Beneath crass words, refreshing self-awareness

In an interview with Rob Tannenbaum in the February issue of Playboy, John Mayer gave everyone who loves to demonize him something to feed on when he volunteered a comment about his “hood pass.”

To quote Mayer: “I come on very strong…That’s why black people love me…Someone asked me the other day, ‘What does it feel like now to have a hood pass?’ And by the way, it’s sort of a contradiction in terms, because if you really had a hood pass, you could call it a nigger pass. Why are you pulling a punch and calling it a hood pass if you really have a hood pass? But I said, I can’t really have a hood pass. I’ve never walked into a restaurant, asked for a table and been told, ‘We’re full.’”

From what I’ve gathered, this “hood pass” is sort of like the FastPass at Disneyland, but rather than joining the front of a long line of small, sweaty children and miserable parents, you enjoy a free ride into the welcoming hearts of the black community. I don’t know if a hood pass can be revoked, but I suspect P. Diddy, Jay-Z, and perhaps even Tupac’s ghost will be knocking on Mayer’s door very soon, informing him that he has violated the terms of agreement.

Mayer treads on entrenched racial lines that activists have tried tirelessly to wipe away with his unintentionally segregationist rhetoric. His poorly articulated words suggest, at first glance, that for whites to interact with—and be accepted by—blacks they must obtain some type of pass which, through his collaboration with black musicians, Mayer has procured. However, that was not his intended comment.

Mayer is an intelligent person, and in some ways, he is an interviewer’s dream. His intelligence, coupled with his recklessness and a youthful desire to be remembered, make him vulnerable to a veteran writer like Tannenbaum.

More importantly, he is acutely self-aware—Ruth Shalit, another writer who profiled him, wrote, “Mayer takes self-awareness to new postmodern heights,” which is why it was so surprising that he made this blunder. Mayer knows he has an audience any time he speaks: He is reminded of this every time he steps outside of his plush home in L.A. or his swanky apartment on the Lower East Side of New York into a salvo of blinding flashes. As exhilarating as it can be to tell the unabashed truth, he lost an important point in his burdensome language.

Mayer is from Connecticut; he makes no pretense of urban inside knowledge. Though he claims to have been fairly rebellious in school, he is refreshingly conscious that he grew up in a family that could afford to support his lifestyle as a musician and, more importantly, to deal with the prospect of his failure. He does not presume to know of racial disadvantage, or pretend that he was himself disadvantaged.

Then, buried beneath his brash use of “the N-word,” Mayer actually made a poignant comment on the privilege of race, and the danger of presuming acceptance into a culture of which you are definitively not a part.

The interview in question was nearly 7,000 words, so if you are one of the many people who got hung up on one or two poorly worded and offensive sentences, read or re-read the interview, resist the strong temptation (I blame Twitter’s 140 character limit) to compartmentalize everything, and evaluate what else can be gleaned from this interview.

One comment in particular was insightful and particularly relevant to the transition from traditional media—print and broadcast journalism—to 24/7 contemporary media.

Tannenbaum jokingly asks Mayer if ex-girlfriend Jennifer Aniston might use a torrent to download his newest album since he had not sent her a copy, to which Mayer replies, “If Jennifer Aniston knows how to use BitTorrent, I’ll eat my fucking shoe. One of the most significant differences between us was that I was tweeting.”

Mayer alludes to the fact that Aniston was at the peak of her fame in the late ’90s (pre-social media like Twitter and Facebook). Aniston perceived Twitter to be a preoccupation with online gossip, but it has become the modern celebrity’s tool to maintain name recognition. What most people use to procrastinate is what stars must do now to stay relevant, and most importantly, to make a living. While Aniston may not be that much older in years, the timing of their stardom exaggerates the difference.

At the end of his interview, Mayer had this to say in reference to his critics: “I’m not going to be a prisoner to a warden I can’t see…I’ve been so afraid of rocking the boat that I’m not sailing anywhere. I’ve been trying to prove to people I’m not a douche bag by not dating, by keeping my name out of Us Weekly. That’s fucked up, man. I’m not dating. I’m not even fucking. So now I’m going to experiment with ‘fuck you.’ In 2010, my goal is to get more mentions in Us Weekly than ever.”

Mayer was a victim of the cult of celebrity worship when he allowed it to undermine his confidence and dictate how he lived his life. But the new “fuck you” attitude he is so proud of adopting is his unintentional recapitulation. It is his invisible warden. The more times he’s in Us Weekly, the more hits he gets on Google, the more Tweets he writes or are written about him—all this will guarantee his eternal fame in one way or another, and he will continue to be the subject of speculation and the “glamour” of constant surveillance.

Leave a Reply