Dear John: On The Meta-Celebrity’s Misguided Attempt to be Clever

February 19, 2010
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Although John Mayer’s career might make for a useful case study of the ongoing relevance of the rock/pop dichotomy in the contemporary post-rock era, the recent controversy concerning his use of highly-charged racial and homosexual slurs in a interview reflects the fact that Mayer is perhaps better known these days for his prolific and highly self-reflexive media presence. Indeed, there is nothing in Mayer’s music that might offer us insight into thought process behind the singer’s casual use of the ‘n’ word, the homophobic slur ‘fags’, and his comparison of his penis to a noted white supremacist in a recent interview. For this, we have to delve into Mayer’s extra-musical activities. It is little wonder that, in a culture that fetishizes fame and celebrity, Mayer should be devoting much of his energy to cultivating this attention through the traditional media and interactive social media devices. In this post, I will attempt to contextualize Mayer’s indiscretion and their aftermath in terms of his shift from a rock star who tweets to a meta-celebrity who also happens to play a mean guitar.

For the meta- Mayer, ‘access’ is the key. Mayer’s musical success generated interest in him, and the fans’ desire for access has been rewarded through Mayer’s ability to use Twitter, blogs (he has had as many as four), the conventional media (he has granted many interviews and written for magazines such as Esquire), television (he has done a half-hour comedy program and was in negotiations for a regular variety show). Through all of this, Mayer has devoted a tremendous amount of energy to self-expression and self-analysis. In a sense, Mayer has become his own cultural intermediary. He is a meta-star text sustained in large part by his own mediatory endeavors.

This may sound like a logical development, but I think that the controversy surrounding the Playboy interview illustrates the manner in which Mayer has reached the limits of this strategy. Reading between the lines of this interview, Mayer’s apparent candor begins to register as boredom. This, coupled with his apparent comfort with the interview dynamic appears to result in the aforementioned transgressions. In Mayer’s apparently impromptu concert apology, he accounted for these indiscretions as his lame attempts at trying to be clever. This rings true: For all of Mayer’s apparent intelligence and self-awareness, his remarks suggest that this was a restless individual engaging in a misguided attempt to come across as glib, witty, and a little bit edgy. It is here that Mayer’s under-determined status with respect to rock discourse might exert some influence upon the dynamic. It may be that Mayer’s “quest to be clever” is in part a function of his desire to model a certain degree of transgressiveness as a means to demonstrate his authenticity and legitimacy to communities that have been reluctant to acclaim him. Frequently portrayed as a ‘soft’ and superficial pop artist, these episodes ostensibly help to give Mayer an aura of hardness and depth that might distinguish Mayer from the feminized pop realm (or so he seems to think).

In his concert apology, he suggests that he developed the sense that he had ‘immunity’ in the media; he felt that he could say whatever he wanted to without repercussions. This excess of comfort led him to let his guard down, which resulted in the regrettable remarks. Interestingly, as Tim Slack points out, Mayer’s use of the ‘n’ word has garnered more media attention, but his use of term ‘fags’ may be more problematic. Mayer deploys this word in an attempt to elucidate the manner in which he feels that he is not part of the African-American community and would not presume to be. In contrast, the word ‘fags’ is tossed off in the context of a discussion of Mayer’s attempt to plant a deep kiss on Perez Hilton. It would seem that, in both cases, Mayer’s comfort level with the constituencies in question and the media dynamic, coupled with his desire to establish himself as edgy and transgressive, have prompted him to toss these words around. In this vein, his comparison of his penis to David Duke is perhaps most telling. Describing his approach to African-American women, Mayer states “My dick is sort of like a white supremacist. I’ve got a Benetton heart and a fuckin’ David Duke cock. I’m going to start dating separately from my dick.” This clearly does not reflect well on Mayer; these remarks are indefensible on the most essential level. Yet, I think that this statement also exemplifies the strange alchemy produced by the co-mingling of restlessness, comfort, and the desire to transgress and titillate that marks this interview. Mayer gives good copy and he gives a lot of it. His candor results in highly intelligent observations pertaining to his career, star status, and personal development. It also results in these highly regrettable remarks for which he has rightly faced criticism.

