New Sensation: SA’s Austin Mahone and teen pop superstardom 

click to enlarge Austin Mahone, from the cover of 'The Secret' - PAMELA LITTKY
  • Pamela Littky
  • Austin Mahone, from the cover of 'The Secret'

Like the bulk of Austin Mahone’s Instagram account, this one’s a selfie. In a white tank top, hair coifed up real big, Mahone arranges his facial features in the manner of good-looking people well versed in taking pictures of themselves—lips lightly pursed, eyebrows up, posing without posing.

“Running on the beach will be the death of me,” the caption says. It’s enough to garner 7,000 comments and 332,000 little hearts of approval from Mahone’s massive teen following, an audience seemingly dependent on an IV drip of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Known as the Mahomies, Austin’s crew numbers well into the millions.

Rising originally on Youtube, Mahone now holds some serious influence over the young wallets and fluttering stomachs of his adolescent audience. But as “Baby” did to Bieber, Mahone needs one smash single to boost him into the next level of superstardom. At 18 years old, Mahone’s got the career infrastructure in place to jump to the .01 percent of Big Pop. More importantly, it appears he’s got the workhorse ethic to follow through at a vital crossroads period for teen idols, when the decisions of legal adulthood can send them into dens of vice and crumbling anxiety. At 18, on the road for his second headlining tour, Mahone’s already light-years away from his first bout of videos, singing from his bedroom in the doldrums of San Antonio.

 

Austin was born to Carter and Michele Mahone in San Antonio on April 4, 1996. Carter, a bareback rider on the cusp of professional rodeo, killed himself when Austin was 16 months old. An only child, Austin moved to the sticks of La Vernia in the 6th grade when his mother remarried.

Teen life in the town of 1,034 was dull, a comprehensive boredom that Mahone used as creative motivation. “There wasn’t much going on there,” Mahone told the Current. “There’s no movie theater. I was bored, I’d post videos with my friends.” Uploaded in February 2011, “Is that a Potato or a Radish??” finds Mahone and buddy Alex Constacio looking unsure in their first video, but clearly charged by the recording camera.

The first six months or so consisted of Mahone finding his online groove, inventing the name “Mahomie” for his followers and doing acoustic Top 40 covers. For his first full music video in October 2011, Mahone did Justin Bieber’s puppy love holiday tune “Mistletoe.” In it, a brace-faced Mahone sings into the camera while hanging out in a typical metro SA cul-de-sac. The video caught fire, with over 3 million views within a couple months.

By the time the Mahones moved back to San Antonio proper in 2012, thanks to continuously covering Top 40 songs from Drake to Adele, Austin had a quarter-million Youtube followers. It was enough to make his enrollment in Lady Bird Johnson High School impossible. Girls gushed over him, taking pictures in class; jealous, boys started harassing him. “I was at Johnson High School for about a week,” Mahone said. His mother scooped him out for homeschooling, dropping her career as a mortgage banker to manage his promising start.

Two years later, Mahone’s traded the self-recorded pop covers and video blogs for major label tunes and hundreds of YouTube interviews. Always a businessman, it’s rare to see Mahone sign off without mentioning an impending single or marketable item. The “Youth Ambassador” for Lil Wayne’s Trukfit clothing line, Mahone’s usually seen wearing some form of the casual attire. Shirts, snapbacks, phone cases, calendars, wristbands, backpacks—if you can slap “Mahomie” on something, it’s probably out there. He’s done commercials for McDonalds and an unfortunately titled Mexican snack called Hot Nuts—bearing some resemblance to Arrested Development’s failed Cornballer.

He also backs Aquafina. “It’s a great water,” Mahone said, describing water. “I love drinking it.” Mahone’s Aquafina commercial features his single with Pitbull “Mmm Yeah,” a song tailor-made for beverage adverts. Flavors include Feelin’ Good, Berry Loco and Color Me Kiwi.

On social media, Mahone’s presence thrives. With 6.45 million Twitter followers, 4.16 million Instagram followers and 11.38 million Facebook likes, Mahone can reach a population roughly the size of Ohio with each post. When he puts up content, it’s mostly promotional (“Getting ready for my @PopTarts411 chat in 15 minutes”) or a glimpse into his personal life (“Late night stroll with the boys”). “I feel like I’m posting for friends,” said Mahone. That canny informality is part of why his social media product is so successful.

