up as we go/ … We can do whatever we want/When she walks past me, I say, hey, hey, hey." "Secret" flirts with naughtiness, too, as Mahone initiates a party in an abandoned house ("OK, we found this empty house/Hit the sirens, call 'em out/Get the homies round and round/Get loud") and suggestively tells a girl, "Yeah, there is nothing to hide/Tell me all your secrets tonight/ … Let the music free your mind, yeah."
The Secret serves as an unintentionally ironic title for Austin Mahone's second EP. After all, when it comes to teen heartthrobs, it's no secret at all what they'll sing about: doves and love and all that snuggly stuff. Sure enough, Mahone sighs and pines over the girl(s) of his dreams throughout these eight songs. Most of the content flows within the established banks of teenage twitterpation. Occasionally, however, youthful lust splashes over the boundaries, with Pitbull's shameless ogling representing the album's lowest lyrical level.
Austin Mahone still sees himself as a role model at this stage of his nascent career, of course, and he's talked about his responsibility to young fans not to push the envelope too far. "I get it," Austin told Details. "My fans are, like, from 2 to 21. I definitely want to please the parents." And after Austin posted a shirtless selfie of himself on Instagram last year, his mother, Michele (who co-manages his career) made him take it down. She said, "As a mom, I can't help but worry about what other moms would think when their daughters saw that picture. Austin's fans are so young."
But if it feels like you've heard all of this before, it's because you have. More times than you've wanted to. It's impossible not to recall similar things being said early on by the likes of Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus (right along with their parents) as their stars first zipped into the stratosphere. And we all know what happened next.
It pains me to end this review of mostly fluffy filler by sounding so serious about where Austin may be heading. But, sadly, there are enough clues in his tunes to justify it.