Every review of Battle Studies has mentioned the dichotomy between John Mayer’s music and his personality. His music—ballads of soft wonder—seems to clash with his kooky, frenetic, self-gratifying , outspoken, cocky persona. His tales of chasing tail, accompanied by his arrogant, rambling observations on all manner of life have led him to be labeled a douchebag—indeed, this adjective is routinely so affixed to his name that it’s hard to fathom anything else he should be called. He’s even said that he wants to repurpose the word, to own it, if it’s going to describe him.
Battle Studies is his most engaging album since his 2001 debut, Room for Squares. His personality might have taken over his music the last few years, just as his ever-changing looks have come to define his erratic mindset, but the reason why he remains so popular is intact. Battle Studies offers the same wistfulness, the same longing and defiance that marked his earlier albums, but this time both his personality and art reflect each other.
It’s not totally fair that Mayer is best known for breaking Jennifer Aniston’s heart, something that he acknowledges in recent interviews in RollingStone and Playboy. Both publications, in fact, boast incredibly candid and eye-opening features on the man, a guy who is not lacking in public forums to express himself. Mayer is one of Twitter’s most popular users, with over three million followers; many of his tweets have reached a wider audience thanks to being endlessly repeated for their audacity. Mayer certainly has odd things to say, but he often comments on women and relationships (and not in the Oprah vein), topics that most appreciate. He has a Tumblr, a blog, where he recently dismantled a TMZ “expose”, plus he’s endeared himself by guest-starring on Saturday Night Live and Chappelle’s Show, in addition to just popping up for some fun.
In fact, the more I read his thoughts and hear his opinions, the more I can’t help but love him. Seriously. Rereading both the Playboy and RollingStone pieces, every few sentences I paused to ask: How do you not love John Mayer?
It didn’t matter if he was talking about how fucking Jessica Simpson was a drug, then backtracking to apologize to Aniston’s hypothetical responses, or riffing on sex and masturbation and girls and his ideal relationship, and how he’ll fuck it up. Seriously, how do you not love him?
I realize for many this is a stupid question. But he is cocky, he is funny, he is self aware, he is just all sorts of fun, and that is very attractive. I liked most of Mayer’s music before, even appreciated it (his willingness to write “love songs for no one” in particular), but found some of his biggest hits really lame, songs like “Your Body Is a Wonderland” and “Daughters” that even he is uncomfortable with representing him.
But as his public persona has gotten bigger, it seems to many that his music just doesn’t fit. He’s taken to pronouncements of random topics, and his mind runs a mile a minute, yet his music is slow, adult contemporary at its best. But Battle Studies very much aligns with where he is in his life, his philosophy toward women, relationships, and life. “I have this bond with infinite possibility,” he says in Playboy, “I want to be with myself, still, and lie in bed only with the infinite unknown. That’s 32, man.”
There is a definite tone in Battle Studies that embodies this, even in the world-weary first single, “Who Says”, similar to “Waiting on the World to Change,” the first single off his last album, Continuum. Overall, Battle Studies is about a guy who is contemplating his life—in many of the songs, from “Who Says” to “Perfectly Lonely”, he is comfortable being alone, yet roaming the streets, taking in everything (like the video for the former.)
Mayer is also very much fighting between impulses. That’s another thing that’s consistent between his persona and his music, or at least between the album as a whole and his recent interviews. In between the sadness and contemplation, there’s acceptance, even defiance (“Edge of Desire”, “Who Says”). The closer, “Friends, Lovers or Nothing” is one of those songs that just speaks the truth: “Friends, lovers or nothing / There can only be one / Friends, lovers or nothing / There’ll never be an in-between, so give it up / Friends, lovers or nothing / We can only ever be one / Anything other than yes is no / Anything other than stay is go / Anything less than “I love you” is lying."
Battle Studies is a lovelorn, breakup album (hence the title), with the first three songs making up a sort of arc, relationships as tug of war. You would be forgiven if thinking the female singer on “Half of My Heart” was merely a background player, as Taylor Swift is wasted on this “duet”. But the problem with records like Battle Studies is the famous significant other that underlies the music, the failed relationship(s) that form the backbone of the album. Ooh, so is he talking about Jennifer Aniston here? But thinking about the real people behind the songs is kind of icky. It’s creepy; the general public only has rumors to go on, and usually the little information known is spurious and not very helpful, and can ruin the enjoyment of the art. Sure, sometimes it can enhance the story, if it’s about gleeful revenge, but other times it’s just a block, too factual for the real messages of the story to shine through.
If you’re trying to decipher insights into Mayer’s personal life, Battle Studies will only get you partway. In the interviews, he’s incredibly candid about relationships. On first read, it’s amazing to hear him speak so much about Jennifer Aniston (and Jessica Simpson, and Jennifer Love Hewitt…) Yet this makes him endearing, extremely likeable, even if your mouth is agape, and while surprising, his candor doesn’t come off as exploitative, another skill Mayer has. There are some who say he is ruining his career, but he has addressed some of his more controversial statements and his shame in going overboard, so much so he’s heading into Kanye West territory. He’s so self-aware that it doubles and triples back on him, and with all the different outlets he has (not all controlled by him), it can seem at times that he’s overexposing himself. But that is part and parcel of his personality, his life, and the way he chooses to live.
Mayer strongly supports the notion that he and Jennifer Aniston broke up because of generational differences, that they are in different points in their life. John Mayer is very much a now guy—one who tweets, blogs, is fully immersive in his life and incorporates his fans thusly. Aniston, according to him, doesn’t have the same regard for these services as he does, nor shares the same philosophy, and that drove them apart. But he is quick to assert how much he cares for her, how much he does not want to offend her.
Playboy says Mayer “is beloved (though not universally) as one of the few uncensored stars, speaking with wit and impetuousness”, and his out-and-out genuineness certainly adds to that. Despite his reservations, his backtracking, his incessant commentary on everything, his need to spout off nonsensical and ridiculous and sometimes shocking things, his wit, charm, and goofball sense of himself shine through. He is a fundamentally good guy, not one of those guys who appears to be good on the surface and then is a douchebag, although admittedly this is all a matter of perception and I find his mischievousness fun, not jerky. Sure, he takes pains to distinguish this in interviews, but it’s apparent in his music, too. Mayer has nothing to apologize for (well, except to maybe the women he’s dated for spilling their intimate relations to the press), and Battle Studies is his proof that he and his music are one and the same.