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Entries in john mayer (3)


In Which We See What Katy Perry Feels About Everything

Ongoing Dream


Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream is three years old next month. The album, which sold 2.6 million copies in the US alone, and 6 million worldwide, was only the second in history to have five number one singles (the first: Michael Jackson’s Bad), keeping Perry in the top ten of the airplay charts for a total of 71 weeks. This week also marked the first anniversary of the film made to document her success. Katy Perry: Part of Me is part biopic, part concert film, released over the weekend of July 4, 2012 and premiered with an array of Pepsi sponsored, US-themed outfits.

On July 4, 2013, Perry was draped in more stars and stripes, in an Instagram of her reunion with John Mayer. Dressed in matching outfits and locked in an embrace, the couple’s heads are turned away from the camera. It’s an image that is both strikingly intimate and playfully coy. Even the photographer seems unsure of how close they should be.

The caption, “Whose broad stripes & bright stars?!”, alludes to the same mystery: who are these people and how are they so recognisable that they can communicate through the backs of their heads? 

As Susan Sontag once wrote of the camera, on Instagram we are ever more “a tourist in other people’s reality”. And in the great tradition of the pop-umentary, Part of Me is another exercise in the construction of intimacies. We, the fans, gain access to the breadth of Perry’s career, beginning with her teenage years as gospel singer, Katheryn Hudson, and ending with the behemoth California Dreams Tour, 11 months long and 124 dates wide.

“This film,” Perry said, “you’re going to see it from my best friend/buddy perspective; you’re going to see exactly what I mean and feel and think about everything.”

You’re going to see it all, and you’re going to see it in 3D.

In claiming to show us everything, however, Perry shows fissures in the curation of her image. Part of Me portrays her transformation from preacher’s daughter to professional glamorama with a trajectory so smooth that it jars.

What’s more, her anti-bullying mantra, most palpably observed in the self-celebration of ‘Firework,’ comes through in the oddest of ways. “Thank you for believing in my weirdness,” she yells from the stages of different continents - but that is the weirdest thing she will say throughout. It is the task of imagining her as an outsider that proves the most bizarre - Part of Me is a wholesome movie, for a wholesome audience, which carries no hint of the blackout centred party girls, awkward lovers, and teenage runaways that her songs so frequently refer to.

The poster, for example, shows Katy, her hair flowing freely bar the cutest of hair clips, as she sings obliviously into her hairbrush. Reflected in the mirror is her on-stage persona, hair now bright blue, décolletage spruced up, in a sparkly pink tutu and lilac silk gloves.

The reflection is a hybrid: Hollywood starlet, ballerina, and cyber princess all in one. Her ‘real’ self is all American, the girl next door surrounded by battered ornaments and faded wallpaper. The comparison is simple: there is nothing she has that you cannot achieve. But what she is is a polysemy, a performance of different identities, of different fantasies, that allude to possibilities without a glimpse of a reality that is anything less than polished.

Similar claims to normalcy were made in the early days of the Spice Girls, who grossed $77 million from their 1997 mockumentary, Spice World. There was something ramshackle about the band, although this was as highly cultivated as Perry’s coiffured sexuality.

But they were a bunch of girls who had no talent in particular, their performances reeking of Tia Maria stained lyrics sheets and last minute rehearsals. All five had worked their way through odd jobs and bit parts and made no attempt to hide their ambitions. Geri was a former Turkish game show hostess; Victoria had decided to become famous after watching the musical, Fame.

As with Perry, there were contradictions in their claims to authenticity but these were more pronounced because they couldn’t dance, couldn’t sing, and they definitely couldn’t act. And whilst the media accused them of illegitimacy, the public didn’t follow. Their first single, ‘Wannabe,’ was released in June 1996. By August 1997, the Spice Girls had filmed their movie and signed over twenty sponsorship deals. The Spice Girls sold records from their ‘normal’ personalities, and Spice World accentuated the personalities that they sold.

