In defense of John Mayer’s music

UPDATE: I would just like to point out that I have a MAJOR bone to pick with John Mayer over his past comments about the women he’s dated. People are complicated and he’s one of those people that is simultaneously incredibly deep and observant and also totally tone deaf and problematic. I dislike cancel culture and I also think people need to be held accountable. Life is complicated.

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.


15 thoughts on “In defense of John Mayer’s music

  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

    • 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.


  2. Pingback: You do you, buddy. – it's only fear

  3. 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.


    • 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.


  4. I would love your playlist (both John Mayer as well as other artists) as I’m reading your post right now struggling with yet another anxiety attack while my husband is sleeping soundly bedside me. I’ve tried games, oils, repeating things I’ve read online to no avail. Reading your post makes me feel less crazy, less alone. But music has always been therapeutic to me so maybe if I made a playlist for nights like this.


    • How are you feeling now? I’m glad this helps you feel less alone and I hope that the music does, too. Have you given any thought to therapy, or maybe exercise or meditation? I’ve found all of those to be really helpful.


      • A little better? It’s just so frustrating and exhausting. I keep thinking I’m doing something / not doing something to create this. Exercise would definitely help…even if was just an hour walk a day. Haven’t tried meditation but Ibread Dan Harris’ book and think it’s definitely worth trying. And I need to find a therapist in Houston. I loved the one I went to in Vegas although we never could figure out my triggers so I don’t know why I think it helped. Thanks so much for checking on me. Clearly I’m not the only one struggling but it feels so isolating when you are in it. And my husband just doesn’t get it…how could he…he wants to be supportive but suggests I ignore it vs giving it attention (as you know, that doesn’t work). Hope you had a nice weekend.


      • It sounds like you’re really working on figuring it out, which is great. One of the things that helped me the most was learning how to acknowledge anxiety but not engage with it. to say to myself “Ok, I feel anxious. That’s ok. I’m going to refocus my attention on what I’m doing.” It takes time and practice, but that + therapy + yoga seems to be good management for me. I’ve been dealing with this for all of my life and I still have times when I’m super anxious and have no idea why. It’s just part of how our brains work. And I love that you’re working on it- maybe a new therapist will be able to help you identify triggers.


  5. I was curious if you ever considered changing the
    layout of your site? Its very well written; I
    love what youve got to say. But maybe you could a little more in the way of content
    so people could connect with it better. Youve got an awful lot of text for only having
    1 or two images. Maybe you could space it out better?


  6. I respect that everyone has personal preferences and that we are all searching for our own thing. But I think your blog is perfect and hope you don’t change it. You couldn’t have enough words for me. You are so open and honest with your struggles and success. I’ve found so much comfort in your words and have shared your blog with other several people I’ve met struggling with anxiety. Thanks for taking the time to keep this going. I appreciate you!


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