Enjoying Music by Terrible People — Even John Mayer — Never Makes You a Bad Person


John Mayer, bless him, has a new album out. As ever with Mayer, it comes with a side-serving of drama; he hasn’t said anything racist this time around, but the lead single may or may not be about Taylor Swift, and there are innumerable column inches devoted to what the record says about his relationship with Katy Perry. Sigh. The fact that Mayer can never be less than controversial has clearly gotten his fans feeling somewhat sensitive, so much so that The Atlantic published an article entitled, “Enjoying John Mayer’s New Album Does Not Make You a Bad Person.” Does it?

I don’t know John Mayer any more than you do, but he does seem like, well, a bit of a knob — this is the guy who memorably told Playboy that “my dick is sort of like a white supremacist,” and once said that he “[equates] dating a woman with punishment, shame, guilt, disappointment, reproach, reprimand, persecution.” Mayer isn’t the first artist to be a kinda shitty person, of course, and he won’t be the last — there’s something self-absorbed about self-expression, after all, and something inherently narcissistic about standing up on a stage and demanding that people listen to you expressing yourself. The debate about divorcing the art from the artist is as old as art itself, but really, it’s not a debate at all — you either like the art in question or you don’t.

With some artists, the process of liking the art is fairly easy, given that the artist’s personality doesn’t affect their work in an overtly recognizable manner. You can luxuriate in the wonderful music of Beethoven, say, without ever knowing that he was a legendarily cantankerous old bastard. Similarly, you can marvel at the imposing power of Wagner without knowing he was a raging anti-semite. You can even sing along to Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll,” a simple ode to the joys of rock and roll, and divorce yourself from the fact that he’s a recidivist pedophile.

With people like Mayer, it’s more difficult, because his songs are basically all about him and his life, and remain so with this record. The Atlantic, in fairness, acknowledge this — “In the old debate about separating the art from the artist, Mayer’s case is more nuanced because the two are so intertwined… his lyrics are often viscerally, clearly autobiographical.” Well, yeah. But then their writer goes on to argue that, hey, it doesn’t matter: “Mayer is embracing a persona that comfortably distances him and us from the Mayer of 2010… call it fake or forced, but in trying to separate artist from art, he’s giving us the out.”

Nope. Not when we’re talking about a man who dated someone 15 years his junior and then wrote a song that’s unabashedly about their relationship: “Paper Doll,” which just happens to be this album’s lead single and contains the line “You should have kept my undershirt.” Not when he previously derided her for doing the same thing, calling it “cheap songwriting.” Not when he’s also included his current girlfriend, Katy Perry, on this album, in a ballad so saccharine you could bottle it and put NutraSweet out of business forever. Mayer’s personality and personal life are as wrapped up in his lyrics as ever.

None of this, of course, is to say that enjoying his new record makes you a “bad person.” It makes you a person who likes guitar pyrotechnics — Mayer is, as The Atlantic point out, a very fine guitarist — and also sickly sweet love songs about celebrities. If that’s your bag, then you don’t need to spend a thousand words justifying it. I enjoy the music of Lou Reed, whose songs are also often clearly autobiographical, and whose notorious unpleasantness I have firsthand experience with. I even play Ted “I told Obama to suck on my machine gun” Nugent’s “Cat Scratch Fever” once in a while. It’s one of the enduring mysteries of creativity that people who are assholes can nevertheless make great art.

Whether you count Mayer among their number is ultimately subjective, nothing more, nothing less. The curious thing about The Atlantic‘s argument seems to be that without Mayer “giving us an out,” there would be some sort of moral ambiguity about enjoying his music. This is nonsense, really. There’s perhaps an argument to be made that giving financial support to an artist who’s an actual criminal is morally wrong — I won’t be buying up Gary Glitter’s back catalog any time soon, put it that way — but beyond that, who you choose to listen to is entirely up to you.

If you want to listen to John Mayer, then for goodness sake, go right ahead. You’re listening to the music of a man who’s one of many people in the music industry who’s probably not a particularly good person. You’re not going to hell for it — unless, of course, you consider hell to be a place where you have to hear “Your Body Is a Wonderland” multiple times, in which case, you’re already there.