In Part of Me, however, Perry is caught somewhere between a pop music of aspiration and of the everyday. She claims to be both the girl singing into her hairbrush, and the embodiment of old school glamour. Her commercialism is so complete that it’s almost admirable; even the movie’s title seems resigned to her commodification. But although she tells us that she will be showing us “everything”, Perry seems more than aware that her image can be divided into segments.

But what is disturbing is imagining how Perry might conflict in the minds of younger girls. There are the lollypops which equate her sexuality with a literal consumption so phallic that it’s embarrassing even pointing it out. Then there’s ‘E.T.’, which I think of because my housemate delights in repeating the lyrics back to me:

“Infect me with your love? Fill me with your poison?”

“Take me, ta-ta-take me / Wanna be a victim / Ready for abduction?”

I am talking about childhood, but also about authenticity, a term which is often applied to popular music in order to find it lacking. In the 1920s, critics used the idea of authenticity to attribute relative values to jazz and pop; in the 1930s, between black and white jazz; in the 1960s, between rock and teen pop. The musicologist Elizabeth Leach suggests that although the musical markers for authenticity change between decades, the implication is always the same – “the authentic music is more real because it is less designed as a commercial venture.”

In this respect, Katy Perry can’t win. As a pop musician she is already defined as an effigy of the inauthentic and as one of the world’s most successful pop stars, she can only perpetuate the rot, so inscribed is she with the protensions and retensions of both the music industry and rock music’s dominant authenticity.

The idea of authenticity is thankfully so vague that people quite wisely stay away from it. Yet it will always be bandied around when discussing pop songs with indie kids. Pop music is commercialised bollocks, they say, with no depth and little meaning. Where’s the integrity in Justin Bieber? 

These men (for they are men) use ‘pop’ as a swear world. Pop music is so aggressively attacked because of the reaction it provokes in young girls, so readily dismissed because it so firmly embraces the temporary as to be unsettling. But pop music is a shot, a talisman, or a lover, and should be defended as such. I’ve heard half-hearted defenses that describe it as escapism, but it has to be bigger than that. Pop music is incantation, the invocation of something larger than yourself, the affirmation that follows you like a flashback through the day. Don’t fob me off with guilty pleasures, because that isn’t real - pop music’s effect is no slighter for its immediacy.

Why I listen to pop music is another matter, but this sentiment is something that Perry knows too well. The movie’s opening song, ‘Teenage Dream,’ went through a series of drafts before it was finally recorded and released in July 2010. Perry and her co-writers knew that they wanted to explore the feeling of being forever young; the first draft of the lyric was written about Peter Pan which all decided was too devoid of sex.

Focusing instead upon the emotions of becoming a teenager, Perry had the verse perfected, an ode to finding a love in which you can finally admit vulnerability. Without make up, without a punchline, she says, “I let my walls come down”.

The chorus was written after meeting future husband, Russell Brand, yet Perry defaults back to clichés: “You make me feel / Like I’m livin’ a / Teenage dream / The way you turn me on.” By the middle eight, the teenage dream has changed completely. Perry is no longer living her dream, she has become someone else’s: “I’m a get your heart racing / In my skin-tight jeans / Be your teenage dream tonight.” The shift in agency may be a slip, missed in the process of drafting and redrafting. But what was so securely conceived as a song about Katy’s personal reveries, becomes a song in which she is an object. It becomes, like all things concerned with Perry, both strikingly intimate and provocatively coy, both reality and fantasy combined.

Rachel Sykes is the senior contributor to This Recording. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She tumbls here and twitters here. She last wrote in these pages about her fear of flying.


In Which We Get Taylor Swift Alone

See Red


“Do you consider yourself a feminist?” Ramin Setoodeh of The Daily Beast recently asked country-pop girl wonder Taylor Swift, a simple question that Swift predictably dodged. “I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls,” she responded. “I never have. I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life.” Sigh. I read things like that and I wish more than anything that homegirl had been allowed to go to college.

There are obviously troubling things about Swift’s prim, old-fashioned, virginal persona—she defines herself by her relationships with men, and she’s in danger of arrested development, a permanent girlhood. There is also the fact that her public persona is so resolutely composed that her only recourse to address pain is passive aggression, so that anger leaks out at every corner. This is why the popular image of Swift is a fascinating contradiction: a perfect princess who is also a total mess.

