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John Mayer: The writer behind the controversial Playboy interview speaks out

February 12, 2010 |  5:03 pm


The week's biggest pop story isn't the "We Are the World" remake or the new Erykah Badu single -- even if it should be -- but the fallout from John Mayer's recent interview with veteran music writer Rob Tannenbaum in Playboy.

The nearly 7,000-word piece surfaced online Wednesday and appears in the magazine's March issue; in it, Mayer bared his psyche in relation to many topics, including his ex-girlfriends Jessica Simpson and Jennifer Aniston, his Internet porn dependency and the way he communicates with his 82-year-old father. (He fixes Dad's electronics.)

But the firestorm that's overtaken Twitter and the rest of the Web, and caused Mayer to nearly weep during a seven-minute onstage apology in Nashville, resulted from the singer-songwriter-guitarist's comments about race and sexuality -- specifically, his use of the strongest racial epithet possible to describe his relationship to black culture, and his unfortunate use of the term “David Duke” to refer to his sexual organ, comparing his preference for Caucasian women to white supremacy.

The first thing that struck me about the Mayer interview, before I even read it, was the byline. I've known Rob Tannenbaum, now a contributing editor to Playboy, since our salad days as young music critics in 1990s New York. He was my editor in the early 2000s when I was a contributing writer at Blender magazine. He's an exceedingly thoughtful person and an excellent interviewer; I wasn't surprised that he got even more from Mayer, a notoriously reckless interview subject, than others who've probed his ego.

This afternoon, Tannenbaum agreed to an e-mail exchange about the interview and its aftermath. This is the first such interview he has granted. Our back-and-forth touched upon Mayer’s character, the changing reality of entertainment journalism in the Internet age, and the reasons why no white person can say at least one thing that Mayer said.

Ann Powers: John Mayer is, in some ways, an interviewer's dream. He's smart and totally reckless with his opinions and disclosures. You went deeper than most with Mayer by getting him to talk about his place within music culture in terms of race -- and what he said has caused a huge storm. When you brought up the subject, did it seem like he'd considered these matters before?

Rob Tannenbaum: If it's OK, first let me answer a related question you didn't ask: Mayer wasn't "drunk" during the interview, as many people have written and presumed. Toward the end of our first interview, at his home outside L.A., we each had a "British pour," maybe two ounces of Scotch. We met again a week later, for lunch in Brooklyn, and that's when he discussed the idea of a "hood pass." We weren't drinking at lunch. He was sober.

In most cases, I didn't have to bring up a sensitive topic because he beat me to it. He knows interviewers are going to ask these questions, so he brings them up voluntarily. It's a candid approach. He mentioned Jennifer Aniston before I did; he mentioned Jessica Simpson before I did; he used the word "douchebag" before I did. Since childhood, he's spent a lot of time inside his own head -- that was one of the themes of our interview -- and yes, it seemed as though he'd considered these matters before. Whatever I asked him, he seemed to have already asked himself. Ruth Shalit was very articulate about this when she profiled him: Ruth wrote, "Mayer takes self-awareness to new postmodern heights," like a football player who provides "color commentary on his own career."

A.P.: That's what impressed me about the interview. Mayer is so willing to "go there," confronting his internal processes and motivations in a way that few celebrities allow themselves to do, within interviews at least. Yet his comments about black women and his use of that taboo racial epithet now seem reckless. When I read them within the interview, I thought they were (to be kind) half-baked: Even a white man who's done comedy with Dave Chappelle can't get away with "dropping the N bomb" -- even if, as Mayer did, he's trying to make a point about the fact that white people CAN'T use that word. Mayer didn't have the finesse to totally pull off his argument. Now, though, after Twitter and the blogs have gotten hold of his quotes and wrestled them into some new shape, it seems like he was praising David Duke and flinging around epithets for fun. What happened?

R.T.: The article is long and it’s complicated. It’s 6,870 words total. Holly Robinson Peete, an actress Mayer mentioned in the interview, called it on her blog “quite possibly one of the longest interviews ever published.” Which isn’t a fact (Playboy publishes an interview of that length every month), but it is a feeling. Articles are much shorter now. So are sentences. Who has time to read 6,870 words?

Twenty years ago, Milan Kundera pointed to “Rewriting as the spirit of the times.” Now, it’s re-tweeting as the spirit of the times. A story gets shaved and shortened until it can fit into 140 characters or less. The 140c version of the interview was, “John Mayer used the N word.” And Mayer’s too smart to be surprised by this. When a white person uses that word, any words that precede it or follow it are going to be overshadowed. As for his David Duke comment, Mayer was pondering the discrepancy between his dating history, which has been exclusively white, and the attraction he feels for women of different races. He wasn’t embracing Duke, or racism; he was noticing a dating pattern that, among white guys, isn’t at all unusual.

A.P.: You point out that Playboy regularly publishes these long interviews. In fact, the Playboy interview is a kind of "sacred space" in cultural journalism. Historically, it's been a place where all kinds of powerful people -- Ayn Rand, Jimmy Carter, Malcom X, Dolly Parton -- opened themselves up in extensive, probing conversations. It's been said that Mayer might have been trying to rise to the "edgy" occasion of a Playboy interview. Do you think that's true?

R.T.: I don't think it's fair for me to speculate on his motivations. People often come to regret things they've said in interviews. It's a thrill to speak the truth, but there are also ramifications, and the ramifications remain after the thrill has faded. That's why celebrities routinely claim to have been "misquoted" or "taken out of context." And it's worth noting that Mayer didn't do that. He took full and sole responsibility for what he'd said.

