John Mayer may be an American musician, and the entirety of his latest music video, “Still Feel Like Your Man,” may consist of a dreary, lazy, pointless mock-up of the culture of Asia, but the land I like to think of when I watch the video is another one entirely, one not of this world. I’m thinking, obviously, of the snowy and mountainous Vale of Arryn — one of the Seven Kingdoms in the Song of Ice and Fire fantasy universe created by George R.R. Martin — and of one series of events in the Vale in particular.
See, there’s a minor character named Marillion. Martin first introduces him at an inn where he’s “a handsome youth … fingering a woodharp.” He’s young, has boyish looks, and plays music, so you know he’s full of himself. Marillion ends up in the Eyrie, the central castle of the Vale, where his music pleases Lysa Arryn, the land’s moody, partially deranged ruler. He becomes the court harpist, and, under the protection of Lady Arryn, has his way with many a maid, sometimes willing and, maybe, sometimes not: “Lady Lysa doted on Marillion, and had banished two serving girls and even a page for telling lies about him,” observes Lysa’s niece Sansa. Not too long after, Sansa herself becomes the unwelcome recipient of Marillion’s advances on the wedding night of Lysa’s remarriage; only the foresight of Petyr Baelish, Sansa’s guardian and Lysa’s new husband, prevents the singer from violating Sansa. She’s passing as Baelish’s bastard daughter and so lacks the privileges of noble birth that would ordinarily protect her, but the guardsman Baelish — nicknamed Littlefinger, incidentally (fingers on everything, it seems) — ensures that Sansa comes to no harm.
It’s the first sign that things won’t work out for the harpist as he would like. After Lysa accidentally spots Baelish kissing Sansa in a field of snow, she tasks Marillion with bringing the girl to her chambers; once there, Marillion plays music to ensure that Lysa isn’t overheard as she cries at Sansa and to ensure that Sansa won’t be overheard when Lysa throws her to her death. But again Baelish intervenes. He soothes Lysa’s fears, throws Lysa to her doom immediately after, and frames Marillion for the murder. The singer is subjected to relentless torture to enforce compliance with this new official narrative. Not only are his eyes punctured, he loses — wait for it — several of his fingers. To recap, he’s lost several of his fingers because he’s being forced to finger himself for a crime he didn’t commit. But even condemned and locked up he continues to make music, and thanks to the acoustics peculiar to the Eyrie and its prison cells, his voice can be heard everywhere. The songs are quite good — better than ever, really. Horrendous pain has improved his art, as Sansa confusedly and somewhat ruefully notes.
I’m not saying that John Mayer should be sealed away, tortured, blinded, and de-fingered because it would better his music. It is true, though, that the music video for “Still Feel Like Your Man” should be sealed away — it was so torturous to watch that it made me regret having functional eyes. It’s also true that Mayer’s music could do with more authentic suffering; true, too, that that’s just one of the many parallels between John Mayer and Martin’s fictional song-weaver. John Mayer made his entrance as a young, pretty-faced guitarist-singer-songwriter whose gift for raw fretwork was equaled by his talent for constructing pop songs whose lyrics struck a fine balance between common experience and generic appeal. He was 2001’s answer to Drake, basically. I wouldn’t put on any of the songs from his debut album Room for Squares, but if one came on there’s a solid chance I wouldn’t mind hearing it. (Not “Your Body Is a Wonderland” — although that song would be great for the next film that needs accompaniment for a Reservoir Dogs–style torture scene.) Like Marillion, John Mayer had everything going for him. He was kind of a big deal. His Lysa Arryn was an authority no less daunting (nor less potentially deranged) than public taste itself. He had his pick of white women celebrities to date, and he had enough soul that famous black musicians would play with him. It was hard to turn him down.
His fall’s been precipitous. Addicted to pop sales, he skated on albums whose texture reminded one of glue curds and whose lyrics were uniform in their banality. Taylor Swift, his ex, was beating him at his own aesthetic well before she roasted him in a song. His cookout invitations dried up because he said shit that couldn’t be construed as anything but bigoted: In a Rolling Stone interview he used the N-word and likened his penis to a white supremacist, all the while thinking he was being funny. Also racist and unfunny and in 2010, he heckled South Asian comedian Kumail Nanjiani’s set by calling him “Kabul” repeatedly. Things haven’t improved since then, as this week’s debacle shows. When he makes the news at all, the light that shines on him is rarely positive. He’s getting less relevant by the day: His assertion that “I still feel like your man” is addressed as much to his former audience as it is to any ex. His fame and manhood are connected, and he’s going limp. (It’s interesting how dumb-ass Asian stereotypes have somehow emerged in his mind as his emasculation proceeds apace, but let that go.) Unlike Martin’s woodharpist, he hasn’t been physically mauled and his music isn’t better than it once was. But like Marillion, Mayer’s isolated and desperate because the world has caught up to his bullshit, and it shows in his songs.
He’s not the only one, of course. The arc of Marillion’s fall applies to white guys with guitars as a whole, who have suffered a serious decline in cultural standing during the 21st century. (All the Beatles are black now.) It may be an accident that the rollout for Mayer’s new album coincides with the rollout of Father John Misty’s album, but the element of trolling present in both cases is a common response to identical pressures. If the world has figured out that you’re a selfish ass and you’re too much of a selfish ass not to be a selfish ass, if the only attention you can reliably attract is negative attention from the outrage-industrial complex, then how else can you proceed, aside from mooning the crowd? Playing the heel out of spite is the only move left in the playbook, but as long as the act is rewarded with clicks and presidencies, it’s an effective move nonetheless. Still, that won’t be much comfort for the Johns, not when they remember how great things used to be — any woman they wanted! No one could call you out! Soft and colorful as snowflakes in the Vale, they’re locked up in their misery, and they still want to force you to join them.