On Popular Music, and the Frustrations Therein.

This Christmas, for the first time in my life, I celebrated with some family friends. They graciously let me into their home on a special day and proceeded to put me to work in the kitchen with the kids, which — although they probably did not know this — is exactly where I’d choose to be, anyway. In the midst of chopping vegetables and stirring sauces, I started chatting with their granddaughter. She’s a pretty typical nine-year-old. Smart, engaging, a little standoffish (and aren’t we all a little standoffish at 9?). Alone in the kitchen with a relative stranger on Christmas, she seemed somewhat uncomfortable, but made no moves to leave. I quickly realized that, in her opinion ‘awkward silence with the only single, childless adult’ was better than ‘raucous roughhousing with the the other children, all of whom are at least 3 years younger than me.’

Still, I don’t do awkward silences well, so I started to draw her out. A sly compliment on her new Christmas leggings (owl-printed; they matched her earrings), a query about my favorite series of children’s books, an offhanded mention of my soccer-playing days. Eventually, we were having a lively conversation about her interests, her friends, her adorable-but-annoying younger sister. Unprompted, she mentioned the best of the morning’s presents.

“In a few months, Mom, and M and I are going to see Shawn Mendes. It’s going to be so fun!”

Outwardly, I smiled. I nodded. I ooh-ed and ah-ed and exclaimed in all the appropriate ways. Internally, I grimaced. Shawn Mendes is everything I hate about modern pop music, and then some.

Never heard of him? Shawn Mendes is the bland, clean-cut pop-folk singer of pre-teen dreams. Perfectly disheveled in a totally intentional way, he’s just edgy enough to be drool-worthy, while nonthreatening enough to star in a 13-year-old girl’s most romantic fantasies. Think: the Canadian male version of Taylor Swift.

Shawn Mendes Billboard Portrait
Copyright © 2014 Blossom Berkofsky for Billboard. Like a male version of T-Swift!

Before I continue let me be clear: I don’t generally dislike pop, rock, or other forms of non-classical music. In fact, I was raised on a steady diet of Eric Clapton and The Eagles interspersed with Top 40 hits. I don’t consider myself a music snob. I have a genuine love and appreciation for those slick, catchy, perpetually fun tunes that make the pop genre great. That being said, I get frustrated with a lot of modern pop music because it is saturated with singer-songwriters who ignore their responsibility to young fans. So many artists write inane, ridiculous, and potentially damaging lyrics to innocent bubblegum tunes over and over and over again. They think it’s no big deal. I disagree. (This is probably a good time to mention that I wrote a college term paper on how Taylor Swift could be considered the feminist anti-christ: don’t ask).

What does this have to do with clean-cut, swoon-worthy Shawn Mendes you ask? Let me direct you to his 2016 hit, Treat You Better. 

This feel-good fall hit tells the woeful tale of poor Shawn, who just wants his dream girl to know that he can treat her better than her no-good, sleazy, abusive boyfriend. The  4-minute angst-fest is filled with images of the dainty-look female lead being cornered, grabbed, and slapped by her significant other. Shots of Dream Girl staring tearfully at her bruises in a foggy mirror are interspersed with scenes of Shawn hitting walls and pulling hair as he bemoans her fate. The whole thing comes to an end by providing contact information for the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Not so bad right?

Well, let’s break it down. The lyrics of this song are…interesting to say the least. The whole thing starts out with Shawn earnestly serenading his audience with this gem:

I won’t lie to you/ I know he’s just not right for you

This is problematic in a number of ways. Picture this: you, a young woman, are dating the stereotypical ‘bad boy’. He’s gorgeous, glamorous, and slightly dangerous. You are filled with confidence and excitement at your new relationship, when your quintessential ‘nice guy’ best friend comes to you, filled with concern. “Hey. I know that you’re a grown-woman able to make your own decisions, but I find your judgment lacking and feel it is acceptable to insert myself into your relationship in order to tell you that your boyfriend’s a tool. Bye!”

Um…okay, Shawn. Wrong delivery, right instinct! This could go in a good direction, couldn’t it?

You’re spending all your time/ In this wrong situation/ And anytime you want it to stop/ I know I can treat you better than he can/ And any girl like you deserves a gentleman/ Tell me why are we wasting time/ On all your wasted crying/When you should be with me instead

And here is where Shawn goes off the rails. He starts the chorus by reiterating the Dream Girl’s lack of good judgement. Then he proceeds not to support, encourage, or engage her person-to-person, but to try and persuade her to become his romantic partner. It’s clear that — to Shawn Mendes and his co-authors — a woman can only escape one abusive relationship by jumping ship for another (albeit a kinder, more compassionate one). I would love to tell you that the song gets better from here, but it probably won’t surprise you to hear that it doesn’t. After this chorus, two more minutes of melancholic Bb-minor persist to tell Dream Girl that she could make her life infinitely better if only she’d ditch the delinquent and shack up with Shawn.

Is this really what we want to teach young girls? That, should you find yourself in the worst of circumstances, you’re not allowed to cry about it? That, if you’re with someone who physically and mentally abuses you, the solution is to leave them, and immediately enter into a relationship with the so-called ‘nice guy’ who has positioned himself as your savior? No thanks.

To be clear, this problem is obviously not exclusive to Shawn Mendes. Scores of pop stars write moralistic lyrics that position a man as Prince Charming, the one there to save you and automatically improve your life. But is that right? Are these the words that we want to inspire our children — boys, girls, or otherwise?

I keep thinking of H, the 9-year-old I met on Christmas, so excited to see Shawn Mendes in the flesh. She’s a feisty, sardonic, intelligent little girl who faces the world with a healthy dose of skepticism. I highly doubt one song like this is going to change the course of her life. Unfortunately, it’s not one song. It’s fifteen, a hundred, a thousand over the course of her childhood and beyond. H isn’t a damsel in distress, and she shouldn’t aspire to be one. She deserves better. Let’s start asking for music that gives it to her.


Day 3: January 3, 2017


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