But I think I’ve gone beyond the point of finding Swift merely fascinating, an interesting public figure. If my iTunes is to be believed, I have listened to the songs on her last album, Speak Now, an average of fifty times. I karaoked the teenage revenge anthem “Picture to Burn” from her self-titled first album two weeks ago. I play her songs on my ukulele, just like hundreds of thirteen-year-olds on YouTube. I am not an interested observer of her constructed celebrity — I am an enthusiastic fan of her music.

Swift’s albums have the quality that I love about all pop music: that it is fake, commercial, even cynical, and somehow it still speaks in real ways about what it’s like to be human. This is as true about mass-produced music from the days of Phil Spector and Motown, the cubicles of the Brill Building that made it like a literal hit factory, as it is about today’s mega-producers like Dr. Luke and Max Martin—a song’s sound is engineered to be perniciously memorable, and a song’s sentiment is engineered to be universally relatable. Pop music is manipulative in so many ways.

Swift is clearly shrewd about how to construct a perfect pop song. When she was a teenager in Nashville, she was not only scouted as an artist, but Sony/ATV publishing house also hired her as a songwriter. She has always written the bulk of her own music, and with Speak Now she had sole writing credit for the entire album. On her new album, Red, she is working with co-writers again, including Shellback, who wrote some of Britney Spears’ best hits, and pop songwriting legend Martin, the man responsible for a baffling amount of top ten singles including Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time,” The Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way,” ‘N Sync’s “It’s Gonna Be Me,” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone.” 

Her collaboration with these pop giants initially appeared as an alarming departure for an artist with country singer-songwriter roots, especially because Martin has such a reputation for writing surefire hits that working with him is often seen as an act of career desperation. But the songs on Red that Swift wrote with Martin and Shellback are brilliant to a one: the album’s lead single “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is a pop-punk revenge tune that’s as snotty as it is catchy, and the party anthem “22” features a gleeful and glorious chorus, not to mention Swift doing her best Ke$ha impression. The most surprising song on the album, “Trouble,” is heavy and synthed-out with a dub-step (!) chorus.

These songs are distinct from Swift’s typical output, but the partnership was fruitful because Swift, Martin, and Shellback understand pop’s most important quality: it is addictive. In a New Yorker article about Ester Deen and Stargate, the songwriter and producers who are responsible for most of Rihanna’s hits, Deen’s manager is quoted as saying, “It’s not enough to have one hook anymore. You’ve got to have a hook in the intro, a hook in the pre-chorus, a hook in the chorus, and a hook in the bridge.” It’s not only the overtly pop songs on Red that follow this prescription — “Treacherous,” a sexy acoustic ballad Swift co-wrote with Dan Wilson of nineties music footnote Semisonic, is tightly composed from a soft verse to an almost chant-like chorus, swelling to the bridge where Swift sings intently, “I will get you/Get you alone.”

Swift’s savvy about how to write a hit feels almost at odds with her reputation for writing autobiographical lyrics — people speak as if her songs are emotional and filter-less, when in reality her songwriting is anything but “raw.” With each new album, theories emerge about which of Swift’s celebrity ex-boyfriends each song is about. Swift claims to be bemused by this guessing game. “There are a lot of songs that people think is about this dude, but it’s really not, it’s actually about this guy you have no idea I even dated. Or you’ll sit there and go ‘that song was inspired by three different situations with three different people,’” she told VH1 recently. “I never really talk about who my songs are about,” she insisted.

But Swift plays into this speculation. She has a practice of encoding secret messages in the lyrics portion of her albums’ liner notes, which fans use to conjecture about the songs’ subjects. Songs on Red bear messages like HIYANNIS PORT, clearly referring to her summer beau Connor Kennedy; FOR ETHEL, a slightly embarrassing ode to Kennedy matriarch Ethel Kennedy; and MAPLE LATTES, a nod to a famous photo op she had with actor Jake Gyllenhaal.

