Yesterday we discussed a legitimate hit song from the 1970s that was, in many ways, legitimately icky. Let’s now flash forward to the traumas of the early 2000s where we discover we are back in the 1970s.
Don’t believe me? How else to describe something-nothings like James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful” or Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day,” featuring the chorus:
You had a bad day, you had a bad day
You had a baddie, baddie, ba-ba-bad day
BADDIE, BADDIE, BA-BA-BAD DAY
Fine, that isn’t the chorus, but it isn’t much worse than the actual chorus. I just improved Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day.” Pay me in cash.
There are other artists from this time period that weren’t quite as bad — thinking David Gray and Jason Mraz — but certainly stayed within that post-September 11 “comfort food” mentality of ’70s AM radio. And in intervening years the housing bubble and the Michael Buble would both expand beyond responsible capacities.
Released as the first single from his album Room For Squares in early-2002, John Mayer’s song “No Such Thing” acts as a weather-vane for this shift in musical change, much as the deadly silence of an impending tornado seizes a trailer park in middle America. We’ve always had soft rock, but “No Such Thing” heralded its return as something that was being embraced by both younger adults and the Adult Contemporary marketplace. The question I am left with is “why?”
“No Such Thing” is the perfect grocery store kind of song, by which I mean that, unlike Mayer’s behavior at the time and throughout the Aughts, it is totally inoffensive. It floats above the aisles of frozen TV dinners, bran cereals, and Cheez Whiz like it isn’t even there. Occasionally the easily-ignored buzzing is pierced by Mayer’s falsetto-harmonized “top of my lungs!”, but aside from that you can get on with picking up lunch meat and sunblock without distraction.
Cleanup on aisle three.
The distraction comes when you decipher the lyrics. Mayer wasn’t that old when he co-wrote the song with Clay Cook, so his grand pronouncements of the “you have no idea about what the real world is, you whippersnappers” takes on all the weight of the guy who started his diet just yesterday and today is now telling you why you’re wrong for not eating healthy. What do you know about the real world, John Mayer? Leaden lines like, “I am invincible as long as I’m alive” just sit there like wet dishtowels, lacking both the experience to back up the assertion and the lyrical knack to not make it read like a bumper sticker.
I wasn’t kidding when I said it was a grocery store song. There’s a small handful of songs you are guaranteed to hear played over the PA when you’re food shopping or picking up your morning cup of coffee and buttered roll. Oddly, one of those few songs is After The Fire’s cover of Falco’s “Der Kommissar” But more often than not, it will be John Mayer getting all preachy and arrogant against a wall of tasteful blah.
SHA! SHA! SHA! SHA!
Now, with well over a decade between then and now, I suspect Mayer thinks the same thing. His last couple of albums have been more rural and rugged. I wouldn’t say they’re “real” in the sense that it is hard to say anything in the Americana Pop/folk scene is real after the massive success of Mumford & Sons. Broad brush? Maybe. But you must admit the sales of banjos and mandolins did go up after they had their first couple of hits, and with that, many artists started looking toward tumbleweed to shore up sagging returns. Mayer has also been folded into a quasi-ongoing Grateful Dead jam band thing called Dead & Company. Trying to come across less forced and more freewheeling might be what has driven Mayer over the past couple of years, or it might be the revelation that only time will deliver to you: the more you say you know about “reality,” the more reality is going to prove you wrong.