Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The John Mayer Effect

It is not cool to like John Mayer these days. It's not that people hate him, exactly. It's just that everyone in and around my generation (Millennials I think we're called) seems to have collectively decided that we don't want to give him the satisfaction of liking him.

The argument usually goes something like this: "I'm willing to admit he's a pretty good guitar player (speaker is establishing that they are generous by offering a compliment). He's not THAT good though otherwise he'd be playing real Blues (demonstrating their ability to know types of music, and therefor everything there is to know about said types). And I mean his lyrics are kind of pussy and he's basically just a sellout and an asshole dating all those pop stars (offering specifics to validate claim). That guy sucks."

This particular line of logic most frequently comes from males near my age (25-34) who definitely listened to enough John Mayer at some point in their past to develop an emotional attachment to his career path. Females don't seem to care much one way or the other at this point. They're too busy loudly professing their girl crushes on Beyonce. Either way, I think we all started experiencing a little Mayer related dissonance when magazines like Rolling Stone started telling us he was a Rock Star. They were telling us he was Jimi Hendrix. Meanwhile his songwriting style was more closely linked to likes of James Taylor and somewhere in there he started looking like Johnny Depp and acting like...well...also Johnny Depp. It was confusing times for those of us who were his prime audience at the beginning of his career.

Some of you might not remember, or might not have been born soon enough to know in the first place, that John Mayer's first album came out in 2001 and it was just a folky pop album. No one would have cited Stevie Ray Vaughn as an influence with a straight face. No one was expecting anything in particular from him. If you were very curious maybe you went on the internet (which took more effort back then) and found out he went to Berklee (briefly) and thought "oh neat so he knows what he's doing I guess". Mostly he was just a sort-of cute, dopey dude singing mostly about things OTHER than love and heartbreak. Remember (or look up) that 2001 was kind of on the tail end of the boy band craze and we were all a little sick of having 5 guys gyrating to the beat of their communal heart. I myself was 13. Too old for the former Mickey-Mousers but too worried about my place in the turbulent Middle School social dynamic to shun popular music. The more people my age I meet the more I realize many of us had a similar affliction. And we liked John Mayer. WE ALL DID. Some of us more openly than others.

I myself have a complicated relationship with Pop music in general. I grew up with a professional musician for a dad and a discerning wise ass for a mom. The result was that I became "critical" far before I had any of the knowledge or experience necessary to back up my sass. I insisted, to myself mostly, that my opinion was inscrutable. It was profoundly troubling to me that I didn't have enough authority to be taken seriously when trying to explain in the 4th grade why I was empirically correct in my decision to ONLY listen to the Beatles because everything these days was just "not as good". I'm not saying that opinion is wrong, but I had not done my research and wasn't fit to have it.

In Elementary School and Middle School I started going to school dances and I was furious to discover  that I actually liked a lot of popular music. I found an acceptable middle ground in pop acts that I deemed to be "original". This is ridiculous, of course, because I had nothing in my backlog of listening skills against which to compare my new discoveries. How was I supposed to know that Nelly Furtado wasn't the first person to do nasally, vaguely bluesy art pop? I offer this information to try to shed some light on my particular state of being when "No Such Thing" came out.

I loved No Such Thing and its parent album No Room For Squares.  I allowed myself to love it because it wasn't NSYNC and it wasn't Linkin Park (who I have never liked, even secretly). His music was permissible within my haphazardly defined rules of what a musically cultured person such as myself was allowed to like. That says a lot about me, obviously, but I think it also says a lot about the kind of artist he was at the time. He was definitely in it to make money but he was smart enough to know that he could do so without doing exactly what everyone else was doing. I know now that he was not so much original as he was opportunistic. That kind of music had happened before and it was the right time for it to happen again.

But that was then. Several albums of hyper sensitive man-boy lyrics later, there stands before us a scraggly denim man who seems to have a hard time endearing himself to the public. He elevated his profile by dating deliberately objectified women and I think we were all upset because...we expected better? Is that what it was? Did we assume his lyrics were an actual reflection of his personality and that he ought to be dating someone more dignified? I think we did. And I think that was our fault, not his.

I'm not here to defend John Mayer. I'm pretty sure he doesn't need my help. I think his particular journey through the public sphere has been a more telling reflection of the we the observers than of his own talent or personal worth. I don't know him personally, but my impression is that he is a fairly intelligent and self-conscious guy who likes obviously hot, ambitious women. He has behaved no worse than any young man who has been told a few too many times how talented he is might act. I don't think John Mayer cares one way or the other whether people stop making mean comments about him, but I think we, the teenagers of the early 2000s, will all feel much better in the long run if we just focus on the stuff we liked, and forgive the stuff we don't.

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