Jennifer Aniston. White supremacy. Taylor Swift. Heroin. These are all things that may come to mind upon hearing the name John Mayer (if you are unfamiliar with any of these, google them). To the casual observer, Mayer is a guy who has put together a pretty successful pop career while providing the tabloids with plenty of material. However, in my first ever VandyRadio blog post (woot woot!), I would like to argue that John Mayer is in fact one of the greatest artists of his generation.
Now, I could throw some fact at you about Grammy’s and how many albums he has sold, but to me John’s greatness rests in two things that many people do not recognize. First, this man is ridiculously good at guitar. If anyone has ever moved beyond Mayer’s albums and checked out his live stuff on YouTube, they have undoubtedly run into this. The Where the Light Is concert is absolutely breathtaking. It quite literally changed my life. It involves Mayer playing three different sets- an acoustic set, a blues set with the John Mayer Trio, and a pop set with his full band. I would highly recommend watching the entire thing sometime. However, if you don’t have two and half hours to spare, I would recommend watching one song from each set- Neon, Out of My Mind, and Gravity.
Each song represents a different aspect of what makes Mayer such a good musician and guitar player. On the acoustic, he shows off some ridiculous, jaw-dropping fingerpicking techniques. With the Trio, you get an unfiltered Mayer absolutely shredding on the electric guitar. And finally, the pop set shows that John flat out knows how to write and build songs, something that many people take for granted. After watching this concert a solid 6 or 7 times over the years (excessive? I think not), I’ve come away with the impression that John Mayer has that it factor. Let me explain. Every great musician puts a certain brand on their music to the point that, once you hear those first notes, you can immediately recognize the artist. For me, John Mayer has created his own distinct style, and that is a mark of a great musician.
The second reason why I consider John Mayer to be one of the greatest artists of his generation is because of the transformation he has undergone as a musician. Specifically, I’m talking about his two most recent albums, Born and Raised and Paradise Valley in which Mayer takes a turn towards folk in the likes of Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. To many people, when an artist changes his or her style, it is considered selling out- think Maroon 5 Songs About Jane and Maroon 5 now. To an extent, I agree with this. I think there are many bands who become more pop-oriented in order to sell more albums. However, Mayer’s embrace of folk music is different in that he is moving towards a less popular style. This isn’t the indie folk of Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers. It’s much more organic and reflective of early Western music.
You may be asking yourself, so what? How does this make him great? For me, it shows that he is growing as a musician. Mayer is eager to explore new influences and has learned to appreciate many different styles of music. Sure, you can be like Pitbull and come out with a bunch of similar-sounding singles that reach the top of the charts. But that’s not what music is about. Music is about discovery, innovation, creativity. It’s about finding unique ways to express your feelings. This doesn’t come through stagnation; it comes through exploration and change. This is exactly what John Mayer is doing.
With that, I encourage you to go explore some of John Mayer’s music that you haven’t heard before. Check out Born and Raised. Go on YouTube and watch some live performances. Try and find some recent interviews where he doesn’t mention white supremacy. And next time you hear a John Mayer song, stop for a second and appreciate it. After all, you’re listening to a once-in-a-generation talent.