In Defense of John Mayer
Can he save pop music from itself?
Judging by its title alone, John Mayer’s seventh studio album, “The Search for Everything” — scheduled to release early next year — sounds a little pretentious and lacks the anticipatory characteristic of his previous albums.
To naysayers, Mayer is just another 39-year-old pop star whose greatest hit, 2007’s “Say,” repeats the same line eight times in the chorus. More often in the press for his tempestuous love life or strange antics in interviews, Mayer faces a public who may know him more for his personal life than his musical one. While sometimes it may be lost in his pop discography, Mayer has a great deal to say with his ever-impressive virtuosic musical vocabulary.
A chameleon throughout his 18-year career, Mayer has gone through many phases: the breathy, dorky kid who sang “Your Body Is a Wonderland,” the long-haired, angst-filled phase when he relied solely on the electric guitar and the adult-contemporary, heartbreak-in-your-thirties phase.
It was in this latter phase that things started to go south for Mayer’s reputation. In a pair of widely-scorned interviews with Playboy and Rolling Stone magazines in 2010, Mayer divulged some regretful confessions, namely about his past relationships with famous women, including Jessica Simpson, as well as some appallingly irreverent remarks on race. His 2001 song “My Stupid Mouth” started to unfurl as a self-fulfilling prophecy for Mayer.
In the following two years, he withdrew to Montana, grew his hair again and retreated to the mountains without any tabloid exposure or paparazzi. As for now, in some peculiar way, John Mayer seems transparent and honest. A self-deemed “recovered ego addict,” Mayer still wears glasses every so often, a cowboy hat sometimes and remains unhesitant with the bandanas. But he also seems at peace, secure in his identity, with all its quirks. Mayer is not trying to be a character anymore.
His latest single, “Love On the Weekend,” released Nov. 17, is a sweet, feet-on-the-dash song about that warm kind of feeling lovers get when they spend time with their significant other. It is a delicate pop-rock ballad that features lyrics like, “We found a message in a bottle we were drinking,” and “I’ll be dreaming of the next time we can go/Into another serotonin overflow.” While admittedly not a groundbreaking musical masterpiece, the song is radio-friendly and listenable. This latter part is critical, because Mayer has failed to a produce a radio hit such as “Say,” “Waiting on the World to Change” and “Gravity” since 2007.
What many people don’t know is that beyond his most overplayed, saccharine tunes, Mayer is a prodigious, widely-respected musician. Mayer has been repeatedly invited to play alongside musical legends like B.B. King, Barbra Streisand, Billy Joel, Herbie Hancock and Buddy Guy.
That is in addition to more contemporary stars like Jay-Z, Ed Sheeran, Kanye West, Keith Urban, the Roots and Frank Ocean. Eric Clapton once called him “extremely gifted,” and a “master.” Alicia Keys called him a “beautiful friend.” The Jackson family invited him to play at Michael’s memorial.
His virtuosic control of the guitar and deep concern for matchless musicianship has elevated his reputation beyond tabloids and profiles among his musical peers. After all, artists understand better than most that they are perpetual victims of their inability to express themselves beyond their art.
The implication here is that, in objective evaluations, pieces of art must often be separated from their imperfect artists. It is why Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” are still great. And that is why Mayer’s “Daughters” can still break hearts, and “Gravity” can still drop the jaws of 60,000 people in packed arenas around the world.
The same point can be made with other contemporary artists, like the oft-controversial Kanye West or Woody Allen. Even though Mayer is often described, as a tepid artist in the rising waters of the pop industry, he is still exceptional. John Mayer is not just a good vocalist or passionate performer, he is, at his core, a phenomenal musician, a dying breed in pop music.
Sure, there are the likes of Norah Jones and John Legend. But John Mayer is in that perfect intersection of masterful musician — in the same air as Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan — pop artist and songwriter.
He is one of the most dynamic guitar players in today’s age, being able to saunter through the Grateful Dead catalog or reinterpret a Hendrix tune with ease. He has won seven Grammys, four of which are pop-related. He has the ability to be a radio songsmith, not to mention one who does not have a team of writers and producers to back him. There is usually one other producer in addition to himself and no other writers on his tracks.
So, it turns out, the ex-boyfriend of Taylor Swift may be carrying a fading torch that Jimi Hendrix, Billy Joel and Simon and Garfunkel used to champion themselves. Artists like them come in far fewer quantities these days — those who have an unrelenting passion for first-class musicianship and true songwriting.
Yes, “The Search for Everything” may sound haughty, but the album might be just what contemporary pop music needs — the work of a musician who, despite his age, can save pop from itself.