Not long ago, I interviewed the person behind a Twitter account based on the premise that “pop culture died in 2009.” I wanted to get his take on the men he considered “so 10 years ago” — that is to say, the male celebrities who dominated magazine covers at the very moment we lost this tabloid-driven gossip landscape to insurgent social media. Perhaps inevitably, John Mayer’s name came up. And that’s where the trouble began.
I should say that I have no strong feelings about Mayer one way or the other. I do know he gave a spectacularly bad Playboy interview many years ago, but that’s hardly a capital crime. As for the songs, I’m sure some would be familiar to my ears, and while they’re not my cup of tea, I stopped judging anyone for their taste in music around when I graduated from college. People like what they like. The Lyft driver will play Imagine Dragons. Whatever.
But the Mayer stans were furious.
I guess it was down to the mention of the Playboy embarrassment — assuming any of them read the article before replying — or, more likely, outrage at the seeming implication that their guy is a washed-up has-been. (In fact, my interviewee remarked on how he’d never really gone away.) When I probed deeper into these accounts, I found that they were as dedicated to defending Mayer as the folks who blow up your mentions for criticizing everyone from Johnny Depp to Chris Brown. The difference is, those men have faced accusations of physical abuse, and their loyalists are culture warriors aligned against the forces of feminism and #MeToo.
Mayer might make us cringe now and then, but he’s no villain, nor an avatar for the ideological debates of the moment. These repliers just believe that he’s been unfairly maligned, relentlessly bullied and dismissed in spite of his obvious influence. They seem especially peeved by the success of Shawn Mendes, who regards Mayer as a mentor; the singer-songwriters have also collaborated. You’d think Mayer’s blessing would translate into respect for the younger artist — but it’s quite the opposite.
They were also pissed off by misleading reports that Mayer claimed to have slept with roughly 500 women (he later said the number is actually six.) That micro-drama whipped a couple of stan accounts into a frenzy in which they imagined an anti-Mayer conspiracy.
Again, I’m not invested in any of this to the point where I can claim to know Mayer’s inner emotional state. All the same, I sort of doubt he’s suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune here. His Twitter and Instagram accounts have the feel of a popular, easygoing guitarist who can usually take a joke, and it’s not as if he’s been blacklisted or “canceled” by woke haters. Right? So why this resentment over a fantasy that Mayer’s enemies are out here ruining his life, couched in this reactionary “Straight White Male Lives Matter” language? One can only conclude that it goes back to the tunes — which never got their due, apparently — and the rise of non-Mayer pop stars.
It’s possible, then, that Mayer does serve as a martyr for these fans: a lonely voice of acoustic and earnest country/folk/rock pop in a country that now prefers hip-hop. This would certainly explain why they took umbrage at the idea that his sound is a little dated at this point. Somehow, it isn’t enough for them to support his continued healthy career — everyone else must acknowledge his enduring relevance as well. Which means that not even professional music critics are permitted to review him as “pleasantly bland.”
I get that nobody likes to see their favorite band or singer trashed, but fortunately, Pitchfork is not in control of your Spotify profile. You don’t do your subculture any favors by taking extreme offense at the diversity of response that every musician has to live with, and you’re definitely not winning any converts. Part of me suspects that Mayer is a victim of his own image here; because he’s branded as the sensitive type, his diehard followers envision him as too fragile to survive anything other than adulation. I suspect that in reality, much of the negativity rolls off his back — he’s busy being a rock star!
I could be wrong. It could be the case that every single less-than-rapturous word printed about Mayer hits him like a dagger between the ribs. He could be struggling every waking minute under the weight of our collective cruelty. I just have a hard time picturing it.