Music at Mars Hill is a weekly column by Luke Larsen that seeks to find God amidst the newest trends in both mainstream music and independent music.
John Mayer has been presented as the savior of pop music for quite sometime now. He is the “serious” musician—the guy who can actually play an instrument and write a tune himself. And to be totally honest, at the height of boy band, Britney-mania, Mayer’s 2001 debut album Room for Squares felt like a refreshing new way to do pop. Because, despite his dabbling in blues in the John Mayer Trio days and the release of his new country/folk-influenced album, Mayer has always been a pop star first and foremost.
Being a pop star has meant a very different thing for Mayer than it probably has for his fans. First off, it means he has gone to the pits of PR hell—fallen from grace enough times to keep his name in the tabloid headlines for years. His infamous interview with Playboy magazine where he shared a bit too much about his personal sex life was enough in itself to cause an uproar in the media. I think it’s fair to say that this guy hasn’t dealt with unexpected fame and money in what we would consider “healthy” ways. But something about the persona of John Mayer and similar characters (looking at you, Kanye West) have always fascinated me.
After all, celebrities who were raised from their childhood to be stars would never be caught dead saying the things these guys say. They would know that Grammy Awards don’t really mean anything and are no reason to cause a fuss. They would know that just because you’re talking to Playboy magazine, it doesn’t mean you should talk in detail about your sexual relationship with Jessica Simpson. But John Mayer didn’t grow up in the limelight. He hasn’t always followed the rules of celebrity. At this point, I’m not even sure if he’s aware of them.
Despite a long hiatus and a change in style, in his newest album, Born and Raised, John Mayer remains a tried-and-true pop star. However, something about this album differs from anything he’s ever put out. Perhaps American Songwriter said it best: “Mayer approaches Born and Raised like a method actor, diving headfirst in his new sound.” His sugary singer-songwriter mentality keeps the songs accessible and catchy, but there’s a calmer and more controlled feel to Born and Raised. It almost feels non-intrusive—almost uneventful.
Thematically, in Born and Raised, Mayer looks back at the past and imagines a different life for himself. Perhaps a life growing up in a quiet home and living a normal existence—perhaps one where his mistakes weren’t broadcast for the world to see. In one interview, he talked about how he felt like he needed to start acting his age—even if that meant stepping away from the limelight for a few years. Born and Raised is about Mayer trying to regain a little of that life he never got a chance to live.
The long hair, the slide guitars, the move to Montana, the cowboy hat—on the outside it all seems rather forced. After all, maybe he’s just going through the motions. But Born and Raised feels like a deliberate step back from the limelight in itself. You won’t find any Taylor Swift guest spots or big radio-ready singles here—just Mayer’s quiet refusal to be crushed under the weight of celebrity.