John Mayer: Artist or Clown?
The musician is a cad, an attention-seeker, a Twitter star—and an earnest singer-songwriter. Erin Carlson examines how Mayer’s bemused persona plays out in public.
To be John Mayer is to be on top of the world; to get him off Twitter is something else entirely.
With a pile of Grammys to his name—not to mention broad commercial appeal and loads of devoted fans—the 32-year-old musician should expect even more accolades for his new album Battle Studies, chock-full of pop hooks about love and heartache that uplift despite a melancholy streak. Like Mayer himself, the songs drip with soul and self-awareness and humor.
“It's hard to dismiss him as a silly celebrity when the really great guitarists of the world praise him as the genuine article,” says veteran music journalist Alan Light.
In a review of the record, which dropped this week, Rolling Stone gushes, “Mayer is at his best when he drops the seriousness and reassumes his identity as a rocker/moonlighting standup comedian, as songs like ‘Half of My Heart’ and ‘Who Says’ show that Mayer can use his wit as a paintbrush for art.”
And yet, Mayer is more than a gifted musician: He’s an infamous cad. A fame-seeker. The epic douchebag who played Jennifer Aniston and Jessica Simpson—did he seduce them with private performances of “Your Body Is a Wonderland”? Or, worse, “Daughters”?
Such is Mayer’s tabloid reputation—and truth or fiction, he gleefully feeds the beast.
Look no further than these recent examples:
- He leaves a Hollywood club in August wearing a peacock-blue velvet smoking jacket with his initials on the lapel. On his arm: A lovely, older woman. He tells paparazzi, “This is my date, not my mother.” Faster than you can say “publicity stunt,” photos and video of Mayer the Cougar Lover land online.
- His silver tongue gets him in trouble when he baits a New York magazine reporter who asks for his thoughts on health-care reform. He tries to change the subject by calling her a moron and then offering a one-liner for the ages: “I’m going to forcefully sodomize your editor.” Naturally, Mayer’s remarks provoke strong reactions in the blogosphere, ranging from amusement at his darkly humorous banter to outrage on behalf of the target.
- Entertainment news outlets have a field day thanks to reports Mayer and Aniston are back on. This collectively angers Aniston’s fanbase, who remember the time Mayer blabbed to TMZ about their breakup. Patti Stanger of Bravo’s Millionaire Matchmaker tells me Mayer used Aniston because he wanted to go to the Oscars. “He’s not cute,” she huffs.
- Mayer takes to his popular Twitter account to clarify rumors he hooked up with MTV reality-show vixen Kristin Cavallari. A sample tweet: “I have never Bensoned her Hedges, nor have I attempted to Bartle her James.”
- Is Mayer in on the joke? If you had any doubt, here’s further proof: Last year, the singer-songwriter appeared on deck at the Mayercraft Carrier (a Caribbean cruise for fans) sporting a Borat-style thong that left nothing to the imagination. He flipped through an issue of Us Weekly and reportedly asked vacationers to send photos to the magazine, which happily ran shots of him in the near-nude.
Anyone who keeps up with celebrity gossip will gladly weigh in on Mayer’s antics; meanwhile, those who devour his music rather than the glossy pages of Us Weekly could not care less.
“It's hard to dismiss him as a silly celebrity when the really great guitarists of the world praise him as the genuine article,” says veteran music journalist Alan Light, adding: "If people respond to your personality in addition to your playing, that's an advantage.”
Especially when Mayer chooses irreverence and candor over the collective blandness of risk-averse, American Idol-bred pop stars. “People are hungry for that,” Light says.
Mayer's double-sided mask—that of a serious artist and that of a clown—was on full display Tuesday night in an odd interview with ABC's Nightline. He tried to explain his celebrity status, saying, "I have this incredibly just, like, voracious need to express, and that's just what I am. Look, I might be a little jazz-handy." Getting cranky, he argued there's nothing abnormal about dating famous actresses and that he's navigating romantic relationships, just like everybody else! Then he complained about having to dress well because he's always photographed; when cameras follow, he's ready for action: "I know that they're going to be there, so you start thinking like the lens."
The Nightline segment was a dramatic change from his 2007 interview with the news magazine where Mayer—resembling Edward Scissorhands, with the long hair and moody-broody affect—waxed philosophical about music. Mayer was equally serious and visibly nervous during a live Oprah appearance several years ago. He has a history with anxiety that's at odds with his clownish public front.
But he has since embraced his true nature—weird, provocative, expressive—with confidence.
"I just don't believe that people should get the best of you," he said on Nightline this week, noting that at least he's got his trusty guitar on which to fall back: "That's my bulletproof armor: Knowing that I have a record, like, I have a reason to be here."
His high-profile exes are not so fortunate. While Aniston and Simpson have been tagged with awful labels in the celebrity news media —namely, that they are sad, lonely, desperado, too fat, too old, too this, too that—Mayer tends to come off as cool, smart and funny, the alpha male/eternal bachelor who guys want to hang with and ladies want to date, even if they know better.
It’s an unfair advantage, but one he leverages through Twitter, where he’s amassed more than 2.6 million followers. He balances 140-character musings on music with entertaining bon mots, such as: “Turning me down is the new sleeping with me.”
The micro-blogging platform allows him to control his image and create intimacy with fans. Make no mistake, Simpson would be slimed in the press if she tweeted observations like, “Drinking always makes my teeth feel soft. Do I like my teeth feeling soft?”
“John Mayer’s relationship to the media is that of a matador and a bull,” observes Ben Widdicombe, former gossip columnist at the New York Daily News. “John always behaves as if he’s the smarter of the two. He regards the media as a force he can manipulate. He gets mixed results. On Twitter, he reveals himself to be intelligent and amusing. But just as you’re starting to like him, he pulls a d-bag move.”
How does his PR team harness his outsize personality—and the occasional d-bag move? A publicist at Sunshine, Sachs & Associates, the firm that represents Mayer, once told me, “We let him be him.” The singer wasn’t available to comment for this story.
Publicity magnets collided on New Year’s Eve 2007 when Mayer made out with Perez Hilton on a whim. He subsequently denied this through his handlers; Hilton took a lie detector test and passed.
“It was New Year’s Eve and he was really drunk,” recalls Hilton, adding that Mayer probably has more wild episodes in his past besides their holiday smooch. Hilton has said Mayer’s a “really good kisser.”
Last spring, Mayer finally confirmed the liplock while performing standup comedy on the Mayercraft, admitting: “Damn right I made out with him at a club.” He initiated the kiss as proof to Hilton that he was the wilder of the two, he said.
“He wants to have it both ways: He wants to suck face with Perez Hilton and still act like he’s smarter than the game,” says Widdicombe, conceding that his core base of music lovers remains largely indifferent.
That they are. Touched by positive fan feedback to Battle Studies, Mayer tweeted his gratitude: “My heart is full after reading your responses to the record. I’m still ‘here,’ you know? Never left. Never will.”
Well, look at that.
Just when you’re starting to hate him, he puts on the charm.
Erin Carlson covers media for The Business Insider.