John Mayer plays the fame game like a champ

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Steve Johnson | Boulder Weekly

I don’t own a single John Mayer CD or even a single single.

I’m not going to see him in concert at Chicago’s United
Center next April. My mind wanders during lengthy guitar solos, especially when
it’s far from the stage in hockey arenas, behind hordes of rabid women in their
20s.

And I would pay extra to never again hear that song of his
about fathers being good to their daughters, a tune that I suspect Mayer wrote
mostly so he could drive wedges into father-daughter relationships nationwide.

Yet I have become a fan of the Connecticut bluesman for
reasons that are only tangentially related to his music. While he is a fine
guitar player, he’s a borderline virtuoso at handling fame.

At 32, Mayer seems to view being a celebrity as an
interesting challenge, rather than a birthright or a heavy burden. To the
extent that anything in the gossip pages can be smart and interesting, the
soft-rock superstar has managed to be smart and interesting.

On Twitter, he’s prolific and as good as many of the writers
I follow. After the mini-scandal in Australia when people got upset that
Britney Spears appeared to be “miming” lyrics, as they phrase it Down
Under, Mayer Tweeted: “If you’re shocked that Britney was lip-syncing at
her concert and want your money back, life may continue to be hard for
you.”

When a New York Magazine reporter, at a party for an Armani
home furnishings store last month, asked him about health care and the public
option, he responded: “Have you ever heard me play guitar? I’m really
(expletive) good. You know what I’m bad at? Answering questions about public
health care.”

And on a cruise for fans last year, he came out on deck in a
lime-green singlet thong, read a copy of US Weekly, and asked passengers on the
“Mayercraft Carrier” to send the photos of him looking like an
Eastern European wrestler in to the magazine.

While he has dated actresses including Jennifer Aniston and
Jessica Simpson, he also made out with the gay gossip blogger Perez Hilton in
public, and, after he won a Grammy in 2003, said with apparent genuine
humility, “This is very, very fast, and I promise to catch up.”

There’s a caveat to being overly charmed by this. Celebrity
is a kind of public performance, and, following from our distance, we can make
only undereducated guesses at what’s really going on. What plays as engaging
and amusing in the snippets that trickle down to the public might be caddish in
the full context of real life.

He could have been lousy to Aniston. She could have been
lousy to him. They could be, like other people who tried it and found it didn’t
work, friends. We have no idea.

As great as Mayer’s New York Magazine quote is — every
celebrity asked about politics should have a version of it at the ready — the
full interview transcript reveals more of an edge to the conversation.
Apparently trying to be funny, he belittles questions, makes a reference to his
personal parts, even suggests he should defile the editor who sent the reporter
out to ask such questions.

“It was probably 25 percent vicious, maybe, and
attacking, and the rest, maybe, was tongue in cheek,” said Christianna
Ablahad, the free-lance party reporter for the magazine who asked the
questions. “There was an aspect of it that was cruel, I feel, and
authentic, like when a boy pulls girl’s pigtails. Even when he’s playing, he’s
pulling too hard.”

Afterward, she said, the singer-songwriter’s publicist told
her, “I told you he wasn’t ready for those types of questions.”

Mayer’s publicist did not respond to a request to have him
talk to me about his public persona. He has a new CD out, “Battle
Studies.” It just went to No. 1, and he’s touring behind it and is
probably much more interested in talking about why he covered a Robert Johnson
tune. It wasn’t to tweak TMZ, apparently.

But as part of the publicity ramp-up, he did let ABC’s
“Nightline” tail him in New York for a piece that aired last week.

In it, Mayer asks, “Is there such a thing as paparazzi
if you’ve already got a crew with you?”

He rejects the assertion that his dates with famous women
are extraordinary.

Like other 32-year-olds, he says, he’s trying to figure out
who his “mate” will be and when he’ll settle down.

And, touching on the street-theater aspect of his persona,
he says: “I have this incredibly, just, like, voracious need to express.
That’s just what I am. Look, I might be a little jazz-handy.”

For his candor, Mayer gets to hear the “Nightline”
reporter call him “offbeat.”

It’s the sort of adjective, almost belittling, that gets applied
to people who don’t do the expected.

But from my perch in the cheap seats, where other young
celebrities affect a world-weariness that derives, I suspect, from an authentic
emptiness, let me urge Mayer: Keep those jazz hands waving.

Steve Johnson writes for the Chicago Tribune. Via
McClatchy-Tribune News Service.