In defense of John Mayer

Say what you want about the guy – he has definitely done/said some stupid things – John Mayer is a killer songwriter and guitarist. He can play a pretty incredible blues solo or write a hit pop song, and for his talent and versatility, he deserves your (perhaps grudging) respect.

But more than that, his music is infused with the theme of mental health. Some of his songs just make me go man, he REALLY gets it every time I hear them. As anyone who is struggling with or working on their mental health knows, it touches every area of your life, and Mayer is no different. His songs run the gamut: the despair of feeling hopelessly lost and alone, the hesitation about relationships because you’re not sure what challenges you and your potential partner will have to face with regards to your mental health, the withdrawl, the feeling of relief and joy when you finally feel you’ve turned a corner. I’ve always really loved what he had to say, but after two years of really trying to delve into my issues with anxiety, I’ve started to appreciate it on a whole different level. His music makes me feel like someone understands what it’s like to go through all of this, and that’s so helpful.

Mayer has struggled with anxiety and panic attacks for most of his life (for which he is on meds), and it’s evident from the way he talks and his lyrics that he deals with racing thoughts and ruminating. Take, for instance, this quote from his infamous Rolling Stone interview:

“I sometimes wonder what the fuck I’m doing,” he says. “I have these accidents, these mistakes, these self-inflicted wounds, and then I tear my head to shreds about it for days. I’ll read a little something and die a thousand times in my own mind, visualizing the death of my career or respect for me and my music. I almost go blind. But then two weeks ago, it occurred to me, ‘John’ – if I can use my own name with myself – ‘The only reason you’re going through these trials is because you’re brave enough to say, “I don’t want to detach. I don’t want to go live in a gated community.”‘ So, I will continue to make these worldwide dignity mistakes as often as it takes to not make them anymore.”

What’s amazing to me about this is that he was living this publicly. He gave the above quote during his Rolling Stone interview, a conversation for which he was heavily criticized. What we didn’t know, though, was that he wasn’t just being an asshole. He was actually going through some incredibly intense mental health issues and was doing so in front of the whole world. I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been; people with anxiety tend to remember and go over every little thing, and it must be awful for him to have those moments in his life immortalized in print. And then to have people commenting on it repeatedly, and for it to be brought up basically every time he gives an interview after that – it must be hell. Such is the stigma of mental health that instead of seeing this and other  interviews for what they were – a person trying to express what their experience with an anxiety disorder is like – we latched on to the douchey, fratboy, sensational parts of this interview and completely ignored the rest.

This failing is not his. It’s ours. Mayer has been writing about his struggle with anxiety for years, and he captures it better than any other artist I can think of. His first EP, Inside Wants Out, was released in 2001 when Mayer was 24 years old. While many of these songs ended up on his Room for Squares album later that year, the one that stands out to me didn’t make the cut, and as far as I know, has not been recorded or performed since. “Quiet” is one of Mayer’s most introspective songs, and perfectly captures the experience of anxiety and wanting to hide from life. He says, “Midnight/lock all the doors/turn out the lights./Feels like the end of the world this Sunday night.” He goes on to talk about feeling cornered by his fears, and the refrain gets to the heart of the matter: “somehow I can’t seem to find the quiet inside my mind.” This is such a perfect description of what anxiety is like. You know that whatever you’re afraid of or worried about is probably irrational, you know that you’re making it worse by fighting, and yet you’re still feeling all of these things and you just want it to end. When I first started experiencing anxiety really intensely, it had been a long time since I’d listened to this song. But when I did, I felt so understood, I nearly cried with the relief of it. This is on my calmest playlist, and it’s how I end my yoga practice; it’s become a reminder to me that it’s ok to feel anxious and afraid, and that I’m not alone.

Mayer has other songs that deal with these issues, too, and I would highly recommend listening to them. If you’ve never listened to him before – or if you wants some help discovering him through this new lens – here are some suggestions for where to start:

  • “Great Indoors” – Room for Squares
  • “Not Myself” – Room for Squares
  • “Clarity” – Heavier Things
  • “Something’s Missing” – Heavier Things
  • “New Deep” – Heavier Things
  • “I Don’t Trust Myself (With Loving You)” – Continuum
  • “Gravity” – Continuum   *This one is amazing please listen to it RIGHT NOW
  • “In Repair” – Continuum
  • “War of My Life” – Battle Studies
  • “The Age of Worry” – Born and Raised
  • “Shadow Days” – Born and Raised
  • “If I Ever Get Around to Living” – Born and Raised
  • “Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey” – Born and Raised

 

He does mention his anxiety or the way it makes his brain work on other songs, but the list above are the songs that are directly about his experience with it and are the ones that I have found most helpful when trying to articulate what the experience is like. Even if you don’t like his style, I would encourage you to at the very least read the lyrics; he touches on the experience in a way that is honest and straightforward and without self-pity. I would also encourage you to read his Rolling Stone interview and his Playboy interview. There are definitely some cringe-worthy moments – for which he has been held plenty accountable – but at their essence, these interviews are exhibits of what it’s like to live with mental health issues. And besides his music, they are the places where he has been most forthright about his struggles with anxiety and panic. You can also watch his reflection on those interviews now that he’s (it seems like) found a reliable way to manage his mental health. Also worth a read is this article, which is such a wonderful depiction of what it’s like to look back at a really difficult time in your life.

 

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8 thoughts on “In defense of John Mayer”

  1. Just wanted to say how much I appreciated your piece. I’m also a big big fan of John’s music, and have really struggled with who he seemed to be as a person (based solely, I must admit, on some really average things he’s said in a couple of articles). But as I’ve often maintained to friends, if you listen to the lyrics in his songs, he just HAS to be a good guy. And a guy very much like me. He is definitely, as Billy Joel and Bob Dylan have been for previous generations, the chronicler of my experience. Thank you for this post, it’s made me listen to John’s lyrics with more intention, and I’m thinking of sharing some of the most mental-health-relevant ones on Twitter… Listening to Heavier Things this morning – ‘You big imagination’s playing its tricks on you.’ Oh, how I can relate.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Exactly! He got me through high school and college, and it wasn’t until I started going to therapy that I realized why I loved him so much: he could put into words all of the ways that I was feeling about myself and my experiences. I am so glad that he seems to be in a more steady place.

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  2. I was going to write a very similar blog post to this but I don’t think I should now. This is a fantastic post! Gravity is my all time favourite song. However, his new release “Changing” is on a major climb up my favourites list. Thank you for this post. I know I will come back to it in the future, just like JM’s songs.

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    1. You absolutely should write your post! It’s all part of breaking down the stigma around mental health: the more we talk about it, the less mysterious and scary it is. I haven’t heard “Changing” yet, and now that is on my immediate to do list.

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