Does Shawn Mendes' 'If I Can't Have You' Chart Success Say More About the Song or the Charts?

Brian Ziff
Shawn Mendes

Here's pop music in 2019 for you in a nutshell. Less than a year ago, Shawn Mendes released his self-titled third album, a big career statement of musical and personal maturity for the soon-to-be-20-year-old, with two singles ("In My Blood" and "Lost in Japan") that broke new topical and sonic ground for the singer-songwriter, and were heavily promoted with music videos, remixes and high-profile live performances for much of the year to follow. And now, he's released a new single -- one unconnected to the album as of now -- that in one week is already threatening to overshadow all of it. 

Make no mistake, Shawn Mendes was a very solid success: The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart with his best first-week numbers yet, while "In My Blood" -- the nervy, Kings of Leon-influenced lead single that represented both his hardest-rocking and most confessional hit to date -- earned him a Grammy nomination for song of the year, representing major industry validation for Mendes, and his ensuing Shawn Mendes: The Tour posted some jaw-dropping grosses. But for an artist who'd become a fairly consistent presence in the Billboard Hot 100's top tier, including three top ten hits from 2015 to 2017, the chart performance of the album's singles was a little less overwhelming: "Blood" peaked at No. 11, while "Lost in Japan" -- its frisky soul-pop follow-up -- topped out at No. 48, despite the song also receiving a bet-hedging, radio-ready remix from superproducer Zedd, and a fun, Lost in Translation-quoting video that blended both versions. 

However Mendes' chart momentum might have cooled with the self-titled set's singles, though, it's boomeranged back to blazing with this month's "If I Can't Have You." The pop-rock one-off, not yet tied to any longer upcoming release, is the highest debut [on this week's Hot 100 (dated May 18), zooming in at No. 2, held off the top spot only by the juggernaut that is Lil Nas X's Billy Ray Cyrus-featuring "Old Town Road." Not only does it easily outstrip the chart performance of the two self-titled album singles, it's the highest Mendes has been on the chart in his entire career, besting the No. 4 peak of "Stitches" in 2015. 

It's hardly a surprise that the song's a hit: Even aside from Mendes' own sterling track record, "Can't Have" as a pop single is quickly irresistible. The song hooks you immediately by starting off right with that chorus, so instantly explosive (and cleverly meta, with its "I can't write one song that's not about you" opening) that when it pulls back for Mendes' near-whimpered admission, "Everything means nothing that I can't have you," it's like catharsis in reverse. The verses are also alluring in their stripped-down thump, injecting a little bit of Afrobeats-via-More Life shuffle, but it all leads back to the stomping piano and gospel backing vocals of that chorus.

Mendes has cited acclaimed genre-mashing U.K. band The 1975 as his primary inspiration for the single, saying in a YouTube Live session, "I was obsessed with their album while making this song" -- presumably 2018's A Brief History of Online Relationships, though "Can't Have" actually sounds far more reminiscent of 2016's "The Sound." Just as importantly, though, there's a touch of classic disco in the wiggling groove on the refrain -- just enough that Mendes' song earns the right to borrow its name from one of the all-time great singles in the genre's history. 

So "If I Can't Have You" is undoubtedly a winner as a single. But Mendes has already had plenty of those in his catalog, and he's never come this close to the Hot 100's apex before. What sets "If I Can't Have You" apart? 

A lot of it likely has to do with timing. Mendes released the quasi-surprise single -- having announced it over social media just two days earlier -- on the Friday before that week's Saturday Night Live, where he performed it as the show's musical guest. Moreover, pop stars have consistently found success in recent times with unexpected singles released just after their previous album's promotional cycle had run its course, with Ariana Grande stunning the world by dropping "Thank U, Next" just months after her Sweetener LP, and Halsey also scoring her first solo No. 1 with the post-Hopeless Fountain Kingdom release "Without Me." (This isn't even a totally new concept for Mendes, who had one of his biggest hits to date with the 2017 in-betweener "There's Nothing Holdin' Me Back," though that was eventually included on his reissue of 2016's Illuminate LP.)

It's also a friendlier time to rock- and dance-based pop songs on the Hot 100 right now than it's been in a while. Though hip-hop dominated streaming -- and by extension, the Hot 100 -- for nearly the entirety of 2017, in 2018 we've already seen several smash hits, including Hot 100 No. 1s like the Jonas Brothers' "Sucker" and Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper's "Shallow," that have landed well outside of rap's shadow. Which is hardly to say that the genre hasn't remained a major presence -- just look at the song that's been No. 1 for the last six weeks now -- but that unlike at this point last year, where Ariana Grande's "No Tears Left to Cry" was the sole non-hip-hop song in the Streaming Songs top 20 and "In My Blood" was nowhere to be found on the chart, there's space for other derivations of pop music as well. Indeed, "If I Can't Have You" launches at No. 8 on Streaming Songs this week, tying Mendes' highest-ever ranking on the chart ("Stitches" again). Also in the chart's top ten? Grande, Halsey, Taylor Swift and Billie Eilish. 

Does that mean that the pendulum of popular music is starting to swing back away from hip-hop and towards Mendes' brand of pop music? Maybe, though not necessarily. It's worth pointing out that last year's period of rap dominance was a relatively top-heavy one, overwhelmed by full-length releases from genre superstars Drake, Post Malone and Cardi B. None of those three have released or announced an album yet for 2019, nor have most of the genre's other true A-listers -- the closest we've had in recent weeks might be Logic's sneak-released Confessions of a Dangerous Mind last Friday, whose Eminem-featuring lead single "Homicide" debuts ahead of "If I Can't Have You" on Streaming Songs, landing at No. 2. It's possible that once a couple more of those big names return in full force, we may notice that pendulum reversing course again pretty quickly. 

But for now, Mendes is in the right place at the right time with the right single. We'll see if "If I Can't Have You" manages to climb a spot higher and match the Hot 100 peak of its 1978 title predecessor, or if excitement around the unexpected single soon gets buried under an avalanche of releases from other 2019 leading lights, including a much-anticipated drop this Friday from one star playing the current pop game as well as anyone. Regardless, Mendes has shown he has both the songs and the strategy to continue playing at Top 40's highest level -- and he owes The 1975, Yvonne Elliman and Ariana Grande all a thank you for making it possible.