You know who first told me I should write for Pitchfork? A guy from a John Mayer message board. His user name involved the word "Scabs." He was only there because of his girlfriend-- then a proud GAP employee and now, as I understand, married to someone she met through the online Mayer fan community (she is probably typing a hilariously furious response to this post right now, but I hope not). Scabs absolutely worshiped indie-centric icons like Blake Schwarzenbach, Super Furry Animals, and Sigur Ros. A couple of years later-- when Mayer's sophomore album, Heavier Things, came out-- I still wasn't writing for Pitchfork. But I did contribute a typically overwrought, generally favorable review to an amateur online zine. Scabs snapped off a scathing e-mail: "You have a bright future writing for Rolling Stone." He meant it as an insult.
Mayer doesn't need critics. He needs them less than any other new artist or group to come up in the current decade, as far as I can tell. He doesn't make "difficult" music that you need someone more knowledgeable to explain to you, and he doesn't make simplistic music that you need a kid or someone who can think like one to explain to you. As Robert Christgau, the Dean of Critics, observed last year (the last time I wrote at length about Mayer), the soft-rock singer, guitarist, and songwriter has generally been ignored by the big indie websites. At this point, even longtime champion Rolling Stone has turned its back on Mayer. The venerable magazine went out of its way to rip on a pre-release fan video of one song from the 32-year-old's just-released fourth album, Battle Studies, and assigned the record itself the lowest rating yet for a new Mayer studio outing: three stars. The ambivalent appraisals in Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, and USA Today all read like they're working from the same talking points. There are two Mayers, each contends. Both Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly say one of these Mayers has a "furrowed" "brow" of some sort, possibly a "middlebrow." Which is not to be confused with a unibrow.
It's been said the Sex Pistols considered their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction important enough not to attend. Does the indie/poptimist web find Mayer important enough to ignore? Nowadays, I could point you to plenty of sharp critics who love Tayor Swift ("Half of My Heart", her Fleetwood Mac-easy sort of half-love song with Mayer, is the second- or third-best song on Battle Studies), Kanye West (he collaborated with Mayer on "Bittersweet"), Jay-Z (he brought Mayer out for a blazing solo during a recent Madison Square Garden performance and has also endorsed Grizzly Bear), Fall Out Boy (a "Beat It" cover they recorded with Mayer hit #19 on the Billboard Hot 100), Paramore (Mayer has performed with them and praised lead singer Hayley Williams' voice in a blog post), Passion Pit (Mayer co-signed "Moth's Wings" on May 5), Coldplay (Mayer was interpolating "Wooden House" before I ever went out and wasted 15 bucks on Parachutes), the Roots' ?uestlove (he played on Heavier Things' best song, "Clarity"), the Killers, Muse, even hair metal, Disney teen-pop, Creed, or whatever Sarah Palin likes. Maroon 5 get Of Montreal remixes. Norah Jones collaborates with Okkervil River's Will Sheff. The critic Carl Wilson has written a brilliant book about Celine Dion. Mayer used to cover Radiohead's "Kid A" and interpolate Daft Punk's "One More Time" (he was playing Daft Punk for the acoustic-rock kids in June 2001, James Murphy!) and walk onstage to the Avalanches. But so what?
When intellectual-type critics do write about Mayer, there's usually a whole heap of personality-based disdain. "John Mayer is a douchebag," writes Jody Rosen, Rolling Stone's Battle Studies reviewer, in a Slate debate with Jonah Weiner over the album's first single, "Who Says"-- and Rosen's in the "pro" camp! The New York Times' Jon Caramanica leads his recent piece with an expurgated quote that basically tells us the same thing: "'I should be having sex with more girls.' This is what John Mayer concluded, using slightly more colorful language, last Sunday night at his anonymously modern apartment in SoHo." Then there was the headline on my college newspaper's review of Mayer major-label debut Room for Squares: "If you like bad music, you'll love John Mayer"-- do you think the word "douchebag" (or a more 2001 equivalent like "tool") was running through that guy's mind? Christgau has suggested such dismissive attitudes might have something to do with Room for Squares' foreplay-themed hit, "Your Body Is a Wonderland", which, fair enough-- a friend recently told me songs like "Wonderland" make girls all "tingly," and she says other guys are just mad they didn't think of it first; I'd say guys know enough about their own kind to realize that other guys who manipulate girls in that way are being, at least on some level, insincere. Which admittedly would call into question Mayer's whole ultra-sincere mode of songwriting (Fall Out Boy's Pete Wentz recently tweeted that you should buy Battle Studies because it's "genuine"). As The Family Guy put it years ago, "That's enough, John Mayer."
