John Mayer needs to revise his "New Rules"


As a "rock writer," this may seem absurd (or cost me my job), but I am proud to say that musically I live in a totally John Mayer-free world. I see his name everywhere, but I don't know any of his albums. I cannot name a single John Mayer song. Up until very recently, when I accidentally discovered him playing on public television one night while flipping channels, I don't think I even knew he was a guitar player, let alone one of the school-trained Stevie Ray Vaughan Texas boogie-blues variety, even if that's not what he's known for.

I do, however, know his Twitter. I know his face. I know that he has a bunch of tattoos. I know that he has sex with lots of attractive celebrities, and tons of groupies. I know that he shows up in gossip magazines and on websites--and has a rivalry going with someone named Perez Hilton, who also doesn't really exist in my world. I know he has rather public sex life, and yet somehow maintains some sort of status as a romantic, sensitive crooner of rock hits (that I have never heard). I know he gets interviews a lot, presumably for all these reasons.

And now, I know he's in a ton of trouble.

Of course, that's relatively speaking. As I write, less than 24 hours after the apex of the uproar about Mayer's controversial Playboy interview, where he dropped the N-bomb, compared his penis to notorious ex-Klansman David Duke, and riffed a list of famous black women who might or might not be able to pull the hood off L'il Dukey--leading Mayer to declare that he is "quitting media" and "just wants to play guitar"--it already seems like this story is old news. We live in a culture of largely transitory media, where a tweet from twenty minutes ago has the same musty odor as the newspapers from 1950 in your grandmother's basement, and no one knew that better than Mayer, who once said of his Twitter habit: "[ex-girlfriend Jennifer Aniston] saw my involvement in technology as courting distraction. And I always said, 'These are the new rules.'" So says the dog wagging the media tail. Does anyone actually believe he's surprised that the tail was going to wag back?

The issue at hand here is not whether Mayer is a racist in the most obvious sense--he isn't. In reality, his use of the n-bomb was neither an attack on black people, nor the casual, misguidedly offhand use that comes from people actually believing that we live in a post-racial America (we don't). The point he seemed to be working towards in his strangely almost Andy Kaufman-esque ramble was that using terms like "hood" or "ghetto," especially to illustrate how "down" a white person is, is just a semantic substitution, no better than the word he used instead. Nor is the issue that he continued to tactlessly express some regret that he hasn't been attracted to black women, or the casual sexism inherent.

No, the issue is that John Mayer had an opportunity to be more than John Mayer the Spectacle, and he fucked it up. Getting attention has been part of rock and roll since before people knew what rock and roll was. Elvis shook his hips. Jimi set his guitar on fire. R. Kelly makes insane videos. Mayer knows how to use New Media to draw attention to himself better than almost anyone--certainly he's on my radar, even if I don't know a thing about his music. But in this case, given the choice between making a reasonable point about race and playing by those "new rules" he loves so much, he went for option three: try to have it both ways. He tried to make his point and be the weird media-manipulator he loves being. In doing so, he not only made an idiot of himself to an Olympian degree, but he betrayed a much more complicated sort of prejudice: the idea that above all, any topic, no matter how contentious, is first and foremost fair game in the mission to keep all eyes on John Mayer. You know, the guy who knows how to get attention.

In an interview about his guitar inspiration Stevie Ray Vaughan, Mayer rambled at length about how some music is, like Time Magazine, "a periodical," while music like SRV's is like "National Geographic-a reference." It seemed, watching that interview, as if in Mayer's mind the best relevance was permanence. Ironic, then, that he became so expert at short-attention span media manipulation: we get to watch his struggle to become a point of reference, to gain the sort of permanence of his heroes, in real-time, in the wrongest ways possible for the least noble reasons, in a fashion that almost guarantees that any permanence he achieves will not be for the music he makes but the Spectacle he creates.

So John, good for you for "quitting media." Learn to shake your hips again. Get back to the basics--I think we're going to need them over the next few years in today's crappy economy and failing record industry. But I can't help but wonder if you mean it, or is this just another of those "new rules" the rest of us haven't learned yet? Sorry to be cynical--but it's hard to trust anything coming from a Spectacle.