I think about Adam Levine a lot. Some of it is inescapable—twenty-plus years of making popular music create an omnipresent figure constantly hovering around you. Hearing “Sunday Morning” on poorly insulated speakers at restaurant urinals across the country brings to life biblical promises challenging to believe in with anyone other than him. I am with you always. Some of these thoughts, admittedly, are intentional. I am captivated with his career as a musical cockroach—the only artist who would survive a proverbial nuclear holocaust. Somewhere, when the dust finally settled, fungi and algae would restart this whole process, and there Adam Levine would be with a post-apocalyptic version of “Beautiful Mistakes.”
I think about John Mayer too sometimes. He’s a good candidate for end-of-world survival as well, I suppose. I envision him more as Eli from “Book of Eli.” Alive and yet fundamentally blind to how the world around him is drastically changing. It’s trendy to picture oneself as “blind.” Close your eyes and follow your heart. Plenty of people have laptop stickers that eulogize Frost’s poem on the two roads that diverged. Few follow through on the path Frost was emphasizing.
The musical roads diverged for Adam and John simultaneously. Pandora was created in 2005 just as both artists reached what seemed like the peak of their powers. “She Will Be Loved” had gone quadruple platinum for Maroon Five. Two years later, John Mayer won two Grammys for Battle Studies and his single “Waiting on the World to Change.” At the turn of the decade, it was clear Pandora had killed the radio via death by a thousand paper cuts. An instantaneous victim was pop-rock. The genre was emotionally ambiguous in an age where consumers wanted complete control over the way music made them feel. Rather than have artists lead the listener to an unforeseen emotion, we told our devices what we wanted and expected it to deliver songs that matched the desired feeling. Situated next to The Jersey Shore and an emerging Project X culture, Adam Levine recognized that up-tempo and easy to remember would create two expected outcomes for the times; joy and, most importantly, comfortability. He released “Moves Like Jagger” in 2010 and, while consistently making tweaks to the consumer’s demands, never looked back. John Mayer latched on to an emotion that would drive and define the rest of his career as well. His own.
2010 was the last year John Mayer made popular music. It’s been difficult for peripheral fans of his to understand. He appears as a window mannequin perpetually dressed in outrageous clothing for a department store where fewer and fewer shoppers frequent. His latest album, Sob Rock, is similar to all of his albums post-2010 in that it-and they- have no similarities. Each piece has been unique in style, production, theme, and sound. The only constant is John himself. He is not an artist producing fringe music in a poor attempt at seeing how the wind blows. Who the fuck could ever think late 80’s romance music will at some point be featured on NBA Countdown? Instead, John Mayer intentionally makes music by tapping into what he wants to make. A dictatorship and not a democracy forge the strongest bonds between artist and listener. We think we know what we want to hear and feel, but we don’t. In his refusal to bend and in his insistence to honor the personal process of creativity, John Mayer brings out the essential emotion for those who consume his product- the loss of control and the acceptance of how invigorating that can still be.
This piece isn’t an album review nor a chronology of his career and eventual legacy. I don’t know what this is, but that’s the point. You write, or you sing, or you do whatever it is that you love, and if it’s screaming into an empty barn or generates seven likes on Twitter, that is ok too. The good ones like Adam Levine are their own harshest critic- they recognize the greatest of their gifts and find ways to hold on to a part of what they love and staple it to the part that allows them to do a version of what they love forever. The great ones are simply their own biggest fan. Whether it be ignorance or blindness, creating a product they can be proud of is the infinite journey. Everyone else is welcome but an unassumed companion for the ride.