After she had recorded a few songs, she started a MySpace page— not as routine then as it later became— where she streamed songs that were not commercially available, posted pictures of herself cavorting, and began writing emotional blog posts and building her public persona: an accessible figure who seemed a lot like her fans…"I was lucky enough to sort of find an in," Mayer said the other night in an interview on Fuse. "I don't think it's really around anymore, whatever the new in is. For me it was Napster." Years before MySpace made headlines for its role in the popularity of artists like Allen, M.I.A., or Arctic Monkeys, Mayer drew fans through file-sharing and his MP3.com page. In the summer of 2000, at Eddie's Attic in Decatur, Ga., Mayer recorded something called "The Napster Song": "So glad you came/ I see you searched my name." In 2002, Mayer was quoted saying, "Someone downloading one of my songs and listening to it and loving it is the most pure connection I will ever have with anyone my entire life." In a tweet earlier this year, he made a lame joke that depends on readers' knowledge of the BASIC programming language. From MP3.com to Napster to message boards to AIM chatrooms ("Captain Backfire") to blogging to YouTube to Twitter to (ugh!) "Augmented Reality," Mayer has always embraced internet technology. The internet hasn't always embraced him, but that doesn't seem to have hurt him much.
After finishing "Not Fair," Allen addressed the audience. “You were singing along to that one, and it’s only just come out today," she said. "You must have been illegally downloading." The crowd laughed.
- Sasha Frere-Jones in The New Yorker in March, on Lily Allen
Room for Squares? A flip on the title of a 1960s jazz album by Hank Mobley called No Room for Squares. In 2006, The New York Times' John Leland wrote that, given the past century's mainstream annexation of hipness, our culture had become "post-hip." Mayer understood this implicitly in 2001: Here was a "white boy who stole the blues" (and the internet) in order to play to the squares-- i.e., in a post-hip society, pretty much everyone except people who still vainly persist in seeking perfection as a hipster.
Make no mistake about it: "Borat" is locked and loaded, ready to invade the public consciousness. Get ready to say goodbye to it."John Mayer -- what a curious case," Rosen wrote in Rolling Stone, and I couldn't agree more. Later, on Slate, he added, "It strikes me that Mayer and his ilk get an especially tough time from critics. Sensitive white boy singer-songwriters with easy-listening proclivities and Berklee College of Music-honed chops—they’re not exactly rock critic bait. Even in these poptimistic times, it’s still socially acceptable to reflexively dismiss the Mayers of the world.”
When "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" is released tomorrow, there will be a short window of time, from about 6pm on Friday to about 10pm on Sunday, when the film's impact will sit in perfect equilibrium with both its mass appeal and its comic potency. "The hip eclipse", let's call it. I say 10pm because somewhere in Oxnard, CA, 7pm local time, a young Friday's waiter will deliver a plate of Jack Daniel's Chicken Strips and punctuate it with the phrase "You laaaaaaiik!!!!!". This will be the first sign of the "Borat" outbreak - what will eventually be transmitted through contact with co-workers, on airplanes and in casinos, and GOOD LORD, in bars everywhere.
It won't be the fault of the movie, and it certainly won't be the fault of Sacha Baron Cohen, Borat's creator. It will be due to a society set up to adopt, consume and then divorce a trend in dizzying time. The infrastructure is ripe for it, a now perfectly balanced sphere of blogs, critiques, and various other forms of media with which to hijack the trend. Borat impressionists will appear on youtube, and a home-made mega-mix of lines from the movie will be cobbled together by a 14 year old and placed incongruously atop a house drum beat. It will be an internet sensation. And while Dayton, Ohio greets it, the Lower East Side will have already eulogized it. If you don't believe me when I say we will kill it by hugging it too hard, look at what happened to Brokeback Mountain - "I wish I could quit you" became a ready-mixed punch line for months, and it wasn't even trying. (Even the word "brokeback" itself came to be an out of the box bon mot.) We've been waiting for the next "WAY!" and "NOT!" for a long time. And we're about to get it in the form of "high five!" and "wa-wa-wee-wah!"
And if you're still wondering what leg I have to stand on with this, just remember: I was truly hip for three weeks back in 2001.
- Mayer, in a November 2006 blog post titled "Borat: A Prediction", since deleted
For a while last year I started keeping track of things I read that reminded me of Mayer's critical situation (I wouldn't call it a predicament-- like I said, he doesn't need us). "I know I'm not supposed to like John Mayer anymore," one Tumblr user wrote. "But when I was 17 and starting freshman year of college, and the guy down the hall had this acoustic CD of some guy he heard at a coffee shop, I was done for. A tiny part of me will always say 'yes, please' when you put on John Mayer." The same day, another Tumblr user wrote, simply, "You really liked John Mayer, too." Another, again within the same 24-hour period, had a different view: "I hate John Mayer. Everything about him. He's unoriginal, boring, not good enough for Jennifer Aniston, and his voice sounds like crap. Just felt like sharing!" Two days later, "Daughters"-- the vaguely condescending, "Butterfly Kisses"-replacing father-daughter wedding dance from Heavier Things-- appeared on a Tumblr user's "The Definitive List of Songs No Dude Should Have on Their iPod." My wife considers Mayer unbearably smug.
