It's Too Easy to Overlook John Mayer's Talents as a Musician

John Mayer is an undeniable talent, but has his personality irreparably derailed his career?
John Mayer is an undeniable talent, but has his personality irreparably derailed his career? Photo by Mark C. Austin
This might surprise you, but there was a time when John Mayer was simply a really talented guitarist, a pretty good singer-songwriter and an affable-enough guy whose personal life was either very well kept or simply close to nonexistent. Mayer made catchy little pop-rock tracks that made him millions and came across in interviews as the sorta sneaky-hot guy who didn’t realize he was sneaky-hot. It made him seem charming in his own way.

How times have changed. Mayer, who plays Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion on Sunday night, is now more widely known for his off-stage antics, weird and offensive interviews, slew of celebrity girlfriends and assorted other tabloid fodder. No longer is Mayer even regarded by many as a musician, which is a shame, since John Mayer the musician is a pretty special talent.

Regardless your opinion of him – and there was a time when no one really had a passionate opinion either way about him – it’s hard to deny the dude’s musical chops. His voice has that sort of scratchy, soothing quality that appeals to both the rock and pop crowd. He’s good-looking enough to appeal to women, but not so much as to threaten their boyfriends and husbands. And by the way, he’s one of the most underrated guitarists of his era, a dude who’s just as comfortable strumming a pop tune like “Your Body is a Wonderland” as he is covering some old-school Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Not that any of this matters anymore, at least as far as the general public is concerned. To many, if not most, of the people who care about such matters, Mayer is simply a womanizing, racist, immature man-child who happens to have a penchant for musical talent. Whether this is true is inconsequential; in this case, perception, as it pertains to Mayer, is reality.

That perception has certainly affected the reality of Mayer the commercial force. His first three records moved more than 10 million copies combined and featured hit singles like “No Such Thing,” “Why Georgia,” “Daughters” and the aforementioned “Your Body is a Wonderland.” During this point in his career, Mayer was simply the quiet everyman who poked fun at himself and popped up on Chappelle’s Show for a hilarious cameo.

Then, John Mayer decided that role was no longer befitting a man of his fortune and fame. Gone was the shy, relatable guy who either didn’t share his personal life, or simply didn’t have much of one outside of music. That guy was replaced by an arrogant, self-righteous windbag who seemingly dated half of Hollywood. Jessica Simpson. Katy Perry. Minka Kelly. Jennifer Aniston. Taylor Swift. The list went on.

Now, there’s no shame in being a famous young man and engaging in a series of casual relationships. And it’s even understandable that such fame and fortune would over-inflate one’s ego to a point where one may say and do things that aren’t exactly in character; hell, I know arrogant, self-righteous types who don’t have money or a pretty lady on their arm.

Point being, there’s no shame in some of the low-level hijinks in which Mayer engaged around the turn of the decade. However, Mayer – high on his own bullshit – began to actively court the status of public lothario. First, it was kissing-and-telling when referring to Jessica Simpson as “sexual napalm.” He also dated Taylor Swift, which is a surefire way to end up on the wrong side of a diss track (ask Katy Perry, Taylor Swift ends careers). Then, and far more severe, was a 2010 interview with Playboy in which Mayer opined on his predilection toward white women, going so far as to refer to his manhood as a “white supremacist.” This was bad enough, but dropping the n-word during that same interview fanned the flames so wide Mayer’s career still hasn't recovered.

Whereas his first four, pre-2010 records moved more than 10 million copies combined, his three albums since then have moved just over 1 million copies combined. Sure, the music game has changed in recent years and albums don’t move like they once did, but to attribute this drop in Mayer’s record sales solely to the advent of streaming sites is lunacy. Hell, Mayer – once a veritable pop radio mainstay – hasn’t charted a Top 20 single since 2009.

Mayer later expressed remorse for his comments, and he seemed genuinely contrite. However, music fans are fickle enough to begin with, let alone when their guitar god starts throwing out sexist and racist comments. Musically speaking, this is a shame, as Mayer’s more recent material far outshines his early efforts. Gone is the cute, shy guy with an ear for catchy tunes, replaced by a full-fledged musician who has truly found his sound – just light and breezy enough to play on a road trip, just musically-enlightened enough to impress rock critics.

He may never reclaim his throne as a pop-rock mainstay, and he almost certainly will never be considered among the greatest guitarists to ever strum a tune, but Mayer seems at peace with his place in the pop-rock pantheon, that of a well-respected but flawed man who doesn’t get his just due when it comes to musical ability. Perhaps it’s the role he should have played all along.

John Mayer performs Sunday, August 6 at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, 2005 Lake Robbins Drive, The Woodlands. Gates open at 6 p.m.
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Clint Hale enjoys music and writing, so that kinda works out. He likes small dogs and the Dallas Cowboys, as you can probably tell. Clint has been writing for the Houston Press since April 2016.
Contact: Clint Hale