I first heard a John Mayer song upon meeting his classic farewell to high school, “No Such Thing,” my junior year of college. Just the other day, while driving my four kids in my—gasp—minivan, I heard one of his subsequent, and certainly more mature, hits: “Heartbreak Warfare.” I couldn’t help but notice how, both then and now, nearly 15 years later, we are less angsty, more grown up, and still looking for ways to prove the cynics wrong.
All Smoke, No Fire (2000-2004)
When “Room for Squares,” his first record with a major label, came out, Mayer was not your average boy in a band. He was hardly your typical Backstreet Boys heartthrob like we’d fawned over in high school, so gushing over Mayer seemed riskier at the time. He was average-looking and scrawny, his raspy voice sounded sexy, and he played guitar better than anyone on the scene. Though Mayer himself is a couple years shy of technically being a millennial, to millennials, whether finishing up high school or packing up to go to college, he sang our angst, strummed our heartache, and rocked our dreams.
Who didn’t, as they exited high school and headed off to college, roll down their windows and belt out: “I wanna run through the halls of my high school/I’m gonna scream at the top of my lungs/I just found out there’s no such thing as the real world/just a lie you’ve got to rise above”? As if he knew we were all on the cusp of falling in love for the first time, every girl (and even some guys) thought Mayer wrote “Your Body Is a Wonderland” just for her. We played it on repeat.
In “3×5,” he predicted our obsession for living within the camera frame, yet Instagram wasn’t then even a glint in its founder’s eye. “Didn’t have a camera by my side this time/Hoping I would see the world with both my eyes/Maybe I will tell you all about it when I’m in the mood to lose my way with words.” (Ironic that the millennial generation would soon find themselves the first to have Facebook, navigate life with only a smartphone, and Instagram everything from their first meal of the day to their first baby.)
Things Get Heavier (2003)
Just when we started emerging from college classes—philosophy, engineering, law, and English—ready to take life a little more seriously and maybe even take on the real world, as we’d been taught, Mayer was doing the same thing. Once again, we found comradery.
“Heavier Things” gave us lyrics like, “Something’s missing, and I don’t know how to fix it […] How come everything I think I need/always comes with batteries?/What do you think it means?” If the latter again isn’t a prediction of the love-hate relationship millennials would have with technology, I don’t know what is. In “Bigger Than My Body,” he gave us a senior commencement address, sending a bunch of 22-year-old hopefuls into the great unknown: “Someday I’ll fly, someday I’ll soar/Someday I’ll be something much more/Because I’m bigger than my body gives me credit for.”
Winds of Change (2005-2008)
The next few years brought winds of change, almost as if predicating the severe storm to come, both for us and him. Many millennials experienced major life changes: Starting a vocation, buying a home, traveling. The world was our oyster.
Mayer thought so, too, but he wasn’t completely bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about it. His 2006 album “Continuum,” which many critics hailed as his best, brought songs like “Belief,” his most blatantly politically ideological yet (and my personal favorite). We were in the middle of war. With the righteous indignation 9/11 brought fading, Mayer articulated what many millennials struggled with: “What puts a hundred thousand children in the sand?/Belief can/belief can/What puts the folded flag inside his mother’s hand?/Belief can/belief can.”
One year after this album came out, I gave birth to my first child. The pregnancy was unexpected, and I was unprepared to become a mother. I listened to “Stop This Train” with tears in my eyes on many occasions. Mayer admits he’s “So afraid of getting older/I’m only good at being young.” What twenty-something hasn’t looked at a job application or lease and thought that?
Yet “Waiting on the World to Change” also appeared on this album, and encapsulated how many felt about the world into which they were embarking—wrought with confusion, yet full of ideas and unsure of how to implement them. “It’s not that we don’t care/we just know that the fight ain’t fair/So we keep on waiting/waiting on the world to change.”
Battle Studies (2009)
In the middle of the Great Recession, with unemployment at its lowest, millennials struggling with college debt, infertility, and the sheen of new relationships wearing off, “Battle Studies” was the Mayer who grappled and growled. Hard times were here, more were coming, and none of us was going down without a fight.
At this point, John, and we, had experienced significant romantic relationships and had either found success, failure, or some murky middle ground. This album explored every angle with multiple songs. Whether single or married, happy or unhappy, Mayer had us covered, and we loved singing along, even if it was no “Continuum.” It took our mind off the Great Recession, and the shit-storm that was to come.
Trouble in Paradise (2010-2013)
As his previous albums demonstrated, the John we loved was both selfish and giving, self-aware and oblivious of his effect. These began to collide after two separate interviews with Playboy and Rolling Stone. In the interviews he admitted to drug use, used racial slurs, and talked smack about his ex-girlfriends. The interviews made waves. We knew he was a bit prideful, but misogynistic and racist? It was hard to look at him the same way. The wave we’d all been riding together started to come crashing down.
After time, and speculation, he seemed to come to his senses, deleting his personal Twitter account for a time (he’s back now). In addition, a granuloma discovered on his vocal chords forced him to have surgery and take months off, no doubt spurring more introspection and examination. On a May 2012 episode of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” he said, “I lost my head for a little while and I did a couple of dumb interviews and it kind of woke me up…It was a violent crash into being an adult. For a couple of years, it was just figuring it all out, and I’m glad I actually stayed out of the spotlight.”
Go West, Young Man (2013-present)
While taking forced time off due to issues with his vocal chords, Mayer fell in love with and moved to Montana. As a former resident of New York, this was a radical lifestyle change, from chaos to quiet, from Hollywood star to quiet cowboy. He debuted two more albums from this new place. Rolling Stone called “Born and Raised” “a shot at redemption that’s as on target as anything he’s done.” In the song “Shadow Days” he’s finally relaxed, comfortable in his skin, and honest without being jarring: “Did you know that you could be wrong and swear you’re right?”
His final album to date, “Paradise Valley,” is a completely different version of the John who told us it was okay to discover there’s “no such thing as the real world.” Now Mayer has finally discovered the real world and found it to be one with less angst, more optimism, and joyful creativity. He’s developed humility, emotional maturity, and empathy over time—as the rest of us hopefully have, as well. A Rolling Stone critic noted that in “Paradise Valley” Mayer “continues to blow down the road, this time carrying far less baggage and all the better for it.”
Like a treasured old photograph, we keep going back to John, because he kept coming back to us, mirroring our flaws, looking for redemption, all the while hoping we would turn out better than everyone said we would. Every record, every song, every phrase tracked what we the millennial generation felt and struggled to articulate. He embellished in song the feelings we felt but were too embarrassed to admit, the heartache we experienced when we weren’t loved in return, the way we wanted to change our world but just didn’t know how. In the end, Mayer didn’t burn it all down. And neither did millennials.
Happy thirty-eighth birthday, John Mayer. You articulated our angst, gave wings to our dreams, and pushed us to look outward, even as our whole generation begged to remain the ultimate narcissists. If you proved your critics wrong, surely we can, too.