A monolithic presence in the lives of his young fans, Mahone’s an ideal candidate for tween and teen marketing. He uses this clout for good too, hooking up with the Allstate Foundation’s Teens Get There Safe initiative. “I’m basically informing teens on driving safe,” said Mahone. “It’s always hard not to look at your phone and check Instagram and check Twitter, but I’m telling teens to pay attention to where you’re going and then check it when you get there. The No. 1 death of teens in the US is car crashes, it’s pretty nuts.” A recent Instagram post shows Austin in front of his red and black Range Rover. “Made it to the studio!! Drove with #nodistractions!!! #Gettheresafe Wear your #Seatbelt,” the caption says for 353,000 likes and over 8,000 comments.

Since signing to Chase/Universal Republic in 2012, the Austin Mahone camp has had branding on its mind. Mahone has worked to create himself as a one-stop online entertainment destination with interviews, gossip, tunes and pictures catered to his dedicated and highly plugged-in audience. A recent re-post on Mahone’s Instagram featured one fan with Austin’s signature tattooed on her chest for over 260,000 likes and more than 12,000 comments.

To manage this teen empire, the Mahones have assembled an adroit creative and business team. With two agents at Paradigm Talent, four managers (plus co-manager Mom), a body guard and label representation at Chase/Universal Republic, Young Money and Cash Money records, there’s a certified Mahone industrial complex to keep the momentum rolling forward.

In May, Mahone poked fun at his persona and zealous following on Will Ferrell’s site Funny or Die. In the skit, label execs Paul Scheer (The League) and Mel Cowen (Parks and Recreation) sit across from Mahone, psyched at their new signee. Desperate to show their status as Mahomies, they brag of punching Bieber fans in the face and lighting a bus of One Direction fans on fire before shooting handguns and yelling “Mahomies for life!” Impressively, Mahone holds his own across the table from his comedic counterparts.

On his new release The Secret, Mahone’s packed the long EP with eight songs of teen crush monomania. “For my EP I wanted to start off, give my fans a little taste of Backstreet Boys, a little NSYNC, mix it in with a little EDM and try something kind of different,” said Mahone, nailing the EP’s vibe. “I put it out there and heard my fans have loved it, so that’s all that matters.”

The Secret is split almost perfectly in half between boy-band melodies and dance music’s production toys. One slow jam, “All I Ever Need,” breaks out of that template, instead tapping into the singsong garnishes of R. Kelly, with Mahone waxing romantic over an 808 drum beat and soft harmonic production.

The EP’s first single “Mmm Yeah” is the closest Mahone has come to a smash hit, reaching over 52 million Youtube views and No. 49 on the Billboard Hot 100. After a few bars from Pitbull, Mahone comes in over the pulsing house rhythm, singing his thrill-of-the-chase verses and lip-smacking, love-to-see-you-walk-away hook. In the video, Mahone has a fresh, fluid style to his dancing, far from the cookie-cutter motions of his earlier days. “As a performer, I’ve gotten better [at] dancing,” said Mahone. “I’m more confident.”

Another close call was the 2013 single “Banga Banga,” the song that shows the most influence of Lil Wayne’s Young Money and Birdman’s Cash Money records. Mahone’s staccato, R&B-rap lines are largely flirtatious gibberish, but once in listeners’ heads, they hold on for dear life. Even the interlude, delivered by producer Sean Garrett, is a hook: “You gotta promise / If I let you hop up in the Jeep / You gon’ turn up in the seat / You like ridin’ don’t ya?”

After listening to “Banga Banga,” if you find the song is stuck in your head at a subconscious level, it’s because Garrett is paid millions to do exactly that. The Atlanta producer has 18 No. 1 singles in only seven years. The only person to have more chart-topping hits in under a decade is Sir George Martin, the Fab Four producer known as the fifth Beatle. “Sean is awesome, he’s a musical genius,” said Mahone. “We sat in the studio and had fun and made some awesome records.”

Tireless work has fortified Mahone’s development, but having Michael Jackson as a role model ensures the young popper is on the right path to music industry dominance. All over his internet interviews, Mahone has expressed his awe for the King of Pop, specifically Thriller’s “Human Nature.” “I think anyone in the music industry is a fan of Michael,” said Mahone. “The way he performed, with such passion and such demeanor. His music is timeless.” 

In performance, Mahone is improving at an impressive rate. In a couple years, he shot up from mall gigs and medium-sized clubs to full-on arenas and an opening slot for Taylor Swift’s 2013 Red tour. “I got to perform for 50,000 people for every show,” said Mahone of the experience. “It got rid of my onstage nerves.”

