Here’s the short list of things you need to know about Canadian singer Shawn Mendes.
1) He’s 16.
2) He plays guitar.
3) He launched his career with six-second covers tunes on Vine.
4) He can’t avoid inevitable comparisons to Justin Bieber.
5) He can’t avoid love songs, either. Or break-up songs.
6) He loves to sing about innocent teen twitterpation …
… except when he’s crooning about things that aren’t quite so chaste.
“Never Be Alone” looks forward to a day when Mendes’ fast-paced life slows down enough for him to make a lasting commitment (“I promise that one day I’ll be around/I’ll keep you safe/I’ll keep you sound”). “Strings” hopes a lifelong friendship (“Met this girl when I was 3 or so”) may eventually turn matrimonial (“When the time is right, maybe I’ll propose/ … Darling, I want all the strings attached”). Later, he empathizes, “And, baby, when you fall down, I fall too/And if you get lost, then I’ll get lost with you/And when the waves crash down/Then, baby, I won’t move.” Similarly, “This Is What It Takes” commits to making a relationship work, even in hard times. And on “Crazy,” Mendes realizes he’s been exactly that for stringing along a girl he couldn’t decide whether he wanted to be with or not.
“Something Big” describes the sense of anticipation that comes when you’re on the brink of achieving something you’ve worked hard for. “A Little Too Much” tells the story of a quietly struggling young woman (“Though everyone said that she was strong/What they didn’t know is that she could barely carry on”) who’s determined to persevere (“But she knew that she would be OK/So she didn’t let it get in her way”).
“I Don’t Even Know Your Name” tells a would-be flame, “And you don’t have to do anything else/But be yourself.” “Life of the Party” encourages someone to not worry about what others think (“So when it gets hard, don’t be afraid”). But …
… the bulk of the song couches courage to be yourself in defiant terms (“We don’t care what them people say/I love it when you don’t take no/I love it when you do what you want just ’cause you said so/ … ‘Cause we don’t have the time to be sorry”). And these lyrics, “We don’t have to be ordinary/Make your best mistakes/ … Come out tonight, come out tonight/ … I’m telling you to take your shot, it might be scary/Hearts are gonna break,” are being interpreted as an affirmation of embracing sexual desires or proclivities, whatever they may be.
Several songs allude to sexual intimacy. “Aftertaste” includes these provocative lines: “Try to forget me, but I’m everywhere/I’m the smell on your sheets/You weren’t ready when you left me there.” “Kids in Love” suggests a supervision-free rendezvous that’s going to get steamy: “Said, your place is kinda close/And your ‘rents are out of town/ … If you’re feeling kinda crazy/Turn down the lights/We can take our time/Do whatever you like/It’s alright, it’s alright/I wanna make you mine.” On “Stitches,” Mendes says of someone who’s dumped him, “Now that I’m without your kisses/I’ll be needing stitches/ … But I know that I’ll make it out alive/If I quit calling you my lover.” Lyrics then hyperbolically lament, “Gotta get you out of my head/ … Gonna wind up dead.”
“Crazy” confesses, “All of this is getting really old/I’m having trouble sleeping on my own.” And speaking of sleeping, “This Is What It Takes” describes a guy watching his girl sleep, implying that they’re in pretty intimate proximity (“I watch your troubled eyes as you rest/And I fall in love with every breath”).
“Something Big” mentions gambling (“Play the Lotto, you might win it”). It also pushes what would be an affirming message about change (“Take this spark/And start a fire/Raise this up/We’re feeling high”) into more rebellious territory (“They can’t tell us anything/’Cause something big is happening”).
Ah, the tried and true template for a teen idol! It requires a modicum of talent and dashing good looks, which are then paired with boy-or-girl-next-door appeal and confessional, sentimental, whisper-promises-in-your-ear lyrics. In some ways, very little has changed since the emergence of this musical mode in the late 1950s and early ’60s.
Yet some important elements of this formula have changed. Namely, the assumptions about what constitutes normal behavior for teens in general. In the case of Handwritten, the kind of aww-shucks puppy love that’s always been a staple of this genre is now fused with jarringly mature images, ideas and suggestions about sex, like when Mendes taunts an ex by saying, “I’m the smell on your sheets.” Try to imagine David Cassidy or Debbie Gibson belting out that zinger.
The message in these moments—from a 16-year-old to throngs of teens and tweens—is that sleeping with your boyfriend or girlfriend is absolutely normal behavior, the consequences of which is nothing more than some dirty laundry.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.