John Mayer Lets the Music Do the Talking


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John Mayer
After a public flap over statements in a Playboy interview, the singer-songwriter forgoes interviews and does his communicating from the stage.

The backlash to his Playboy interview may have caused him to recoil from the spotlight, but John Mayer's concerts and albums have remained sturdy and popular.

For a few hours Thursday night, John Mayer will perform before a nearly sold-out Staples Center crowd, then disappear once more into the depths of his self-inflicted celebrity jail. This has been the routine for the past month for the embattled 32-year-old who's on a nationwide tour in support of his fourth studio release, “Battle Studies."

As soon as comments from the poofy-haired song spinner became the subject of national controversy and Twitter fodder, Mayer's camp went into lockdown mode. A Playboy interview in which Mayer used the N-word, shortly after comparing his sexual organ to a white supremacist, triggered a swift response from Team Mayer. No more interviews. Toned down tweets. Only music now for John.

While naysayers scold Mayer for his lack of a verbal filter, concert tickets keep selling, “Battle Studies" has remained in the Billboard Top 100 for about four months, and Mayer's exposure has never been more widespread. Despite the obvious negativity stemming from his comments, some believe that Mayer may actually have helped bring his career to the next level.

“John Mayer is extremely media-savvy," said Caryn Ganz, deputy editor for RollingStone.com. “He's well aware that everything he says, good and bad, bring him loads of press."

In today's take-no-prisoners, celeb-focused universe, controversy can broaden a celebrity's audience, noted Ellyn Harris, president of Buzz Publicity, an entertainment public relations firm. “We, as a culture, gravitate toward the cult of celebrity," Harris said. “The public is drawn towards negativity."

The Playboy interviewer himself, journalist Rob Tannenbaum, defended Mayer's comments in a recent e-mail exchange with Times pop music critic Ann Powers. “Rock stars have freedoms the rest of us can only envy," Tannenbaum said. “Including the license to provoke and tread on taboos."

Longtime fans of Mayer may recall the night in 2003 when he broke through into mainstream music glory at the Grammy Awards. Facing the music industry's elite at Madison Square Garden, a Grammy in hand, the then-26-year-old modestly referred to himself as metaphorically “16." His debut album, “Room for Squares," had spurred him into the public eye, yet the acoustic crooner believed he was just getting started.

“This is very, very fast, and I promise to catch up," Mayer promised in one of his last moments of modesty.

Seven years later, fame seemed to have caught up with Mayer. “He's trying to destroy his career," Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan said of Mayer's Playboy interview. “There go all his black fans," said Ice Cube. “Poor John Mayer! We pity him," sarcastically proclaimed Perez Hilton. Jessica Simpson, Mayer's ex, whom Mayer compared to a skin-frying explosive ("sexual napalm"), said of Mayer's comments on her sexual exploits. “It was definitely a compliment . . . in a way."

In recent years, Mayer the celebrity -- the one who pranced down Rodeo while flashing a cheeky grin to the paparazzi -- had overtaken Mayer the musician. After “Room for Squares," Mayer had shown that he could craft a pop tune, while shredding a fret board la his guitar virtuoso idols: Stevie Ray Vaughan and Buddy Guy. His albums “Continuum," arguably Mayer's best LP to date, and “Try!," with the John Mayer Trio (Steve Jordan and Pino Palladino) had displayed a mature hit-maker able to combine his pop sensibilities with a natural guitar-playing gift.

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