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What’s Your Plan, John Mayer?

Four steps to get everyone’s favorite adult-contemporary guitar virtuoso back on track

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

John. John! John. It’s been … wow, John, it’s been a while. You are — John Mayer is — almost 40 now. Which is amazing. Think of it this way: Babies (kids, but smaller) that were born from people listening to Room for Squares (they weren’t only listening to it — I’ll explain later) can drive now in some states. And I don’t mean to tell you that to make you feel old, John; I’m telling you that because you should feel great. You’ve stuck around. You’ve endured. Like: No one’s walking around sharing origin stories about how their parents fucked to Howie Day. You have become, and I don’t say this lightly, a genuine part of the American pop iconography. Think of all of your top-10 hits. (Well, you haven’t had any, but, I mean — think of them.) Think of all of your virtuoso (just some word I found online) guitar playing. Think of your career-destroying interviews. Think of — you did stand-up comedy once, I’m pretty sure. Think of that. You’re a rock star, and a polymath, and a style icon, and so much more, depending on what some of those words mean.

And anyway, John, as your friend — we’re friends, right? I still listen to “Bigger Than My Body” sometimes, I like the part about the person being bigger than their body — it’s important to me that you hit your 40s in full stride. I want you to, a lot. And if I can be honest with you for a second: lately … I just don’t know. You’re showing up at the Emmys and making guitar faces unannounced. You’re launching a jewelry line that looks like middle school (or not). You’re — “his profile is a slide show of photos set to a Neil Young song” — on Raya. John, here are your sales figures for each album, from least to most recent: 4.5 million; 3.0 million; 2.8 million; 1.1 million; 500,000; 300,000. Here are the Google Trend results for your name, from 2004 to 2016: [graph pointing inexorably to zero]. Here is the display image that pops up when I search for “John Mayer”:

John? You seem a little adrift.

And when I feel adrift — well: I make a plan. Here’s yours:

1. We need a hit.

I mentioned this earlier, John, but I think it’s worth repeating: You’ve never had a top-10 hit. Let me be clear: We want — we need — that hit. For you, sure, but for both of us. For everyone. I mean: If your career ended today, do you know what your biggest hit ever would be? IT WOULD BE “SAY,” JOHN. Fucking “Say” — which peaked at (Jesus Christ …) no. 12 in (Jesus Christ …) 2007. (For the record: “Your Body Is a Wonderland” peaked at no. 18 — maybe the least successful “song everyone knows” ever.) John, this is bad. It’s embarrassing at best.

And it simply can’t stand. But on the bright side? You’ve already gotten the hardest part over with: Everyone thinks you’re a sellout. Now all you have to do is actually sell out.

Here’s the plan, it’s two words, they both start with m, it’s not “Mayer’s Metal Machine Music,” that’s four words, OK, here they are, you’re going to love them: Max Martin. Let’s get your next single on the suburbs-trop-house workout plan. People will love it. Your exes will hate it. Done and done.

2. Let’s make a covers album.

Notice, in the section above, that I said “next single” and not “next album.” That was on purpose. And it’s because your next album isn’t going to be an album at all. Or at least: It isn’t going to have any John Mayer songs on it. We’re going to make a covers album. I can already tell you hate this — but before you reject it out of hand, please hear me out.

I have three data points to share with you: (A) 148,302,000, (B) 110,151,000, and (C) 84,051,000. Point A is the total Spotify streams for the song “Free Fallin’ (Tom Petty cover) — Live at the Nokia Theatre” by John Mayer. Point B is the total Spotify streams for the song “XO (Beyoncé cover)” by John Mayer. And Point C is the total Spotify streams for the song “Who Says” by John Mayer — the highest Spotify-stream total for a John Mayer original. Some conclusions: First, there is a John Mayer song called “Who Says.” Second, no one really likes John Mayer songs. And third, people love “John Mayer songs.” By which I mean: People love the idea of John Mayer songs. Or rather, they love the idea of John Mayer singing their favorite songs — none of which are by John Mayer.

Your instinct here is going to be to take offense; but please, John, resist. Think about what an enviable position you’re in: One hundred and fifty million times, someone in the world has been on Spotify; has wanted to hear the American musical recording “Free Fallin’” … and has clicked on the version by — I’m not making this up — John Mayer. For comparison: Tom Petty’s own, original version of “Free Fallin’” has been streamed 55,022,000 times — 37 percent of your total. JOHN: MORE PEOPLE ON SPOTIFY HAVE LISTENED TO “XO” BY YOU THAN HAVE LISTENED TO “XO” BY BEYONCÉ. And while I can’t and won’t defend that, and while I’m more than a little mortified by it, and while it’s (sorry, John) insane … it’s also an opportunity. There is a sizable chunk of people out there, who, for whatever reason, when they hear a good song — their first impulse is to wonder: “Is there is a boring acoustic cover of this song?” John, my dude: Let’s serve the people. A covers album is just the ticket.