This is the confusing thing — by all appearances Swift’s brief relationship with Gyllenhaal was a blatant publicity stunt. Their maple latte outing was documented by the paparazzi and written up in People magazine; as Vulture notes, “‘Taylor Swift and Jake Gyllenhaal Share Thanksgiving Maple Lattes’ is the third result when you Google ‘maple lattes.’” If their relationship was real, why did she use the most famous detail about their time together as a clue, rather than a less public one? Swift has never publicly discussed any of her relationships, other than her teenage romance with Joe Jonas of the Jonas Brothers, but she purposefully capitalizes on the publicity they generate in subtler ways.

“All Too Well,” the song with the MAPLE LATTES clue, exploits a media-driven celebrity relationship for the sake of sensation, and it is also probably Red’s greatest triumph. It is the only track on Red that Swift wrote with her original songwriting partner Liz Rose, with whom she wrote hits like “Teardrops on my Guitar” and “You Belong with Me,” and it is filled with classic Swift details in lyrics like “We’re dancing ‘round the kitchen in the refrigerator light.” “All Too Well” also contains the line “You call me up again just to break me like a promise/So casually cruel in the name of being honest,” which, scaling for what could conceivably heard on Top 40 radio, is the best lyric I’ve ever heard.

I don’t know how to rectify this — that the song on Red that feels the most authentic is the one that cashes in the most cravenly on media narratives that Swift herself controls. Clearly, Swift’s reputation as a crazy ex-girlfriend skewering her former loves in her lyrics is something that she cultivates — she, Adele, and Alanis Morissette are only a few of the female artists who have learned that this is a gimmick that can take your albums multi-platinum. It also seems that her code of propriety, her desire to be a “classy” celebrity, is what dictates her reticence about her relationships — writing songs that allude to them and then baiting fans to guess who is a way that Swift acts out.

With Swift’s constricting good-girl image, she performs the transgressive acts available to her, and she releases her considerable aggression in controlled ways. “Tell all your friends I’m obsessive and crazy./That’s fine,” Swift sings to an ex on “Picture to Burn.” “I’ll tell mine you’re gay.” The height of her vindictiveness might be “Dear John,” the nearly seven-minute diss track to her ex-boyfriend John Mayer off Speak Now. The John Mayer-signature blues guitar solo on the song is both witty and stone cold. She talks about her temper in many of her songs, as in “Stay Stay Stay” off Red, where she sings, “I’m pretty sure we almost broke up last night./I threw my phone across the wall/At you.” In “Stay Stay Stay” as in her hit “Mine” from Speak Now, she daydreams about a man who will stick by her after the fights, in spite of her anger.

Her aggression isn’t only limited to her songs — after Jonas allegedly dumped with eighteen-year-old Swift with a twenty-seven-second phone call, Swift took to YouTube. In the video she posted, she is holding collectible dolls of both her and Jonas. “Oh look,” she says, examining the Joe Jonas doll’s packaging. “This one even comes with a phone. So it can break up with other dolls.” As demure as she may be, this girl is also intense and out for blood — of Red’s title, Swift said, “All those emotions — spanning from intense love, intense frustration, jealousy, confusion, all of that — in my mind, all those emotions are red.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but in this she echoes another passionate artist constrained by traditional expectations of femininity: Sylvia Plath. Red was Plath’s favorite color, and in her work it often has the same meaning that Swift assigns it on Red. “Their redness talks to my wounds, it corresponds,” Plath writes in “Tulips.” In “Lady Lazarus” she transfigures herself as a wrathful Fury — “Out of the ash/I rise with my red hair,” the poem famously ends, “And I eat men like air.” It seems like Swift could relate. (The song “Higher Ground” off of Red contains the lyric “Back when you fit my poems like a perfect rhyme,” and I think we as a public must demand to know more about these poems.) There are numerous reasons why Swift will probably be better able to achieve her goals as an artist and a healthy human being than Plath was — but like Plath, Swift’s life seems to be about oscillating between acting out and falling in line with what’s expected of her. I can’t help but think, “Taylor, maybe if you were a feminist, all this would be easier for you.”

