The lights go off, the stage rises and the crowd is echoing throughout the stadium. The entire room is bursting with energy as the music begins and your favorite artist comes on stage. It might be your first concert or your 21st, but all the feelings are the same: excitement, anticipation, love and the wish that you could be closer to the performer just once. But as our favorite artists are forced to cancel shows and reschedule tours, I can’t help but wonder what makes these celebrities choose a lifestyle that’s so high demand and invasive.
And why do audiences feel like they’re owed access to these celebrities’ lives? I watched the “Shawn Mendes: In Wonder” documentary to see if the recent influx of recorded tours and documentaries put on Netflix from artists such as Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande and Beyonce add to the experience when we watch our favorite artists perform. Or does it shed light on the way the music industry is about more than just the music and how it’s not always a good thing?
Your self-worth is not defined by what you do
“When your entire life is built on the approval of others in order for you to be successful, it can only take one moment to destroy everything you’ve built yourself up to be.” Taylor Swift talks about what it means to be a woman who battled with her identity growing up so young in the music industry, and how being told, “You’re really good at your job” eventually turned into, “Because you’re good at what you do, you’re good”; if she didn’t win a Grammy, that meant she wasn’t being good enough.
Discovering who you are outside of society’s prescribed roles is part of the journey of living, but as someone in the public eye, Taylor Swift is judged “worthy” based on how good she is at her passion, which can give someone a very skewed sense of identity.
It can be easy to ask, why choose this life? In “In Wonder,” Shawn Mendes’ sister, Aaliyah, talks about how Shawn has said he never wanted to be famous. “That lifestyle seems terrible.” Obviously, he’s changed his mind, but when he introduces his documentary, he still says, “I’m just a guy who loves music” — still, in order to do the thing he loves, he has to sacrifice so much just to stay relevant.
Shawn Mendes’ voice gave out 11 shows before the end of his last tour because of illness and fatigue. While discussing whether or not he should push himself to perform and perhaps risk long-term injury, the film’s audience can see how devastated he is to have to consider canceling the show. Despite the risk of hemorrhaging his muscles, Mendes carried on his shoulders the weight of letting down his fans; it’s a hard job when the joy of so many people depends on how well you can perform, and when your body reminds you that you’re not invincible, it can be hard to detach who you are and what you do.
In the end, the fans in São Paulo, Brazil sit outside of his venue and sing to him. It reminds him that he is allowed to be human, and he mentions that the kindness of his fans at that moment makes him feel appreciated.
Music is so personal — the line between your sense of self and your responsibility as a performer can easily become blurred, but these music documentaries seek to represent these artists on a more reachable level. Everyone demands something from them but in the end, they’re only human, and Taylor Swift’s “Miss Americana” and Shawn Mendes’ “In Wonder” show many sides of that.
Life is more than music
With entertainment constantly adapting to new forms of media and upcoming artists continuing to enter the public eye, it’s a constant battle to stay relevant. Taylor Swift has managed to cross over from country into pop so fluidly that she says she reinvented herself, but in that same breath she speaks about how female musicians have to reinvent themselves more often than their male counterparts.
After fighting and winning a sexual assault suit against former disc jockey David Mueller, she came out with her album “1989”; the release featured the song “Clean,” which is about finally being free from the confines of her shame and silence, and how the way she chooses to live her life is no longer subject to the whims of others.
In 2018 Swift spoke out about her political views for the first time ever in a statement against Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn. In her statement, she expressed her need to be “as educated as possible on how to respect people.” It was then that audiences saw that Swift’s life and career were about more than the music and accolades. She recognized she had a voice and platform that was able to inspire change for the better.
It made me realize that we so easily view celebrities under a speculative gaze because they are the ones who are truly cultural influencers. When Swift came out against Senator Blackburn, voter turnout among Tennessee’s youth increased sevenfold and even though it didn’t prevent Blackburn from winning the election, it showed that as much as people can view celebrities for the drama in their personal lives, they should look at the things they’re doing outside of their careers that will make an even greater influence for those who are growing up influenced by these artists’ music.
Eventually, Swift accomplished her career goal and won a Grammy, but she realized that she was lonely and had no one to share the joy of her successes with. She was so focused on making it to the top of her career that she never had the opportunity to redirect her aspirations toward anything else. Now as she gets older, we not only get to see the journey of someone who’s found success but also watch her as she grows into herself as a woman. Artists recognize that just like that, the media can decide that you’re not worth it and that your career is done. As a result, musicians do their best to redirect their focus toward other things as well.
“In Wonder” discusses Shawn Mendes’ relationship with pop star Camila Cabello and how the first five years of his career made it hard for them to get together. Though they were friends during that time, he was so focused on growing his career and keeping up with the times that he didn’t take the time to pursue the other things that are important in life. He now aspires to other relationships outside of his career. He discusses how he misses his home and the simpler life sometimes, but he still appreciates his career and his ability to change people’s lives with his music.
What Do These Documentaries Mean for Fans?
Watching your favorite celebrity come on stage for a concert that took time, effort and money to produce is so liberating. People travel all over the world to see these shows that resonate deeply with their audiences. Though the pandemic has forced us to rethink one of our favorite pastimes and how we experience performances, watching these documentaries allows fans to once again connect with their favorite artists. As the biggest tours are being streamed online, more people can watch, adding another level of inclusivity to the concert experience. Although nothing will ever match the real-life concert experience until we can safely get there, we can learn about the way these artists live and create the songs that we now know and love.
From the perspective of an objective viewer, the films allow us to access the parts of the artist that aren’t depicted in the media. In these documentaries, we are presented with narratives of who they are in their most vulnerable state in order to identify with their humanity.
Shawn is asked in “In Wonder” if it’s hard to retain the purity of his music from his early days of making music in his room for his Vine. He agrees that it is harder but even though things have changed for him as an artist, things have changed for the rest of the world as well. Ultimately, this means we don’t have to completely lose what makes the past special but rather redefine what it means to be an artist and an audience member. We can also better understand that we are all human and deserve to live a life that acknowledges our vulnerabilities.
Shawn wouldn’t change his lifestyle for anything though, no matter the struggles, because he’s still just a guy who loves music, as he’s recorded saying in the “In Wonder” trailer. All he ever wants to do is share that with the world and connect with those who share that same love as him. Taylor Swift, too, is finding power in her voice outside making music that people want. She’s finding power in her platform. And all we can ask of these artists is to continue to inspire bigger change beyond who they are in the industry. As many of us watch their performances from home, we hope that this can be a time when the access we have to these celebrities’ lives turns us into better people, for the future of entertainment and its cultural impact on society.