Is it still douchebaggery if you can back it up? When the latest Billboard albums chart comes out, Battle Studies is projected to come in at #1, selling between 275,000 and 300,000 copies.
This is a song that is not about smoking pot ... Is 'I'll Make Love to You' by Boyz II Men about making babies? Not unless you're making babies it's not. If you're washing your car listening to 'I'll Make Love to You'-- which I'd highly recommend now that I hear myself say it-- then that would be a song about washing your car. You see what I'm trying to put together here for ya?"Me and all my friends/ We're all misunderstood," Mayer sang on Continuum's widely misunderstood (including, for years, by yours truly) state-of-a-generation political offering "Waiting on the World to Change". I'd eventually like to argue that Mayer himself is misunderstood, but for today I'll just stick to his songs. Rosen shares my appreciation of Battle Studies' "Who Says", a mellow, West Coast-style folk-pop song, so I don't want to diminish that at all (nor am I trying to offend any of the other critics or editors whose work is discussed here-- just trying to share an alternate view). But Rosen also calls "Who Says" "the confession of a dope-smoking roué." Now, Mayer's tabloid exploits aren't exactly a closely guarded secret, and his fun-loving personality has been a key part of his charisma going back to the coffeehouse days of 1999 and 2000. So I think "Who Says" is a lot more than that. Mayer isn't Bono-- he keeps his political statements personal.
- Mayer, "Live at Letterman" webcast, 11/19/09
"Who Says" is one of my favorite songs of 2009, but not because of anything to do with its most headline-grabbing subject, weed. To me, it's the anti-guilty pleasure. "There should never be guilt in pleasure," Mayer recently wrote, in a tweet praising Miley Cyrus's "The Climb," and it's an idea that goes back to his early days. Mayer makes "room for squares" by saying anyone is welcome, come as you are. He used to cover N*Sync and Backstreet Boys. On one of the first live versions I heard of "Who Says", Mayer introduces it by saying something about a T-shirt. In Mayer's view, if somebody comes up to you and says, "What's with your shirt?", and you respond by getting all defensive, like, "What do you mean what's up with my shirt?"-- well, you're done. Finished. He's got you. The proper response, Mayer says, is more along the lines of, "I like my shirt-- what's with YOUR shirt?" So much of the time, so many of us-- the Tumblr user(s) above, me, probably you-- give into people like Scabs when they give us a hard time about what we like; we get defensive when they call out our shirts. "It's not that we don't care/ We just know that the fight ain't fair." Another big point in Mayer's tweets recently has been how much he hates it when someone says they "actually" like something. "Hey, that Black Eyed Peas song? I actually like it!" We live in this world where everybody is supposedly soo over "guilty pleasures," but the language we use to talk about music or culture-- or gossip blogs-- says otherwise. The emphasis in Mayer's song, then, is on not the "get stoned" but the "who says." Who says I can't say "Who Says" is one of my favorite songs of the year? (I like "Who Says", what's with your Animal Collective?) Who says Mayer can't gallivant around with celebrity women-- or for that matter "every girl on the county line"-- and drunkenly rant at Apple guy Justin Long about Ron Paul? What right do I have to judge him? What right do you have to judge me? I love the way "Who Says" lays out this universal question, "Who says I can't be free?" (speaking of anti-fascist, Mr. Christgau!), but still makes room for Mayer to "plan a trip to Japan alone," which he actually did (and made an awesome ambient-tinged video about). The song's politics are a bit libertarian, not explicitly Democrat or Republican, so both Red and Blue America are still welcome, as long as they like fun-- and, well, Jimmy Buffett has a nice career going for him, doesn't he? There's a sort of inter-connected austerity to the lyrics that I just love, and it's in the guitar lines, too. The percussion is the best-sounding I've ever heard on a Mayer studio album-- as such a percussive guitar player, he usually seems to make that part sound cheesy to my ears when it comes time to get a band together for recording-- and so are the vocals, which have a lot less of that breathy Sting pitch-control trick that Mayer tends to over-use. On Fuse, he told an interviewer, "'Who Says' was sort of like grabbing people by the collar and bringing them close again and saying, 'Nope, it's just you and me.'" That's exactly how I heard it-- it's the first new Mayer song I've listened to compulsively since Mayer himself was a new artist.