3. Date Taylor Swift Great Again.

Call me crazy, but I think this plays. So often with celebrity couples, and then later with celebrity breakups, we get preoccupied over semantic categorizations like “hero” and “villain.” With every couple, we always want one of each. And on some level, sure — that makes sense. It tells a story. But there’s one small problem: That’s not how it works in real life. Have you ever been sitting in a coffee shop, or wherever, next to some couple that’s breaking up … and all you can think to yourself is, “Wait — no. Don’t do this. You’re both exactly equally terrible. You deserve each other”? Maybe that sounds mean, but I prefer to think of it as actually kind of romantic. Like: They belong together. They’re soul mates. Who cares what their souls are made of?

Anyway, John, I think that’s you and Taylor Swift. All this time, we were taking notes, keeping score, trying to tally up who between you was worse. But what if the ultimate twist … is that you both were worse? That you’re both the villain. Wouldn’t that be soooooooo romantic? OK, fine, I won’t play dumb: I understand your reluctance here. This is a pretty bold initiative. But — peace to Raya, peace to Orlando Bloom’s penis, peace to Jennifer Aniston’s healthy marriage to the Hot Cop — I still think it’s worth a shot. You could teach Taylor how to use Instagram like an adult. Taylor could teach you how to make songs people enjoy. And besides: She’s already written her masterpiece about you. There’s literally nothing to lose.

4. Embrace your true genius.

This last one, as we plan for your future, is the most important step. Because, look: Are you a genius, John? Yeah — you are. You’re just … not a musical genius. You’re a genius at being a celebrity. And you need to embrace this distinction.

Here are some recent acts of John Mayer genius that I think you should consider doubling down on:

  • Dropping a signature line of laundry detergent. Dropping a signature line of laundry detergent — “Out West” (OK) — was extremely strong Celebrity Mayer. Projecting forward, I don’t think a John Mayer line of shampoo would feel at all like an imposition. Frankly, I would be in for a whole bathroom line. Let’s expand into home goods: Collab with Urban Outfitters, or Target, or — wait what about — John Mayer x CB2. Yeah, that’s perfect. We’re all set here.
  • Poké-ing. My first instinct was to call this Bad Mayer, but on closer examination, it is Good Mayer.
  • Getting super into Tame Impala. Tame Impala is an excellent band that exists mostly so that celebrities can say, “Tame Impala is an excellent band.” Comparing the most recent Tame Impala record to “Phoenix 2008” is astonishing celebrity work.
  • Playing in the Emmys house band. Shredding along to “The Thrill Is Gone” — as co–Swift ex Tom Hiddleston hit the stage and America collectively asked, “What’s John Mayer’s motivation? Like, at this moment, but also in life?” — was, in no uncertain terms, king shit. Let’s put together a quick “John Mayer smugly plays in random house bands across the country” pop-up tour. Only secret shows, only smugly, only house bands.
  • Taking a political stand on Instagram feed chronology. Giving a shit about Instagram’s algorithm policies is probably the most pure and uncut form of celebrity political expression this decade. I hate how overused the word “brave” is, but this was brave.
  • Going through a cult Berlin streetwear phase. John Mayer Shirt Phases, ranked: (10) tank tops, (9) 2000s vintage Ts, (8) no shirt, (7) miscellany, (6) cult Berlin streetwear tees, (5) dress shirts, (4) plain white tees, (3) henley undershirts, (2) denim button-downs, (1) black pocket tees.
  • Having to clear up a “you own two of everything Visvim has ever made” rumor. Having to clear up a rumor that you own three of everything Visvim has ever made would feel ostentatious, and having to clear up a rumor that you own one of everything Visvim has ever made would feel austere. Having to clear up a rumor that you own two of everything Visvim has ever made feels just right.

Which is all really to say: John … you’re doing great. You’ve mitigated your failures, and you’ve pivoted to your strengths. You’ve faded out of one self, and into another. F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives.” But he only finished four novels — and you’ve made six albums and blogged for a watch enthusiast website, so fuck him who cares. This is your second act, John. It’s happening, right now. And it’s beautiful. So just trust it, and don’t blow it, and let’s talk again when you’re 80. I also listen to the song “Gravity” a lot, I like the part about gravity. Please remember to follow the plan.