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Why Shawn Mendes and Other Web Stars Are the Future of Pop Music

There's nothing holding Mendes back.
There's nothing holding Mendes back.
Courtesy of the artist

Last September, precocious 18-year-old and Seventeen magazine cover boy Shawn Mendes sold out Madison Square Garden's nearly 21,000 seats. This Wednesday, he will unleash his boyish charms and angsty, lovelorn pop hits on Miami. And though he hasn't quite broken MSG numbers with this week's concert at the American Airlines Arena, he certainly won't be lonely.

The platinum-selling singer-songwriter has charted five times on the Billboard Top 20, including his current hit single, "There's Nothing Holdin' Me Back," a song that shares the same infectiously tropical, dance-pop vibe as Ed Sheeran's "Shape of You." The mere fact that Mendes is playing arenas before he can drink legally or grow proper facial hair is impressive. So how did he get to this point so quickly?

In a word (or two): the internet.

We basically live in the future. To paraphrase Dickens: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, for music. Fans are experiencing an enlightenment age when it comes to accessibility to artists' creativity. Just about anyone can upload, distribute, and share their music with nothing less than the entire world by exerting only slightly more effort than it takes to send an email with an attachment.

Of course, not every folksy guitar song on Bandcamp or abstract, screeching techno jam on SoundCloud is great or even good; that's always been the case. Plenty of fledgling internet stars will soar before flaming out, perhaps producing one quality single if they're lucky. The past 60 years of pop music are littered with examples. We put them on one-hit-wonder compilations, sing them in cheeky falsettos at karaoke bars, and move on with our lives.

Nonetheless, it is a fantastically overwhelming time to be a musician or music fan. In 2010, indie-rock duo the Limousines observed that "internet killed the radio star" in a song of the same name. But perhaps it's more accurate to say the internet is now creating the stars of radio. After all, artists such as Adele, Lily Allen, and Lorde all once had talent, formal musical training, and in the cases of Allen and Lorde, development deals — but were still going nowhere. It wasn't until they began giving away their music online that anyone, including fans and record labels, noticed their talent.

But the man-child who truly established the blueprint for Mendes to follow is fellow Canuck and ubiquitous radio presence Justin Bieber. The Biebs famously got his start on YouTube, the video platform that's launched a thousand faces in dozens of genres to stardom. Though Bieber might have bandwagoned his way onto a global hit, "Despacito," he owes his fame to a video his mother posted of him covering Ne-Yo's "So Sick" in 2007. (Fun fact: According to the New York Times, Bieber's career nearly never happened because his ultra-Christian mom wasn't comfortable with him being represented by a Jew, so she had to pray on it.)

Fast-forward a few years to Shawn Mendes and his touring partner and opening act, Charlie Puth. Mendes learned how to play guitar using YouTube before posting videos of himself covering popular songs. Puth followed a similar path, posting comedy videos. It was Puth's duet with vocalist Emily Luther crushing a cover of Adele's "Someone Like You" that secured him a deal with Ellen DeGeneres' record label, Eleveneleven.

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If youth isn't directly responsible for changes in pop-culture trends, it's certainly the catalyst. The age of the internet music star is upon us because tweens, adolescents, and college kids are those most connected with the latest and newest goings-on in an entertainment industry that now exists almost exclusively online. And increasingly, young people have purchasing power.

Parents, or most of them, figure pop music is an OK opium for their kids to get hooked on. Mendes is the epitome of a safe, white-bread, Tiger Beat fantasy for not only teenage girls but also their unfulfilled mothers. He belongs in a CW drama or a Disney Channel movie (the latter being one of his original showbiz goals).

But don't discount teens' adoration. Those same fangirls might one day turn into producers. Adele and Bieber begot Mendes and Puth, and in turn, the touring duo may very well inspire their own generation of creatives. Admit it: There's something sweet, even pure, about nascent YouTubers, earnestly sending their missives out into the digital ether, dreaming of stardom. Go get 'em, you crazy kids.

Shawn Mendes: Illuminate World Tour. With special guest Charlie Puth. 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 26, at American Airlines Arena, 601 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 786-777-1000; aaarena.com. Tickets cost $15 to $363 via ticketmaster.com.

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