What is it about John Mayer?
I realized, the other day, that his music has accompanied me through two decades of living, and that I handily know his oeuvre better than that of any other music artist’s, and yet my impressions of him are pointillist constructions: small, isolated spots of unexamined information. Interesting to reflect on our contrivances of celebrity, and the provenance of their grist.
Let me start here: I love his music. But my music-snob sister-in-law (she openly owns this title, and has earned it – her taste and encyclopaedic knowledge across so many genres of music is unparalleled) despises it. I can appreciate the dressing-down, because “Your Body Is a Wonderland,” with which his name was for some time (is?) synonymous, is about as bubblegum as it gets. A critic once described Mayer’s music as “pillow-soft songcraft” defined by “dull sentimentality,” and I will admit that even as a starry-eyed high school student, it was difficult not to cringe at “And if you want love / we’ll make it // swim in a deep sea // of blankets.”
Still, he is a widely respected guitarist and a multiple-time Grammy Award winner who has collaborated with many of the greats. Beyond the credentials, though, I straight-up, unapologetically adore his albums — all of them, but especially Continuum. The only songs I skip are “Waiting on the World to Change” (unbearably twee?) and “Daughters,” the latter of which reads patronizing and inauthentic, especially if we are to believe his Lothario persona. Those songs notwithstanding, I listen to him constantly, especially on the weekends. Contrary to the aforementioned critic, I find his lyrics clever and often profound, and his voice and guitar skills simultaneously soothe and stir. He is easy to listen to when I want nothing to disrupt me, but his introspective lyrics can also offer roads into or out of a sudden-onset mood. I can think of dozens of lyrics that have woven their way permanently into my consciousness, given real shape to sentiments I share, including multiple stanzas of “Stop This Train,” which I cried to while we were driving through a terrible storm as we moved our entire world to parts unknown in The Midwest, newlyweds striking out on our own in an infelicitous tempest. The lyrics have pawed at me for well over a decade: the way life can seem to accelerate right out from beneath you, like an ill-footed skateboard.
Stop this train
I want to get off and go home again
I can’t take the speed it’s moving in
I know I can’t
But honestly, won’t someone stop this train?
Don’t know how else to say it
Don’t want to see my parents go
I’m one generation’s length away
From fighting life out on my own
The art of losing, indeed.
His songs reveal a soulful contemplativeness, high EQ, and poetic finesse. I love throwaway lyrics like “I played a quick game of chess with the salt and pepper shakers,” “but you could distinguish Miles from Coltrane,” “So put your faith in a late night show / I bet you didn’t even know / depends on how far out you go / the channel numbers change.” The attentiveness of these lines, the way they condense entire personalities and social awkwardnesses and feelings of isolation into the span of a handful of words, stirs me. I recently learned that he considers his first few albums, “Inside Wants Out” and “Room for Squares,” both of which I listened to compulsively in high school and college, a negotiation with the social anxiety that plagued him in his 20s, before anxiety was a normalized experience. He commented in an interview that “having anxiety in mid ’90s, late ’90s was like, you think you’re going crazy.” (Now, by contrast, it has been widely named and destigmatized.) I’ve re-listened to those albums from that lens and the lyrics glint with new meaning: “Would you want me when I’m not myself? Wait it out while I am someone else?”, he croons in “Not Myself.” The entire songs “Why Georgia?” and “My Stupid Mouth” invite reinterpretation. This must partly explain why I was so deeply drawn to him as a teen: there is a lot in his early work that reminds us of our rich, private interiors, and the way those depths are often at odds with or strangled by the selves we present to the world. Which is more or less the Cliffnotes version of my teenage experience.
Moving away from the ouevre and towards the artist: I’ve seen John Mayer perform live twice, and I’ve virtually studied his guest appearance on NPR’s “Tiny Desk” series. I find him fascinating as a performer in that he permits himself to fall entirely into the musicality of the moment, routinely making what my husband refers to as “stank face.” This, to both of us, seems like the true mark of a musician: he proves himself to be unconcerned with his appearance and instead entirely given over to the music itself.
Still, there are elements of his public persona that give pause. There are deeply uncomfortable interviews he’s given with Playboy and other outlets, and Jessica Simpson had some…choice words about him in her memoir (which is a delight to listen to on audiobook — I truly enjoyed learning more about her). Those recollections of him line up neatly with what Taylor Swift has alluded to in her song “Dear John,” in which she sings:
And I lived in your chess game
But you changed the rules every day
Wondering which version of you I might get on the phone tonight
Or maybe it’s you and your sick need
To give love then take it away
And you’ll add my name to your long list of traitors
Who don’t understand
And I’ll look back and regret how I ignored when they said
“Run as fast as you can”
I carry a certain level of circumspection here: these are fellow musicians looking to advance their own careers and personas, and they are, in the end, selling songs and books, and therefore standing to benefit from reported salaciousnesses. But, still. He’s dated a lot of famous women, and the reportage has not been favorable. (What does this mean, as a female listener?)
The other day, spurred on by my recent reflection on how little I know about Mayer, I listened to an interview with him on Call Her Daddy. This was a true blind listen, as I know nothing about the podcast or its host, but I found him in turns rakish, and charming, and self-involved, and music-obsessed in all the ways I had anticipated. But there was one moment that jumped out at me. He’s talking about how he made mistakes in his earlier career, seemingly alluding to the publicity of his womanizing ways, and how he then drew inward, and was able to focus on presenting just the side of him that he believes matters: his musical skills. He says, at this point in his life, there’s no other living artist that won’t at least entertain a musical idea he’s had. (This sounds pompous, but I’m sure it’s true — he’s even covered Beyonce.)
He goes on to say that he is able to live happily because “I’m known for what I do.” He explains that he’s seen fellow celebrities flail when their moments are passing, when they realize they don’t have pegs to hang their hats on. By contrast, he’s always had his love of his music, and his faith that other people will like what he’s playing, to lean on. I thought to myself that this was a good example of someone who has asked: “What do I want to be known for?” and really leaned into the answer.
What are your impressions of Mayer? I’m so curious what my smart Magpies think about his seemingly polarizing music and persona.
And, are there other musicians who you listen to constantly but know little about?
+My reference to our stormy drive to Chicago brought up old memories: “The Chicago that ascends out of Lake Michigan as you approach from the northwest is sprawling, powerful, industrial, towering, and with each passing mile, you are only aware of your impossible smallness alongside it.”
+Holding hands in Chelsea. An ode to my best friend.
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+Another great, slightly dressier pick for Thanksgiving: this velvet Rhode. Wowza!
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+This cute plaid top is en route to me. Love the ric rac trim!
+At this point, I have about four or five different planners/list notebooks/etc, but this productivity/goal-oriented one is so appealing to me.
+Niche, but a mom on my daughter’s soccer team brings this accordion-style set of folding seats to the games and they are SO handy!
+Seriously pretty gift wrap.
+These high-rise cords are on sale for $31 right now. Love. Very Veronica Beard.
+This velvet gown is on my wishlist.