The fact that the sense of outrage is quickly dissipating may be less attributable to a collective comfort with these sorts of incidents and more to Mayer’s apparently earnest apologies in concert and on Twitter. In the concert clip, he discusses his hyperactive media activities and states that “I should have just given that all up and played the guitar a little bit more.” The crowd roars at this point, but one wonders if this can be an accurate reflection of who Mayer is. Is this truly sincere, or is it merely a different sort of authenticity claim?  After all, Mayer’s most cogent statement regarding the affair came on his Twitter feed where he offered a lucid and self-aware seven-post apology. There he refers to the fact that he has created a social media ‘monster’ in his attempts to confront the criticism he has received for his musical output and public life. In a frank and candid moment, Mayer re-states his initial ambition to be an artist and disavows his recent endeavors as a self-described ‘shock jock’.

This come across as sincere, yet this message also demonstrates the challenges involved in reconstituting Mayer’s social media self. that it will be difficult for Mayer to truly disconnect from the factors that contributed to this situation. In disseminating this message via Twitter and the viral concert video, Mayer has illustrated just how difficult it will be for this meta-celebrity to reduce his connectivity and reconfigure himself as a more conventional – and less interactive – sort of star. The irony is that, should Mayer be able to pull this move off, it might ultimately result in the public getting a better sense as to who he really is (or, who he really thinks he is). For now, it’s up to those who care to try to determine whether or not Mayer’s recent remarks represent an epic act of self-distortion, an honest expression of his sentiments, or something in between. The only certainty here is that Mayer’s indiscretions stand as a useful warning of the perils of excessive comfort, ennui, and exposure to those public figures who might become over-involved in the construction of their own star-texts.


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6 Responses to “ Dear John: On The Meta-Celebrity’s Misguided Attempt to be Clever ”

  1. Myles McNutt on February 19, 2010 at 8:27 PM

    I read this shortly after I witnessed Tiger Woods’ apology, in which he lamented how he had become entitled to temptations which surrounded him, leading to his transgressions. It made me think about Mayer’s comments, and really put them into context: Mayer was ostracized in the media for remarks he made in an interview, but Tiger by comparison was ostracized based on his actions. And what I found fascinating was that an apology felt like it could “save” Tiger’s career and social standing, whereas (as you note) it seems like Mayer has somehow dug himself a deeper hole because words, in this instance, are more complicated than any sort of action. You can go into sex therapy if you sleep around on your wife, but you can’t really go into therapy for occasionally letting your ego get the better of you and saying some things that you probably shouldn’t say in a public forum. And while Tiger’s infidelity temporarily shattered the privacy bubble he had constructed for himself, avoiding any sort of personal life leaking into his golf performance, Mayer (as you very nicely demonstrated) has worked so hard to construct his public image that the interview was not his first, nor his last, which makes retreating to a state of quiet self-reflection is pretty much impossible.

    I think that the interviewer (>who wrote a piece about the furor regarding the review on The Daily Beast) has it right that Mayer was as much the victim of his favoured medium as he was of his big mouth: in the context of the nearly 7000-word interview, his comments probably made sense, but all that got posted (for the most part) were choice quotes or excerpts, the kind of bits and pieces that work well in 140 characters. And so Mayer’s attempts to be self-aware and honest become cherry-picked in order to create a more sensationalist story. Of course, since his comments were insensitive and poorly phrased regardless of context, he has reason to come out and apologize, but there’s a cruel irony that the same sort of shortened, quick form of communication that Mayer relied on to construct his online identity ended up distilling that interview into sound bytes that had him backtracking.

    Personally, I think Mayer heard the name Playboy, heard the questions being asked, and decided that if there was any place to be candid about those kinds of questions then Playboy would seem like the logical place. I read another response from Melinda Newman who noted that Mayer had been oversharing in interviews for years, just never with outlets who could actually print what he was saying.

    [And just on one final note: Mayer’s reputation clearly wasn’t that great before the interview, as NBC’s Parks and Recreation had a joke at Mayer’s expense (in which Leslie Knope warned Jennifer Aniston to stay away from him) that happened to air only days after the interview broke, despite having been taped long before.]

  2. Jonathan Gray on February 19, 2010 at 8:55 PM

    Saw this on Huffington Post just now: The 9 Douchiest Things John Mayer Has Ever Said (though perhaps he’s okay till they can round it out to 10?);-)

  3. Christopher Cwynar on February 19, 2010 at 9:33 PM

    Thanks for the link, Jonathan. There are some real gems in there. I was particularly amused by the extended crayon box metaphor. Those quotations demonstrate beyond a doubt that Mayer is both highly intelligent and extremely egotistical. He cannot or, more likely, will not filter himself when he is engaging in the public sphere. It appears that this is finally beginning to take a toll on his image. It seems that he is perceived now less as a transgressive rock star than as a womanizing douchebag (pardon the expression) who loves him some him. These two qualities are not normally mutually exclusive, but it seems as though Mayer’s meta-rock star act has created a distinctive brand of excess that is not to most people’s tastes. It can’t be taken seriously in rock terms and it can’t be reconciled with his pop career, either.

