Shawn Mendes has none – well, almost none – of the trappings of a star. He’s not uniquely stylish. He lacks a mega publicity machine. He doesn’t have a once-in-a-generation voice. His lyrics don’t smack your soul out of nowhere. He’s not flashy onstage. He’s not the next-next generation Paul Simon on guitar.
But Mendes has fans – 3.4 million of them on Twitter, to be precise – and a solid 6,000 of them braved the brisk and wet weather Saturday at Darien Lake Theme Park to catch his free show.
And that is the singular star trapping that matters: screaming fans. In this case, screaming tween and teen girls, something Mendes has in abundance.
Before we dig into his music and performance – which won’t take particularly long because, at 16, Mendes hasn’t had the time to develop a wide repertoire of material – let’s revisit our opening lines. None of those observations are meant as criticism, at least not of the harsh variety.
Mendes isn’t uniquely stylish; he’s everyday stylish. Onstage at Darien, he wore a pants and hoodie. His brown hair was neatly styled. For a teen guy, that works.
He’s not a publicity hound, but I can tell you from our conversation a couple of weeks ago, he’s smart and thoughtful, a good interviewee.
Musically and lyrically, he’s solid. Mendes isn’t going to twist the heads of seasoned, picky music fans – not yet, anyhow – but adults aren’t his audience. His crowd comprises girls who could go to school (or maybe even prom) with Mendes if they, like him, were growing up outside Toronto in Pickering, Ont.
Mendes’ stage performance is exceedingly simple: It’s him and a guitar, no band. His only backup is a small video board that occasionally flashed some of his lyrics. (Here’s an opportunity for constructive criticism: Mendes’ team would be well suited to use a larger digital board with fancier and more consistent graphics. Or they could run a feed of tweets from fans at the show; having even their words onstage with Mendes would feel like a feat to his fans, who clamor for his every glance, wink or opportunity to catch a glimpse of him offstage.)
Mendes’ appeal isn’t wrapped in a spectacle. Rather, it’s simply him. He comes across as a regular teenage boy. “Hi guys!” he said as he took the stage, thanking the fans – some of whom had been camping out for preferred seating since 3 a.m. – for dealing with the weather.
“My name is Shawn Mendes,” he continued – and whatever came next was drowned by ear-piercing screams.
Mendes’ one-hour set included several songs from his debut album, “Handwritten,” which this spring hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts, making him the youngest artist to reach the top since Justin Bieber. As Mendes sang those selections, which included “Something Big,” “I Don’t Even Know Your Name,” and “Strings,” his fans sang along.
Every word, every song and – seemingly – every girl joined in.
That kind of passion isn’t unusual for a teen heartthrob artist, but that kind of engagement with the music stands out.
It also creates a bit of pressure on its subject. Mendes, who commanded the stage well for a new artist who was performing solo, acknowledged that before singing “A Little Too Much.” He thanked the fans for allowing him to live his dreams, and added, “Something like that can feel overwhelming, like you have the world on your shoulders.” He then explained the song: It tells the story of a girl who thought she had to bottle up her emotions, until she broke down and realized it was OK to talk about what she’s feeling.
As Mendes talked, then sang, girls cried. They cried throughout the show, to be fully truthful, but these tears probed a bit deeper. They care about Mendes, and songs like that one make the fans feel like Mendes is reciprocating.
At another point, as Mendes performed his recent single “Stitches,” hundreds of fans held up identical paper hearts. It turned out that a group of girls made the hearts, passed them out, scrawled a message on them – “You made it, Shawn” – and listed their Instagram names for tagging.
Smart ladies. Their man of the evening, Mendes, was himself discovered by fans and music pros on social media, starting with Vine. So why not follow the lead and gain some followers?
Mendes thanked the fans for the hearts. He was poised – a pro, to be sure – the entire time. But look closely, especially when his eyes widened, and you could see he, too, was a 16-year-old kid, soaking up the scene.
Just like his fans.