It’s no secret around here that I am a fan of the worst of the worst that pop culture serves up in terms of low-brow entertainment. I had a party to celebrate the finale of the second season of Rock of Love. I watch The Hills with a kind of rabid devotion. That said, I try to keep these fixations entirely separate from my academic life. I find academics who write about Britney Spears and Pierre Bourdieu to be entirely distasteful. Should you find yourself in my classroom (poor soul), I won’t try to explain the society of the spectacle to you via TMZ. Well, maybe I will, but I’ll try to also get some Shakespeare in there as well. I do staunchly believe in the idea of serious art and serious literature and while I do believe that our cultural definitions of such are always in a state of flux, I do believe that there is such a thing as a transcendent aesthetic production and that it is something worth defending. If that makes me an elitist, well, I also have some arugula in my fridge. It was only a matter of time.
To return to my extra-curricular bottom feeding, however, I’ve been following the press antics (semantic antics! whee!) of John Mayer for a while now. I’ve always thought the guy was kind of a sub-par celebrity—both in looks and talent—though I’ll admit that when I went to one of his concerts because an ex-boyfriend was a fan (red flag!), I didn’t have an entirely awful time. For those of you that live under a rock, Mayer has made quite a name for himself as an enfant terrible in the past few years, mainly by dating and manhandling the likes of Jennifer Aniston and Jessica Simpson and making insanely quotable comments about those relationships to the press. I started reading his Twitter and some of his interviews because there is something really compelling about this guy’s ability to be glib and offensive. Say what you will about the recent spate of bad press that Mayer has received on account of his comments in Playboy on the n-word, his ex-girlfriends, and his masturbatory habits, it takes a certain kind of savoir-faire to produce these endlessly riveting sound bytes. I’m not going to address Mayer’s comments on race – others have done it more adeptly than I could – though I will say that I think Jon Caramanica of the New York Times is right to point out that there is something unsettling about the perniciousness that undergirds Mayer’s naïveté on this subject.
I think that what everyone finds especially bothersome (and what I find perversely intriguing) about Mayer’s Playboy interview is that the guy isn’t dumb. Not by a long shot. Despite the chorus of reprisal and admonition that has arisen in response to Mayer’s statements—much of it charged with pathos and some of it even articulate and astute—it appears that like it or not, Mayer’s bons mots are the most tenacious phrases in this conversation, the most likely to survive the tendency of popular culture to turn everything into grist for the mill. That is to say, there is something really smart about Mayer’s stupidity, as it utterly resists apology, critique, or explaining away. As Avital Ronell writes in the introduction to her genius book on this very subject, “stupidity has evinced a mute resistance to political urgency, an instance of an unaccountable ethical hiatus. In fact, stupidity, purveyor of self-assured assertiveness mutes just about everything that would seek to disturb its impervious hierarchies.” There’s nothing smart to be said as a critique of Mayer’s interview, because the din of his stupid commentary will always be louder. Moreover, there’s no talking back to this kind of thing because it’s merely a symptom of something larger, something that Ronell calls modernity (I might call it the Sarah Palin effect). As Ronell writes,
“Stupidity, the indelible tag of modernity, is our symptom. Marking an original humiliation of the subject, stupidity resolves into the low-energy, everyday life trauma with which we live. It throws us. Following Barthes, it functions as the Thing to the extent that it wards off the symbolization that it also demands. Like life itself, stupidity, according to Flaubert, cannot be summed up or properly understood but resembles a natural object – a stone or a mountain. One cannot understand a stone or a mountain, or offer a critique or a twelve-step program to change their descriptions.”
Yes, while Mayer’s statements are at once symptomatic of racism, misogyny, malignant narcissism, and (perhaps most offensively) bad taste, they nevertheless aren’t capable of being effectively diagnosed by any of these counterfoils. And as for the consequences, the requisite twelve-step program? Mayer’s apology came in the form of a seemingly heartfelt and teary speech to his fans and bandmates at a recent concert (Google it if you are curious, again, I’ve got six readers and Broseph’s got a yacht.) The habitual public relations prescription of swift withdrawal from the public and a short stint in self-gratifying American therapy followed by a well-rehearsed apology spiel on the talk-show circuit appears to have already gone into effect. Mayer is suddenly uncharacteristically mum despite the whirlwind of commentary in which he now finds himself at the center. I for one wish that he would keep talking, but my motivations towards the popular cultural objects of my affection are anything but pure.
I haven’t quoted any of the interview for you here. My reasons for not doing so are mixed, but I didn’t want this to be a mere rehashing of things you’ve likely read before. There is one moment in the interview, however, that I find to be pretty genius and worth the e-ink. It’s gotten a lot of press, as it is the moment in which Mayer recounts his sexual relationship with Jessica Simpson and describes her as “sexual napalm.” He gives a standard-issue self-congratulatory smart guy dismissal of Simpson, saying something about how before he met Simpson, he had never been the kind of guy to date a girl like that (I’m sure none of them are). Following a vague description of Simpson’s incendiary sexual prowess, he says: “There are people in the world who have the power to change our values. Have you ever been with a girl who made you want to quit the rest of your life? Did you ever say, ‘I want to quit my life and just f***in’ snort you? If you charged me $10,000 to f**k you, I would start selling all my s**t just to keep f***ing you.'” An inane formulation, yes, but it’s also a startlingly adept articulation of a peculiar kind of object relation, the one where the subject is confronted with an object so mesmerizing in its ridiculousness as to be worth dismantling his life over in order to feed the addiction. Can I tell you, dear reader, how entirely thrown I was by this statement? I’ve experienced this kind of thing. Have you? Have people written about this? Since I read the interview it’s practically all I can think about. I’ve also taken to using the phrase “______ makes me want to quit my whole life and just f***in’ snort it” to describe things like rhubarb jam and the Dirty Projectors’ most recent album. Mayer’s phrase might not have the fortitude that “heaving” has, but right out of the gate I’m really enjoying it.