Music

John Mayer Tried To Stage A Pop Comeback And It Totally Failed

The fact that he called one of his songs 'Emoji Of A Wave' is at least partly to blame.

Every January in the mid-2000s, my sister and I would pile into the car and drive a couple of hours south to our family’s annual holiday spot at Broomes Head. I can remember a couple of details about those long drives: firstly, that the heat was so ferocious it created mirages on the road ahead and rendered every surface of the car untouchable. Then secondly, that we would always listen to John Mayer.

We listened to all of his albums, but the one we spun most was the 2007 live record Where The Light Is: Live In Los Angeles. In the arc of Mayer’s career, this was his zenith. The two disc album was exhaustive, containing three sets from the night: one solo, one with his trio, and the last with a full band. Of all the thousands of notes Mayer played, he didn’t hit one wrong.

Listening to that record now is a little sobering, as it’s a reminder of just how big Mayer used to be and of how strong his stranglehold on pop music was. There’s also the fact that soon after it came out, Mayer suffered a truly epic fall from grace.

In 2010, he gave two disastrous interviews to Playboy and Rolling Stonein which he compared his dick to the white supremacist David Duke, called his ex-girlfriend Jessica Simpson “sexual napalm”, and detailed his masturbation habits and search for the “Joshua Tree of vaginas”. If that wasn’t bad enough, in a rambling deconstruction of what a “hood pass” entails, he used a racial epithet we won’t repeat here.

The backlash was swift and merciless. He was denounced by his peers and lambasted by the press. Days later Mayer broke down on stage, sobbing through an apology. When the dust eventually settled, John Mayer had vanished from public life.

The Road To Reinvention

Over the last seven years, John Mayer has earnestly tried to create a new image. He bought a ranch in Montana, deleted Twitter, posed stiffly for pictures against bruised grey skies, and generally seemed to be living the life of a kind of neo-Neil Young.

He released two albums during this time: 2012’s Born And Raised, and 2013’s Paradise Valley. Partially recorded in the seclusion of his home studio, these were Mayer’s contrition and redemption records, made up of Laurel Canyon rock and solemn Americana. There wasn’t a pop hook or glib sexual reference to be seen.

This self-imposed cultural irrelevance was good for Mayer creatively, but it wasn’t enough. He wanted to create pop hits again.

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Photo via John Mayer’s Facebook

So Mayer began to wade back into the pop landscape once more. He re-joined Twitter and announced that his new music would reference his relationship with Katy Perry, tidbits he knew full well the media would jump on. Then in an interview with the New York Times, he detailed his thought process behind his pop comeback album The Search For Everything: 

“I’m a young guy. I like girls. I want girls to like me. I want to make music and be thought of as attractive. I was finally ready to re-enter that world and grow back into it,” he said.

“I remember thinking to myself, okay I’m going to basically come out of retirement from blockbusters. It’s a choice to write pop songs, just like it’s a choice to write blues songs or folk songs. Let’s write the big ones that we are capable of writing.”

So with this new mission statement in mind, Mayer set about writing those “big ones”.

The Search For Everything Began

The first of these “blockbusters” we heard was ‘Love On The Weekend’, released in mid-November. It was classic Mayer: easy and sophisticated soft rock, just the kind of track that would have happily slotted next to ‘Your Body Is A Wonderland’ 16 years ago.

Which is exactly what’s wrong with it. ‘Love On The Weekend’ sounds like it was recorded for another age, when Mayer’s guitar pop could reach the top 20 on the Billboard charts instead of #53, like ‘Love On The Weekend’ did.

Of course, it’s not Mayer’s fault the top 100 is now dominated by EDM-lite pop songs, with the only guitar coming courtesy of Ed Sheeran or Shawn Mendes (artists that, somewhat ironically, use Mayer as a creative touchstone). But if Mayer thought he could infiltrate the top 40 using a song that sounded like it was a B-side off Room For Squares, then he picked the wrong tactic. Soft-rock doesn’t work for the charts anymore. Pop has changed, John Mayer hasn’t.

“Pop has changed, John Mayer hasn’t.”

None of the singles that followed reversed this failure, and the album release rollout didn’t help matters. Mayer chose to release The Search For Everything in four-song ‘waves’ after being inspired by creative release strategies from Beyonce and Drake. Wave One appeared in January, with Wave Two followed in February.

It didn’t work. While it ensured that Mayer’s name hung around, neither ‘wave’ yielded anything close to a catchy single, let alone a chart-topper. So by the time the full album appeared in April, the public had moved on.

The Search For Everything is easy and smooth, but impressionless. These songs roll through one ear and out the other side without leaving any evidence they were there in the first place. It’s forgettable — a fatal flaw in pop.

There are definitely some nice moments, like the grand country pop melody on ‘In My Blood’ and the funk shuffle of ‘Moving On And Getting Over’ — but these are eclipsed by cringeworthy tracks like ‘Changing’, where Mayer labours over a dull piano riff to wax lyrical about his remorse, and creepy sex pest lines like this, from ‘Still Feel Like Your Man’: “The prettiest girl in the room here wants me/I know because she told me so.”

The fact that he named one of his singles ‘Emoji Of A Wave’ betrayed his lack of knowledge about contemporary culture, like a Steve Buscemi gif in track title form.

fellow kids

Instead of a pop blockbuster, The Search For Everything ended up being just adequate.

“The Search For Everything is John Mayer asleep, expecting the world to be content with watching him breathe”

There’s nothing exciting about it, nothing even slightly evolutionary, nothing that could indicate Mayer’s triumphant return to the pop sphere. There’s nothing that could rival his past tracks like ‘Belief’ or ‘No Such Thing’ or ‘Neon’. The Search For Everything is John Mayer asleep, expecting the world to be content with watching him breathe.

What’s consistently frustrating about being a John Mayer fan is that he has the talent to make phenomenal music — and has done so in the past — but just isn’t.

John Mayer’s time as a pop artist is over, where he’ll fit in the future is up to him.

Jules LeFevre is Staff Writer at Music Junkee and inthemix. She is on Twitter.