For Game 4 of the 2014 NBA Finals, Mahone was invited to sing the national anthem at the AT&T Center. “That was crazy. That’s a time I’ll never forget,” he said. “Game 4, two of the best teams in the NBA. You got Lebron, Chris Bosh, Dwayne Wade, on one side, Tim Duncan, Manu and Tony Parker on the other watching you sing. It›s unreal.” In a No. 74 jersey, his number from La Vernia Pop Warner, Mahone busted out a well-groomed national anthem, with a solid command of the song’s difficult one-and-a-half octave range. Naturally, Mahone snuck in a quick, teen heartthrob smile before the camera panned back to the game.

Rising to celebrity in the internet age, Mahone’s career is wildly different than his boy band progenitors in the ’90s. Gone are the impresario creeps like Lou Pearlman, cruising young pools of talent to make millions off eager artists.

Obese, ghostly pale and in permanent heat for more cash, Pearlman was the boy band equivalent of The Penguin. Though the teen pop genre was certainly marketable before him, in the ’90s, Pearlman pumped HGH into the form, assembling the Backstreet Boys, NSYNC and later clones like LFO, Take 5 and O-Town. Though he raised this stable of bands to fame and success, Pearlman stole millions from his young stars, eventually sued by all but one of his bands for misrepresentation and fraud. According to a Vanity Fair article from 2007, there were also allegations of sexual misconduct. (On an unrelated heist, Pearlman is currently serving 25 years in the federal pen for Ponzi-scheming some $500 million out of the wallets of 1,700 investors, mostly Florida senior citizens. Great guy, that Lou.)

YouTube allowed Mahone to get his feet planted without the influence of an industry cretin, but the internet has different challenges for the young star. The panoptical nature of new media means that Mahone is always under the microscope, a stressful place to grow up. In countless interviews and videos, Mahone is shelled with questions and gossip about who he’s dating, what he’s looking for and what’s a dealbreaker. “It’s pretty crazy, you’ll go on Twitter and Instagram and see all these rumors of who you’re dating or who people think you’re dating and it’s pretty funny. You gotta laugh at it,” he said. Of course, he coyly feeds the hype too, playing along with the gossip and smiling coquettishly when the subject arises in many of his YouTube interviews.

Mahone turned 18 in April, a historically tumultuous point for young people in the media crosshairs. Consider the recent antics of Justin Bieber, whose YouTube beginnings, early haircut and admiration for Michael Jackson provide an uncanny analogue for Mahone. Upon his 18th birthday in 2012, Bieber’s mother/manager let him tour without her presence. Over the next couple years, he began racking up tats, Twitter rants and paparazzi altercations. In 2014, it’s come to a head, with a DUI arrest in Florida, a vandalism misdemeanor charge in California and a recent video showing a 15-year-old Bieber telling a racist joke. This year, his popularity has plummeted. There’s even a petition to the Obama administration to deport the young Canadian star, with over 273,000 signatures.

Mahone, committed to success, isn’t trying to test the waters now that he’s of legal age. “Nothing’s really changed,” he said. “I could legally buy a monkey if I wanted to but I’m not gonna do that. I’m definitely still working hard on my dream to be able to go anywhere in the world and pack an arena. I want a No. 1 album and No. 1 single.” Once motivated by suburban boredom, Mahone is now driven by “fans and dreams of being a bigger artist. Of getting better as a dancer, performer and as a vocalist as well.” 

For pop stars, there’s a certain give-and-take that’s necessary to achieve monumental, international success. Though they receive millions of dollars and adoring fans, a good deal of an artist’s agency is sacrificed to the business side of things. To continue climbing up, Mahone must be able to play by the rules of the business, to avoid the missteps of Bieber, to forever enforce the Mahomie brand. With his team financially invested in the brand and Mahone all in—it’s his life, after all—there’s no reason Austin can’t go the way of Justin Timberlake, instead of Aaron Carter.

All it takes is that one mega-single, the one where all the variables line up in the pop equation. “Playing new music for @birdman5star just wait til you hear what we got,” Mahone posted on Instagram on July 16, under a photo of him in the studio next to the label mogul. Maybe this one is the single to do it.

Austin Mahone feat. the Vamps

$40-$79
7pm Fri, July 25
Freeman Coliseum
3201 E Houston
(210) 226-1177
Ticketmaster.com

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