John Mayer has worn many different labels over the last 20 years — popstar, guitar virtuoso, songwriter, comedian, talk show host, heartthrob, douchebag, pompous, misogynist, abuser. These labels create an ever-present maelstrom around Mayer, a war between those who hate him and those who love him.
When Mayer made a TikTok account last week, the response he received was less than enthusiastic. The maelstrom raged in his comments: Taylor Swift fans had discovered his account. They were quick to remember Swift’s song “Dear John,” where she wrote about their relationship in a less than flattering light.
– “John don’t you think 19 was too young?” — 16.2k likes
– “the original indie boy gaslighter” — 8.5k likes
– “hello mr old man victim complex” — 51k likes
– “funny how taylor’s one song about you is better than your entire discography” — 2.6k like
– “People really don’t understand this dude is one of the most talented guitar players of our time” — 25.7k likes
– “Y’all actin like John isnt a musical legend” — 6.8k likes
– “at the end of the day he’s still one of the best songwriters of the last 100 years” — 2.8k likes
This war of opinions over John Mayer is not unique to TikTok. Look up his name on Google or Twitter and you’ll see a hodgepodge of articles and tweets saying one thing or another about Mayer. (My personal favorite was the headline “Is John Mayer a douchebag?” It’s the question mark for me.) I encountered shades of this split opinion when it was announced that I was writing this article to some other editors on The Daily, with more than one person expressing their genuine dislike for Mayer.
The debate around Mayer mainly boils down to two groups: those who condemn Mayer for his actions, and those who celebrate him for his musical achievements. Yet, within these two groups, the line between person and musician is often blurred.
It is common to hear someone who doesn’t like John Mayer for, well, being John Mayer, also say that his music is bad. Exhibit A can be seen in the above TikTok comment, “funny how taylor’s one song about you is better than your entire discography.” And yes, I get that these are TikTok comments with about 10 layers of irony on top of them, but I think it’s reasonable to say that there is some reflection of real thought and belief behind them. That, although the comment was likely just written as a joke, there is an underlying belief that because Mayer is allegedly a bad person, he’s also a bad musical artist.
Among guitarists, there are those who still view Mayer as just someone who writes pop songs. They see him as someone who’s basic, someone who isn’t a true guitarist because he appeals to a large audience. You’ll often find that those who say this are also quick to bring up Mayer’s past relationships and what has been written about them as proof that not only is he “just a popstar,” but he’s also the typical popstar. The type of popstar who goes around LA partying. They use this assumption of who he is as evidence that he makes basic, bland music. Because that’s what popstars do, right?
For people who like Mayer, saccharine levels of adulation can exist. To call him one of the best songwriters of the last 100 years is, of course, a bit hyperbolic. On his subreddit, one user said that they watched his new TikTok video “15 times” because it was “so funny.” I mean take a look at that video I just linked. It was moderately amusing, but to watch it 15 times? Really? Many of his hardcore supporters refer to him affectionately as just “John” and they’re eager to point out that not only is he a fantastic guitarist, but he’s also a great person for reason X, Y and Z.
When I started writing this article I found myself falling into a bit of the same trap.
I wanted to write about Mayer as a musician. How when he started playing guitar as a teenager, he became so obsessed with it that his parents took him to see a psychiatrist twice. How he went to Berklee College of Music, dropped out after a year and within four years was signed to a major record label.
I wanted to write about his range as a musician. How he’s touched everything from pop to blues to folk to country. How he’s performed and collaborated with all-time great guitarists B.B. King and Eric Clapton, among others. How Eric Clapton, the second-best guitarist of all time according to Rolling Stone, said “I don’t think he even knows how good he is.”
I wanted to write about how, while Mayer’s most well known for his pop records, he currently tours with Dead & Company, a spin-off of the Grateful Dead. Dead & Company are anything but pop. Their concerts are basically long, improvisational jam sessions filled with solos for every member on stage. Each song they play is different every night. If touring with Dead & Company as the lead guitarist isn’t an indication of being a great musician, I’m not sure what is.
I wanted to write about John Mayer as a songwriter. In an age where if you go into the Top 50 on Spotify, it seems like almost every song has about 25 different writers. But every single Mayer song has one name next to it: John Mayer.
The albums and songs he’s written have so much range and variety that he’s easily my most listened to artist, because he can fit practically any mood. I can listen to a face melting solo from the bluesy “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room,” cry to “Wheel” or dance to “New Light.” When I’m playing music for my Kansas-raised parents, “Roll it on Home,” a song with country twang, is one of their most requested songs. It feels as though whatever type of music Mayer tries to make, he masters.
Then I wanted to write about John Mayer the person. I wanted to make a case that, you know what, Mayer had changed. He was this and now he’s this. Didn’t you hear, he’s bought a house in Montana and he doesn’t live in LA anymore. He’s not that type of person anymore. I then realized that I was being the very person I complain about — I was equating his music with him as a person. I realized I couldn’t do it.
I don’t know Mayer as a person. I know that he’s said some incredibly offensive and insensitive things, most infamously during that Playboy interview back in 2009. I know that Jessica Simpson recently accused him of being emotionally abusive in her new book. I can read those articles and cringe, but I can also listen to other interviews with him where he sounds perfectly well adjusted and where he seems as though he’s truly tried to change since 2009. But the bottom line is, I don’t know him. I know his music.
Mayer’s music has comforted me over the years. Several of his songs talk about his struggles with anxiety and mental health. Hearing that John Mayer, a platinum artist who has seemingly won everything there is to win, has issues with anxiety is genuinely helpful for someone like me. He’s part of the reason I picked up the guitar. And beyond all that, he makes really, really, really good music.
It seems that we put too much of a burden on artists to be more than human — to be perfect idols. We can put pressure on ourselves too, to judge artists not just by their music, but also by their actions. The fact is, musical artists are humans too. They’re going to be imperfect. At some point, they’re going to do and say things that you or others disagree with. That’s life. Of course there are caveats, and if someone says and does genuinely awful things that consistently harm others with no remorse, it makes sense to hold them accountable. I don’t think that applies here.
When it comes down to it, I don’t know John Mayer the person, and neither do you. We both know John Mayer the musician. The Grateful-Dead-blues-folk-country-pop-artist-B.B. King-collaborator-songwriter John Mayer. Sit back and enjoy all that he has to offer. There’s a lot.
Daily Community Culture Beat Editor Peter Hummer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.