Track of the Week: John Mayer "Who Says"

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 19 2009 1:47 PM

Track of the Week: John Mayer "Who Says"


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Jody Rosen

: Jonah, let's cut to the chase: John Mayer is a douchebag. Or, rather, he's a meta-douchebag—a guy who's smart enough, self-aware enough, to know that he's a douchebag, and to meditate on douchebaggery and its discontents in his music.

And so we turn to "Who Says," the first single from Mayer's fourth album, Battle Studies . It's lovely little folk-pop soft-shoe, very catchy and, at just 2 minutes 56 seconds long, compact. It's the confession of a dope-smoking roué: "Who says I can't get stoned?/ Call up a girl that I used to know/ Fake love for an hour or so/ Who says I can't get stoned?"

What I love about this song is the way it both epitomizes and subverts its genre. In musical terms, it's the supreme example of the John Mayer/Dave Matthews/Jack Johnson/Jason Mraz frat-dude romantic balladeering style—what Elvis Costello once called the "Fuck me, I'm sensitive" school of seduction. It's all there: the sing-songy limpidness of the melody, the gently brushed acoustic guitar chords, the slightly husky man-child vocals. By the time Mayer hits the first chorus, you can hear the sound of white girls falling out of their clothes on campuses across the country. But in "Who Says," Mayer pulls back the curtain—moves "Fuck me, I'm sensitive" from subtext to text, and cops to being a cad. "I don't remember you looking any better," Mayer coos, "But then again, I don't remember you."

That's a very funny line. Which makes sense: Mayer's a funny guy. (Do some Googling: check out Mayer horsing around with Kanye West in the recording studio, and modeling Borat's onesie swimsuit .) Sadly, Mayer almost never brings his sense of humor into the recording studio. So we're left with a bunch of solemn songs about "love" and "politics" and lots of virtuoso guitar noodling. Take a gander at the Battle Studies cover photo , with Mayer bundled up against the cold, gazing grimly into the middle distance. This is the death-haunted look of a man doomed to shoulder the "serious pop" legacy of Sting and Mark Knopfler. What a pity—when he sings about smoking grass and shagging groupies, he's good!

Jonah Weiner: I'll grant that this is the first time I've seen Mayer inject his sense of humor—on delightful display over the years at his blog, in his Esquire column, on his Twitter feed, and, indeed, in his Borat onesie—into his music. I haven't listened closely to anything but his singles, and even then, not always that closely, but he's always seemed much smarter, funnier and cheekier than his music lets on. This song brings the two personalities together in a way that, as you say, has a subversive effect.

Let's make that borderline subversive, though. If you want to see the "Fuck Me, I'm Sensitive" school of balladeers torpedoed, you should dial up Cock Lorge's " Cock in the Pussy ," which would be vile if it didn't function as a giant wink/sneer at songs like " Your Body Is a Wonderland ." It's affectingly hushed, gently strummed, deeply felt—it just so happens that the refrain goes, "My cock's in your pussy, my cock's in your pussy, baby." (There's also a killer synthesized steel-drum solo.)

Mayer pulls back a curtain here, but I don't love what's on the other side of it any more than I love Asher Roth's " I Love College " or LMFAO's " Shots "—which is to say, just 'cause someone's more up front about his douchebaggery doesn't mean he's any less douchely.

Also, you can't judge a song by its video, but the clip for "Who Says" irritates me precisely because it offsets scenes of Blue Ribbon-munching, 1Oak (or wherever) dancing, high-heels-in-the-swimming-pool debauchery with shots of bleary-eyed, just-a-guy-and-his-guitar, early-morning reckoning. Puh-leeze. In a way, the video doubles down on the douche, pulling the curtain back to reveal another curtain. Am I being too crotchety?

J.R. : Gosh, Jonah, I never took you for a playa hater.

First of all, there's a world of difference between "Who Says" and "Shots." Mayer's being wry, here. There's wit in his song, not to mention some self-deprecation, even if that self-deprecation is a hustle—a pickup line masquerading as modesty.

As for the cheesy video: I kind of like it. Look, the guy is flossing. "Who Says" is Mayer's version of every hip-hop video ever made—the model chicks, the booze flowing, the nightclub, the swimming pool. Because he's John Mayer and not T.I., it's a slightly more "tasteful," down-market vision. (Fewer rims .) The moody, bleary-eyed stuff is merely a genre convention, no more or less intrinsically lame than the morning-after tableaux in a thousand R & B videos: brooding Lothario, strewn silk sheets, empty champagne bottles. So why are you being extra hard on Mayer? Is it because his posse looks slightly more like yours than T.I.'s does—because you've sat at that same corner table at Blue Ribbon?

I'm not singling you out, by the way. It strikes me that Mayer and his ilk get an especially tough time from critics. Sensitive white boy singer-songwriters with easy-listening proclivities and Berklee College of Music-honed chops—they're not exactly rock critic bait. Even in these poptimistic times, it's still socially acceptable to reflexively dismiss the Mayers of the world. So I'll say one more nice thing about him: the guy can write some tunes .

J.W.: Sorry, can't load those links right now, the WiFi in this private lounge on the fourth-floor of the Spotted Pig is really dodgy.

Hmm. Why am I harder on Mayer than his bon-vivant hip-hop equivalent? I'll think aloud. For one thing, I'm of course capable of reactions other than pure vicarious glee when it comes to blinged-out hip-hop and R & B video conventions. (I think the Kanye/Spike Jonze short film is a haunting critique of same). Beyond that, my instinct is to question the possibility of a true hip-hop equivalent for Mayer—I want to argue that a make-it-rain celebration in a T.I. song/video (however problematically women often figure into such fantasies) speaks from a different, more sympathetic, more interesting place than a me-and-my-Zegna-rocking-bros-getting-our-haute-bro-on celebration in a John Mayer video. Club scenes in hip-hop videos are, among other things, fantasies of power and privilege, and I guess—very broadly speaking—that I prefer to watch a former Atlanta drug dealer and his pals fantasize about power and privilege than Mayer and his dude-crew celebrating theirs.

But maybe you're right, and this distinction I'm drawing is ultimately unfair and insupportable—maybe if I tried to chase it down and get my arms around it I'd come up empty. I do know that I don't want to go out a playa hater. Floss and floss alike, I guess!

 

Jonah Weiner is Slate's pop critic.

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