For the last year, I’ve done a fairly good job of ignoring John Mayer, which is an easy thing to do. Nothing against singer-songwriters, but Mayer’s ”Room for Squares” — with its slushy chords, twitchy but weightless melodies, and general lack of urgency, even for this genre — never connected.
Still, ”Room for Squares” has clearly made a mighty impact on someone. Released in the fall of 2001, it’s been on the Billboard chart over 60 weeks and has moved more than 2 million units. Its success helped Mayer land a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist — a prize he lost to Norah Jones, although he did take home the Best Male Pop Vocal trophy. With the Grammy buzz and recent release of Any Given Thursday, a rather premature double-disc live album and concert DVD, I realized the time to suss out the Mayer phenom had finally arrived.
Along with Pete Yorn, Jack Johnson, and a handful of others, Mayer is part of that new wave of loose-clothed singer-songwriters who’ve benefited from word of mouth and a grassroots following. Mayer wasn’t supposed to be a pop troubadour, at least initially; he attended music school with fantasies of becoming a guitar hero. But as his jejune 1999 indie mini-album ”Inside Wants Out” (reissued by Aware/Columbia last year) demonstrates, he quickly evolved into a coffeehouse folkie who valued words over hooks. (That EP, by the way, is for the devoted only; half of its songs were rerecorded, with beefier results, for ”Room for Squares.”)
Mayer is more than a sensitive strummer, though. In fact, he’s many things to many record buyers. He’s a pinup, for one, and an able guitarist capable of fluid (if overly clean) solos or monolithic Neil Youngesque riffs (”Something’s Missing,” one of ”Thursday”’s new tracks). On the concert album, Mayer and his three backup musicians make like a jam band, too, sometimes stretching songs to nearly double their length. It’s easy to imagine Phish fans being enamored. But unlike Johnson and leading jam-band singer-songwriter Ben Harper, Mayer has a much stronger, and more shameless, sense of the Top 40. ”On Room for Squares”’ ”83,” he waxes nostalgic about the year and the Police; on ”Any Given Thursday”’s live version, he slips in a bit of ”Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” from Footloose. He’s ripe for MTV, VH1, and VH1 Classic simultaneously.
That said, Mayer and his band aren’t an especially gripping bunch of jammers on ”Any Given Thursday.” The quartet adds length, but not much more; the live renditions of ”Squares”’ songs aren’t that different from the studio tracks. Mayer’s bland Stevie Ray Vaughan medley sounds like a medley of…John Mayer songs. Those moments point out a key problem with his music — its soft center. Despite his sensitive lyrics, Mayer doesn’t communicate anguish so much as facileness.
Through it all, Mayer writes as if he were still a teenager or college student, which helps explain the way he’s connected with the older end of the ”TRL” demographic. His love songs have a willful naivete; ”Your Body Is a Wonderland” may be the cutesiest ode to sex since ”Afternoon Delight.” And his downbeat tunes — which illuminate what Mayer calls his ”quarter life crisis” on ”Squares”’ ”Why Georgia” — dwell on images of loneliness and depression in what could easily be a dorm room. At the same time, Mayer can be as catty as any high schooler: On Inside’s ”Comfortable,” he puts down his current girlfriend (”she thinks she’s artsy”) as a way to tell his ex that he’s still wild about her.
Nowhere is that underlying scorn more clear than in ”No Such Thing,” the breezy but unexpectedly nasty hit that launched Mayer’s career last year. In it, he casts himself as the loner, the outsider intent on putting down his guidance counselor and the ”prom kings and drama queens” who ”read all the books but…can’t find the answers.” To him, the so-called ”real world” is ”just a lie you’ve got to rise above.”
In retrospect, ”No Such Thing” was a zeitgeist moment. The song isn’t explicitly about modern pop, but the voted-most-popular types that Mayer condemns may as well be Britney, Justin, and those guys from LFO. For much of the last half decade, the teen-poppers ruled the school. But with the pared-down likes of Mayer — not to mention next-generation guitar and punk bands like the White Stripes and the Donnas — the misfits have taken over the building, and the cheerleaders and studs of the bubblegum-gilded age are more reviled than ever. ”No Such Thing” is far from a rallying cry, but its anti-status-symbol, anti-beautiful-people statement couldn’t have been better timed. Plowing through ”Any Given Thursday,” one wishes Mayer were a more convincing rebel, but at least he doth protest a little.