Lyrics like “I loved you/ gray sweatpants/ no makeup/ so perfect” seem to be the prolific entrée into the… well… sweatpants of women.I'm still processing the rest of Battle Studies, and I'm not sure I will ever come to like it as much as I like "Who Says", although the songs are better constructed, lyrically and melodically, and certainly better played, than most of the junk that floats through my inbox every day (here's Wilson on Celine Dion: "The virtuosity that cool audiences today applaud, the sort Celine always fumbles, is not about having a multi-octave voice or flamenco-fast fingers: It's about being able to manipulate signs and symbols, to hitch them up and decouple them in a blink of an eye, to quote Homer but in the voice of Homer Simpson"). I also agree with the reviewers who take Mayer to task for comparing love to a battlefield-- the conceit is a little trite for Mayer, and besides, he did a much better job of setting a relationship against the context of violence on "Covered in Rain", still the subtlest, most moving post-9/11 song I've heard (maybe partly because I heard him play it when I myself was in the same post-9/11 state that was driving so many columnists to freak out about anthrax mailings and start arguing for war in Iraq). "Half of My Heart," the one with Swift, will be ubiquitous, and deservedly so. "All We Ever Do Is Say Goodbye" is nice and more Abbey Road than we expect from John. "Friends, Lovers, or Nothing" caps the album with some more George Harrison-style lead guitar and expertly phrased lyrics that will adorn Facebook profiles (or whatever people put song lyrics in these days) internet-wide for years to come: "Anything other than 'yes' is 'no'/Anything other than 'stay' is 'go'/ Anything less than 'I love you' is lying." Watching recent Mayer live performances on Fuse and via webcast, there's nothing furrowed about his brow, high or low or middle-- just a guy and a band and a crowd all looking like they're feeling free.
Mayer realizes that not everyone subscribes to the “Comfortable” theory: “But it’s true! The truth is that I just want all of my songs to be brutally honest. Now whether that compromises my sexuality… which in the case of ‘Comfortable,’ it totally does… to the point of sometimes wanting to cringe when I have to sing that line. It’s just too sappy-pretty. But I’m glad I feel that way ‘cause it means it’s honest.
“If I want to sing a song about ‘I’m so fucking scared… I don’t know what of… but I’m scared,” I want to write about it. Anger is a very cheap commodity. Anybody can do that. But for me to write what I write, it has to be very honest.”
- Flagpole, 08/23/00, discussing Inside Wants Out track "Comfortable": an acoustic-and-strings, blue-eyed soul ballad of grass-is-always-greener lost love ("You could distinguish Miles from Coltrane"-- a know-it-all might say, "Haha, they play different instruments, stupid," but I'd bet most of a pop audience just knows Davis and Coltrane are good... sort of like how Miley Cyrus said she doesn't actually listen to Jay-Z despite what she sings on "Party in the USA") that has broken my most badass friends in moments of weakness
If you want to be disintermediated—if you want to skirt or simplify the system of major-label gatekeepers and A&R concerns and marketing departments that might otherwise script your career—then you have to script your career.Another reason "Who Says" is so significant to me: It's the first time I felt like Mayer made a song that a lot of people would "like" without really "getting," whether those people hear it as a confession or as a dumb fratboy pot song. (I misunderstood "Waiting on the World to Change", but that's because I thought I didn't like it.) Mayer has made a career using the same sorts of online tools later exploited by indie bands, but rather than retreating into cult genres (garage-rock, psych, lo-fi, post-punk, disco, techno, noise), he usually reaches out, through his major label, to a silent majority-- the square majority. "Who Says" finally sounds like a song for himself.
- agrammar.tumblr.com, DIY = "personal responsibility!"
well, i once wrote a defense of the Backstreet Boys' "I Want it That Way" as one of the great pop singles of the last few years, in the process destroying whatever 'indie cred" i once had. most hipster-snobs grow up to realize the error of their ways. to dismiss music based on marketing schemes or credibility perceptions is pretty lame.
the job of any critic is to develop a thicker skin, better ears and a more open mind. those who try to crush those instincts should be ignored. you can't become a better listener when someone is telling you ahead of time what is and what is not cool to like. I haven't heard the John Mayer album, but if you've spent time with it and love it, and can make a compelling case for its musical merit, you shouldn't dim that enthusiasm just to please some nerd who thinks Cursive is the only band that matters.
narrow-mindedness will be the death of rock criticism.
- I e-mailed Chicago Tribune critic Greg Kot asking for a little reassurance after the "Rolling Stone" diss from Scabs. I had seen Kot speak in one of my journalism school classes, and for whatever reason I thought he would want to give me advice. I was able to thank him years later, at my first Pitchfork festival, and I hope he won't mind me quoting his response above.