I cling to evidence that Swift is moving slowly toward more comfort with herself, more freedom. Granting that her schtick is that she is not a girl, not yet a woman, as they say, Red is distinctly more womanly than any of her other releases. She has let go of some of the narratives that she subscribed to in the past, particularly her obsession with fairytale love — tracks from previous albums bear names like “Today Was a Fairytale” and “White Horse,” and her hit single “Love Story” describes a Romeo-and-Juliet style pairing, except everything turns out fine in the end.

More than ever before in her work, Swift is acknowledging that love is not a fantasy—on “Treacherous” she makes the stunning acknowledgment that sex and sexual desire can complicate things. “I’ll do anything you say,” she sings, “if you say it with your hands.” She has also turned away from some of the persistent nostalgia for childhood that marks her previous albums. “Fifteen,” from Fearless, remembers in sentimental detail what it was like to be a freshman in high school. On the schmaltzy ballad “Never Grow Up” from Speak Now, our female Peter Pan advises a child, “Oh darling, don’t you ever grow up/Just stay this little.”

In contrast to “Fifteen,” “22” refers to the age Swift is now, not an age she longs to be again. The story “22” describes is as far from her fairytale songs as possible, as Swift sings about going out to a club with her friends and trying to pick someone up — “You look like bad news./I’ve got to have you,” she sings. This is such a welcome departure: on Red, Swift is acting her age, and even, for the first time, acknowledging her celebrity. In “The Lucky One,” she sings enviously of a young woman who gains success in Hollywood, only to abandon it all for a return to comfortable anonymity. I am relieved by these developments. If Swift were still making high school records at twenty-two, this would be a sadder story than it is.

A number of songs on Red display a chip on Swift’s shoulder about her goody-two-shoes image — on “22” she talks about dressing up like a hipster and complains that the club has “too many cool kids.” She tells an ex-boyfriend on “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” “You would hide away and find your peace of mind/With some indie record that’s much cooler than mine.” The fact that Swift is not a cool kid is one thing I like about her — she is, after all, a gawky dork who grew up on a Christmas tree farm. I hope she realizes, though, that just because she isn’t “alternative,” that doesn’t mean that she has to be a Disney princess. She should take a lesson from her former nemesis Kanye West, whose persona seamlessly encompasses varying types including “sensitive genius” and “annoying egomaniac.”

The Swift-versus-Kanye West meme is a chance binary that is incidentally instructive — they have a lot in common as rigorous artists with volatile personalities. West is able to perform a public self that is stylish, nerdy, vulnerable, powerful, smart, sympathetic, and irritating. I wish Swift could do the same and be viewed as complex, not schizophrenic. For anyone who was wondering, that’s what feminism is. 

Alice Bolin is a senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Missoula. She last wrote in these pages about Isaac Mizrahi. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her work on This Recording here.

"Back to December (acoustic)" - Taylor Swift (mp3)

"If This Was A Movie" - Taylor Swift (mp3)


In Which John Mayer Is A Douchebag For Possibly The Last Time

One Joke Over The Line


Trying to explain privilege to some people can sort of be like trying to explain the Matrix to somebody who is in the Matrix. They're like "whaaa?" because it has literally never occurred to them that their mode of being might differ from other (non-white, non-male, non-straight) people's experiences of the world. Nobody likes to be condescended to. That's why the number one killer of love is contempt, and why I used a Matrix reference instead of something more snobby and indirect. 

That's why people like John Mayer, who can't help but be contemptuous of everyone else for not being as totally awesome as they are, don't generally find love. There's an intersection between narcissism and misogyny that ends up with bachelors like Jack Nicholson and Alec Baldwin, who both repeatedly fantasize in interviews about falling in love and getting married again, oblivious to why that's not gonna happen. 

