On Wednesday, Captain Phil and John Mayer were the two highest-trending names on Twitter. Captain Phil—from the Discovery show Deadliest Catch—was dead. Maybe he got off easier.
That morning, at 8:45 a.m., UsMagazine.com published excerpts from a lengthy interview I did with John Mayer in the March issue of Playboy. Their headline, “ John Mayer: Jessica Simpson Was ‘Crazy’ in Bed,” was a distorted and softly sensationalist distillation: Mayer said of the relationship, “Sexually it was crazy.” You can see how the meaning bent as it was molded to fit the shape of celebrity.
Now multiply that effect by a million or so. Because among many, many things that flew out of his mouth, Mayer also claimed to have “a David Duke cock” and used the word “nigger.” Us linked to the story, posted at 8 a.m. on Playboy.com, and the rippling began. That morning, New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones sagely tweeted that the interview was “like a U.N. drop for the Internet. Food for weeks.” Bloggers saw a shortcut to valuable pageviews. Comedians pounced on the situation, as did Dane Cook.
My Mayer article is 6,870 words, long for a magazine article in 2010. It was quickly reduced to something 140 characters or less: Mayer is a racist. This isn’t surprising. If you use a word that should never pass any white person’s lips, it surpasses any other words you say. Mayer used the word, in imaginary italics or finger quotes, to make a point: As a white musician who has worked extensively with black musicians, he was discussing the paradox and impossibility of a “hood pass” (the notion that some whites are more authentically “black” than others), and demonstrated the paradox by embodying it via an N bomb. Commenting on white privilege, he stepped right in it. On Twitter, writer and hip-hop activist Harry Allen described Mayer’s refutation of a “hood pass” as “a powerful, pointed statement.” It’s also a tough way to prove a point. To put it in Twitter argot, “The word > the point.”
Some people read the full article and returned to Twitter to dispute charges of racism, which nonetheless seemed to have become a truism. A black female escort from Arizona tweeted @tannenbaumr, “I read the entire Playboy interview, and somehow get all his points.” Many more avoided the article in order to not support it with a pageview, or to not pursue an idea they found repulsive, or because they were confident a tweet could be trusted.
Mayer made the David Duke reference in self-reproach to his own sexual history: Among his relationships, none have been with women of color, which is ordinary enough but puzzled him and prompted him to reflect, in a joke, about the discrepancy between his taste and his experiences. Mayer named three black women he is attracted to; one of them, actress Holly Robinson Peete, blogged that Mayer had “foolishly picked a fight with a demographic you don’t wanna mess with: African-American women.” Many of the jokes these women made online, at Mayer’s expense, were explosively funny. But Mayer’s description of his sexual history was quickly altered and relayed as “John Mayer won’t date black women.” How does hasn’t turn into won’t?
Milan Kundera, who cherished novels as paradoxes of instability in a finite world, in 1988 cited “Rewriting as the spirit of the times.” Can we alter that now to “Retweeting as the spirit of the times”? The Internet has loosened the definition of writing, and now the online world is a limitless, unstable fiction. Per Kundera, tweets and blogs translate every link, adding ideology in the guise of summation. The reaction to Mayer contains many truths about race and celebrity, though nothing that fits in 140 characters.
The Web is a series of filters, many of which narrow a story until it’s a negligible number of bytes. Few people in America are willing to discuss race in public, and this reminds us why. Harry Allen hoped Mayer would “keep speaking as intelligently as he clearly can against racism/white supremacy.” That’s not going to happen. During a concert in Nashville that night, Mayer apologized for using a profane word and announced he was done doing interviews.
Rob Tannenbaum is a contributing editor at Playboy, and the former music editor of Blender.