    I really like Myles’ comparison to the Tiger Woods phenomenon. To my mind, there are some similarities here, but there are also some key differences. Tiger appears to have betrayed his wife’s trust and violated the sanctity of his marriage. These acts do not go over well in America. At the same time, Tiger can be understood as a victim of his appetites. He is taking the steps now to work with those elements of himself and, in the process, is positioning himself to play a starring role in a major new iteration of the classic American redemption tale. As has been pointed out by many, his image depends upon a certain sort of moral fabric and he appears to be committed to repairing that cloth as best he can.

    This makes for an interesting contrast with Mayer. He is a confirmed bachelor whose exploits form a large part of the legend that he has worked so hard to make. His indiscretions smack not of an excess of appetite – his work effectively encourages that sort of thing – but a sense of ennui and a lack of judgment. He comes across as a loose canon with a sharp intellect and a notable lack of sense and focus. Tiger can be redeemed because he still retains a connection to those skills and accomplishments for which he was so admired and upon which he made his name. In contrast, Mayer’s considerable skills as a composer and performer were long ago subsumed by his star text project, which was effectively a celebrity sideshow with its own meta-discourse. If we ever collectively cared about John Mayer – and this is debatable – we may now be too far away from that initial feeling to even bother to pick up on his efforts to make amends.

    I like the way that you brought in the public/private dynamic. It is true that Tiger’s indiscretions were initially private, whereas Mayer made his in spectacular fashion in the fifth estate. Tiger’s public apology thus carries a certain sense of weight; the public figure acknowledges that his private life has an impact on the way that his fans perceive him and moves to address this. In contrast, Mayer’s graceful apology has the unfortunate fate of coming across as just another tweet.

    Finally, thanks for your observations regarding the manner in which the interview was conducted and then prepared for publication. Those details certainly help to explain the events in question. It seems to me that it is a bit of journalistic sleight of hand to edit an interview and then print it as a straight Q & A. With a profile piece, editing is generally assumed. With this sort of thing, I think it is easier for some readers to consume it uncritically as an accurate transcript of the conversation.

  4. Annie Petersen on February 22, 2010 at 11:09 AM

    While I absolutely agree with you that Mayer ‘over-played’ his hand in this particular interview, I do think that Mayer’s strategy of media engagement — generating an aura of authenticity through ‘direct’ and constant engagement with Twitter — demonstrate his general awareness of the way that the celebrity game is, and must, be played today. He knows that ‘good copy’ gets press — good and bad — and that it will only direct more attention his way — the ultimate currency in today’s celebrity game.

    When I wrote about Mayer on my blog (available here: I speculated that this particular interview will have no actual effect on Mayer’s ability to sell records. It may momentarily create negative feelings towards him, lowering his overall Q-score, but it’s very doubtful that it will actually impinge upon record or concert ticket sales. This sort of reckless honesty has long been part of his image, so the disclosure of slightly more incendiary commentary does little to alter that established image. Woods, on the other hand, had such an inelastic image that the scandal basically led him to implode.

    Finally, I appreciate that you bring up the fact that this is a Playboy interview. Very few commentaries have noted the fact that this interview, if given even five years ago, would never have gone viral, and most likely would never have even been in public discourse. Playboy was once the provenance of highly private disclosures allowing men to feel part of a larger locker room — see, for example, John Wayne’s equally incendiary interview with Playboy in the ’70s. The fact that a Playboy interview is now readily accessible to anyone online further underlines the ways in which the celebrity game — and the expectation of openness — have changed.

  5. Lawson on April 5, 2010 at 6:49 AM

    Hi everyone, brilliant discussion – I was just wondering if anyone has any general academic sources on self-reflexive celebrities like Mayer? I’m working on something similar with other celebrities at the moment, and would appreciate reading around it.

    • Annie Petersen on April 5, 2010 at 11:10 AM

      I’d suggest taking a look at P. David Marshall’s recent piece in the first issue of Celebrity Studies — it’s on self-presentation and Twitter, but expands nicely to include cases like Mayer’s.