What We Talk About When We Talk About John Mayer


via youtube.com

This past Friday, singer-songwriter John Mayer dropped his 7th studio album, “The Search For Everything.” Compared to his last two folk albums, this new album returns to his more pop mainstream roots.

Hailey Nuthals, Arts Editor

John Mayer’s been around the block so many times he’s not even a regular — he’s a part of the block itself. He’s been covered so thoroughly in nearly every major publication that it’s a wonder there are any more stories to write about him.

Except that’s hardly true, because as humans tend to do, Mayer has — buckle up your seat belts — changed over the years. This past Friday, he dropped his seventh studio album “The Search For Everything.” He did a lot of heavy promoting work leading up to the release, including granting an extensive interview to the New York Times that was so long and filled with quotable tidbits that they published a follow-up piece that compiled other golden lines from the singer-songwriter.

The album itself is both stylistically and symbolically a return to the pop mainstream that Mayer used to inhabit. After two albums and several years spent living in Montana where he explored bluegrass and folk sounds, an impressive side gig playing guitar in Dead & Company — a band made up of members of the Grateful Dead with a few other musicians — and a lot of self-evaluation, he’s finally ready to take another shot at being a pop star. This time, he’s not rolling around in beds with conventionally-attractive brunettes and making brash statements while inebriated.

Instead, he has maintained his classic romantic sentimental lines like “How much of my mother has my mother left in me? / How much of my love will be insane to some degree?” but updated the look with touches like a song named “Emoji of a Wave” and an album cover that looks straight off a Tumblr aesthetic blog.

The Mayer of “The Search for Everything” is not the Mayer of “Battle Studies.” His style of answering interview questions is more stream-of-consciousness, less audacious. He admitted in his interview in the New York Times that he’s done with the dating scene, and is instead looking for a more permanent partner. He also mentioned that he’s stopped caring — or is working toward not caring — about what the tabloids and social media swarms say about him, a shift from his former days of constant anxiety about all the multitudes of fans and critics alike painting him as a shallow, entitled pop star.

And still, Mayer is written about in a way that’s reminiscent of the way that pop stars too often are, in terms of their dating life and past histories — think of when Nicki Minaj wrote a song denying having slept with anyone to earn her fame or the time Patrick Stump wrote an entire essay in response to the grossly popular slogan “We liked you better fat!” when he released a solo pop album during Fall Out Boy’s hiatus.

This strange taste for old stories is everywhere. For Mayer, it’s visible in lines like NPR’s : “[‘The Search for Everything’ is] beautiful, heartbreaking and a stark reminder that even though Mayer’s made headlines in the past couple years for the celebrities he’s dated, or things he’s said, he is first and foremost a talented musician.” Mayer’s had a string of celebrity romances, it’s true, and he’s admitted that much of his songwriting is about those heartbreaks. Still, it seems strange to constantly focus on his old flames and controversial interviews when it’s been nearly five years since any of those things were relevant.

What’s not spoken about is the much more conversation-worthy part of the new Mayer. Take, for instance, his music video for “Still Feel Like Your Man.” The vibe was described in that same New York Times interview as “disco dojo,” and it features Mayer starting a dance-off in a Japanese geisha house for his lost love, who happens to be a white woman on a pedestal, surrounded by butterflies. The rest of the room has a moderate amount of diverse skin tones, but still features gag-worthy dancing pandas and a shrewd Japanese ringleader who gets to determine the woman’s ultimate fate. True, he’s not rolling around  in beds for music videos anymore — but maybe that’s better than this new approach.

Better yet, consider Mayer’s tweet from April 7 where he “discovered a more male-appropriate heart emoji” — one that apparently looks more like the one from card suits, and that is essentially just a slightly darker shade of red. The tweet was, if his follow-up tweet is to be trusted, a joke — one at the expense of those who are ready to hate Mayer with just the slightest excuse. While it’s surely a relief to be able to brush off critics with a laugh and live a free life, it’s got to be said that letting someone change and grow does not mean we no longer hold them accountable for their actions.

The conversation around Mayer feeds into our troubling habit of painting celebrities’ narratives for them. It’s rare that famous people get to shape their own stories. This is harmful because not only does it take away the credit for the way Mayer’s changed, but it removes him from any potential criticism for his new behavior. “The Shape of Everything” isn’t “Battle Studies,” it isn’t “Room For Squares” — it’s time to stop talking as if it is. It’s time to give celebrities a little more credit and a lot more complexity.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 17 print edition. 

Email Hailey Nuthals at [email protected]