Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
We may earn a commission from links on this page

Let Shawn Mendes be the first to leverage New York's terrible air quality for music

Where some saw a grave indication of climate change in the sepia smoke that's been hanging over New York City, Mendes saw single art

We may earn a commission from links on this page.
Shawn Mendes
Shawn Mendes
Photo: Amy Sussman (Getty Images)

When a thick cloud of sepia-tinted smoke (originating from widespread Canadian wildfires) descended on New York City Wednesday afternoon, it was hard to ignore the aesthetic of it all. For every New Yorker wringing their hands at what the air quality says about the climate, about our government, and about the general uncertainty of being alive, there was someone furious they let Manhattan’s day dressed up as Arrakis pass by without getting off a fit, let alone a fit pic.

Maybe it’s because one of the only dreamy parts of living through unprecedented times is writing a living ballad for yourself, and documenting your own journey as a fulcrum of some greater plot; maybe people just like to flex these days; or, maybe, something real gets through occasionally. Whatever it is, Shawn Mendes clearly has a certain eye and ear for it, as a timely new single drawing heavy creative inspiration from the current environment in N.Y.C. reflects.


Mendes’ new track, “What The Hell Are We Dying For?” arrives with single art lifted right from the center of the weather event: a shot of the Manhattan skyline barely visible through a cloud of orange smoke. Beyond the art, the single itself blends themes of climate change and broken-heartedness both blatantly and seamlessly. (The Daily Mail recently published a report about a second split between Mendes and ex-girlfriend Camilla Cabello, whom he recently rekindled things with.)


After a buzzing, echoing intro settles into a delicate baseline, Mendes gets directly to setting the scene. “Smoke in the air/ the city’s burning down/ I want to speak/ but I don’t make a sound,” he croons on “What The Hell Are We Dying For?” “Locked in my mind, you’re all I think about./ I want to save us, but I don’t know how.” If the currency of the whole thing feels like it was written yesterday: it’s because it was.


“Started writing this song yesterday morning with my friends in upstate Newyork & finished it only a few hours ago..” Mendes tweeted early Friday morning. “Felt so important to me to share with you guys in real time.”

The song itself—a classic piece of Mendes fare, EDM pop-lite emphasizing his vibrato and destined to soundtrack a dramatic scene on an easy breezy teen TV romance—is less interesting than the timing around it. It’s a ‘what came first, the chicken or the egg’ scenario: was Mendes already in his bag about romance, and the smoke settled in as a perfect metaphor/release time peg? Or did the apocalyptic bite in the air strike Mendes as the right time to run with some virality and make a song on his comfort fare: pining?

Mendes has certainly positioned “What The Hell Are We Dying For?” as primarily being primarily for good. After premiering the single on social media, Mendes tweeted a link urging followers and fans to donate to the Canadian Red Cross (although his message didn’t mention any donations he himself has made). One way or another, Mendes’ use of the word “important” in his initial tweet is doing a lot of heavy lifting: sometimes, the timing on a single is just too right (and a pop star too media trained), to purely credit a whim.