Reporting from New York — 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 poufy-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 à la his guitar virtuoso idols: Stevie Ray Vaughan and Buddy Guy. His albums "Continuum," arguably his best 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.
However, after releasing "Battle Studies" in November, a return to the poppy balladry of his younger self, Mayer seemed to be stepping backward. Then he mouthed off -- and the concert results, and reviews, have been phenomenal.
"Mayer's concert . . . flowed effortlessly," wrote Dallas Morning News music critic Mario Tarradell.
"It means the world to me you're here," Mayer muttered into the microphone, standing on the Madison Square Garden stage where seven years earlier he had accepted his first Grammy. "I mean it from the bottom of my dumb heart," Mayer said during his recent New York appearance. "You're looking at the clean me."
The crowd, on hand for the second night of his two-night NYC stand for his "Battle Studies" tour, cheered for Mayer as if he were the patron saint of humility. He proceeded to proficiently tear through a clean set of bluesy-pop-rock the likes of "Good Love Is on the Way," "Vultures" and his emotionally laden new single, "Heartbreak Warfare." Since the Playboy interview, Mayer has gotten back to playing music -- with refocused soul and old-fashioned grit. "It seems the media and his fans have moved along . . . until the next time he says something that makes his publicist cringe," Ganz explained.
"He's definitely one of the more gifted guitarists in his generation," Ganz said. "But if he doesn't continue to release well-received albums, he could be remembered for his mouth."