Hilarious profoundly sexist made up words like mansplaining and mantrums do sort of get at some real issues. Kanye West had a burgeoning alcohol problem to blame for his VMAs mantrum. Does John Mayer have a cocaine problem? Or just regular run of the mill blogger mental issues? I mean I've been interviewed a couple times, but not in person, and I can imagine saying some easy to quote out of context shit if actually tape recorded. I doubt I could possibly be this offensive or entertaining.

Even more so than Lady Gaga, John Mayer's life is performance art. And for years now it has been the performance of an incredibly insecure and simultaneously incredibly arrogant guy. Funny, mean, and obliviously defensive. John Mayer's whole interview schtick is a sustained act of attempted mansplaining. He just cannot say anything nice without backstabbing somebody in the process.

Mayer's well aware that he has perennial foot in mouth disease. He has tried to channel it into comedy, and then gets mad at the audience for not 'getting' his jokes and making him mansplain them. The Kumail Nanjiani thing is profoundly cringeable. White guys just don't get to make racist jokes. I don't care what VICE told you in 2001. Try that shit around some brown skinned people (DON'T). 

Saying that the concept of a white artist like John Mayer having a "hood pass" is racist is not racist, dropping the n bomb is a never particularly good idea. Saying that your dick is a white supremacist (specifically David Duke) is where I draw the line, in terms of empathy. Gabby Sidibe should step on his balls in high heels. 

Ever the normie, John Mayer's taste in women runs to the blonde and Aryan. Of course he wants to bone Taylor Swift. Honestly we all know he should because the guy who takes that girl's virginity is already doomed and this way we'd probably get some rad songs out of it about princes stabbing princesses to death with unicorn tusks.

Of course Jessica Simpson was his sexual ideal, she's built like a porn star and programmed to shut up on command by her scary preacher dad. Then there were those blind items about how John Mayer encouraged her not to talk during their relationship by telling her that she looked prettiest with her mouth closed (YIKES).

Kanye and John Mayer both made incredibly personal, one might say oversharey, breakup albums. Divisive albums, especially for such popular mainstream favorites. Kanye's autotune bullshit was a screen to hide behind so he could be vulnerable.

"I am human and I need to be loved, just like anybody else does"

Likewise John Mayer talks mad shit about Jennifer Aniston on Battle Studies and outs her as a wine drunk, but also pines for her in a creepily authentic way. He tells Playboy they broke up because "one of the most significant differences between us was that I was tweeting." He also says Jen "wishes it would go back to 1998" (YOWCH). 


Both the Kanye and John Mayer albums are such pure expressions of post-breakup angst, oscillating wildly between sadness and fuck youism. There's a lot of regret and saudade strung up in both. Neither one is Blood On The Tracks or anything (or Sea Change or last year's Two Suns) but they're interesting artifacts at the least.

Mayer suggests that if you find "Daughters" and "Your Body Is A Wonderland" condescending, you're not going to be "into" him. But what are both those songs if not incredibly condescending to women? Girls become lovers who turn into mothers? What the fuck are you talking about? He even made a television pilot that is expressly just him being a (hilariously) condescending dick to his fans. I hope Jennifer Aniston is laughing on Gerry Butler's dick right now in Cabo.

"You guys into the Animal Collective? I'm more of a Deakin man myself"

The whole thing about John Mayer is that he acts far too cool for somebody who makes the kind of music he makes. His persona suggests an indie culture snob, somebody who wouldn't be caught dead listening to John Mayer. But he is a populist and I contrarian (I can relate). He thinks liking mainstream Billboard charts music is revolutionary, whereas your modern actual music snob knows this is just one part of your balanced eclectic diet. We'd all hate him more if he tried to hip us to Grizzly Bear or Beach House or something.

My suggestion is that John Mayer spend the long weekend snowed in with Wanda Sykes so that he may emerge somewhat more knowledgeable about race, gender, orientation, and being fucking clever. I'm sure Wanda also knows ways to make women cum that John Mayer has never heard of.

I'm not saying Jessica Simpson fakes orgasms, but would you really be surprised? My other solution is that John Mayer and Kanye make a sex tape together. 

Molly Lambert is the managing editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Los Angeles. She tumbls and twitters.

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