I've done about a dozen Playboy Interviews, and I don't think I ever spent less than four hours talking to any of the subjects. (50 Cent sat, patiently, for one continuous six-hour interview.) In the world of entertainment journalism, this is like an eternity! Years ago, access was far less regulated. During one Rolling Stone feature, a band's keyboard player invited me to the wedding reception at his house later that night. Now, publicists want to keep all interviews as short as possible. It's not unusual to be offered one hour for a cover story.

A.P.: I keep thinking about the Kanye West debacle -- his interruption of Taylor Swift's acceptance speech on the MTV Video Music Awards to declare that Beyonce should have won an award instead of her. That was another case of a thirtysomething male artist at the top of his game committing "career suicide" by overstepping a boundary. It was another example of a mediated event that somehow spun out of the control of both the subject (West and Mayer) and those organizing it (MTV, you and Playboy). Both brought up touchy matters of race and gender. In both cases, the artists involved expressed great remorse almost immediately. West still remains in a kind of exile for his "terrible" deed. Will the same thing happen to Mayer? Or will this pass? And if it passes, is it partly because he's white?

R.T.: West and Mayer have worked together! Imagine being inside that recording studio? “Here’s my idea...” “No, here’s MY idea...”  One difference: West was on live TV. There was video footage and audio, so people could watch it again and again, or create mash-ups out of it. It was an audio meme, a video meme and a print meme. Dimensionally, Mayer’s debacle is much more flat: It’s in print. The only relevant video that exists is of him on stage in Nashville on Wednesday night, apologizing for what he’d said.

I don’t think I’ve seen West on any awards show since September, when he interrupted Taylor Swift. It’s pretty clear the industry has banished him from industry celebrations. Whites and blacks are not treated equally for their transgressions, so Mayer might not be exiled. But if that’s the case, it’s not only because he’s white. Mayer’s mea culpa was immediate, articulate and unmitigated. You can’t be forgiven until you apologize, and I don’t think West did that as clearly as his friend did. Lastly, I think it may pass because many people who’ve read the full Playboy interview subsequently say they understand the point Mayer was attempting to make, even as they abhor his choice of words.

A.P.:  I agree with that last point. I read the interview before the controversy erupted, and though I thought, oh, he's in trouble, when I read the N- word and "David Duke," what really struck me were his comments about how Internet porn has transformed men of his age into people who literally can't be satisfied by a single real partner. Now, in light of what's happened, I also wonder if the Internet has transformed the interview, making it something that can't be self-contained, that will inevitably explode into sound bytes that will be misinterpreted, respun and played out to the torment of those interview subjects. No wonder publicists limit access! Not that I approve of them doing so.

One last question: You're a veteran music writer who's very knowledgeable about the whole history of pop. How did Mayer's comments strike you as relating to issues of race and sexuality as they've played out within music circles over the past, oh I don't know, century? There have been many white players who've found their "cool" by associating with black culture. And the loudmouthed, arguably misogynist sex symbol -- that goes back all the way to the Stones, if not before.

R.T.: Wow. The last century of race, sexuality and rock 'n’ roll? I don’t even know where to start. Rock music couldn’t exist without black musicians, but it wouldn’t be as rich without white musicians. So you have love, dependency and resentment — on both sides. And it probably means that musicians traffic in the subtleties of race more than almost any other profession.

You mentioned the Stones, who were the most vulgar and adroit and enduring band of R&B freaks among their generation. In retrospect, it’s curious how little furor there was when Mick Jagger sang, in 1978, “Black girls just wanna get ... all night.” In the ‘70s, John Lennon and Patti Smith both used the N-word in song titles, and Elvis Costello sang it (still does) in “Oliver’s Army.” Of course, all three had pretty strong reputations as progressives, which John Mayer doesn’t.

Rock stars have freedoms the rest of us can only envy, including license to provoke and tread on taboos and determine the limits of their own vocabulary. I think Mayer feels a kinship to that tradition. (Much like Chris Martin of Coldplay, John is a lot more interesting than his music.) The first single off his album was “Who Says,” a disarmingly gentle song full of defiance. The sentiment is almost punk rock: “Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do.” On top of that, he’s spent a lot of time among black musicians. He doesn’t feign being “street” -- he’s from Connecticut for crying out loud. (So am I, which entitles me to mock it.) But he has spent a lot of time in the company of blackness.

Take away his use of the “N-word,” and you have a white musician commenting on the privilege of race, and warning other whites that they can’t ever presume to know racial disadvantage. Harry Allen, an accomplished black writer, described this on Twitter as a "powerful, pointed statement." How many white rock stars understand that, never mind declare it? He found a stupid way to make valuable points. If he’d just left out one forbidden word and an ill-advised reference to a white supremacist (who I don’t want to promote by naming), Mayer might be up for an NAACP Image Award.

The dominant version of this story is the reductive one being passed on Twitter, which focuses on about five of the story’s 6,870 words. I am not exonerating what Mayer said. But in this country we are so uneasy discussing race that we prefer a summary, with an evident villain, to a consideration of the queries he raised, jokingly, about interracial romance, the fetishization of blackness. I hope the story will have a revisionist phase, where more people address the non-repulsive things he had to say. I think you and I agree there’s a lot in it to contemplate and discuss.

--Ann Powers

Photo of John Mayer: Theo Wargo / Getty Images