‘A Lie You’ve Got To Rise Above’: Revisiting John Mayer’s ‘Room For Squares’ At 15

COLUMBIA RECORDS/SHUTTERSTOCK

There’s no real rhyme or reason for the albums that find you when you’re 20 but they get you in every way. You stay up late with them. They’re in your car and in your ear all time time. At 30, you can play the role of revisionist and pretend that the love affair didn’t occur (or that it didn’t change you) when it comes to albums that haven’t aged well but the stain doesn’t fade and you’ll still feel pangs when you hear your old friend wailing from underneath a pile of more thoughtfully curated music. Don’t deny it. I can’t. Own it and recall what those albums say about you now and what they said about you then.

I found John Mayer’s Room For Squares (which just turned 15) a few months after its debut when I was 20. I remember eagerly tearing off the plastic, opening the liner notes, and sitting in awe as the lyrics penetrated me while I sat in the breakroom of my soul-siphoning retail job during lunch. At last, I no doubt thought, I had discovered an album and an artist who got my struggles as, at that point, a mostly struggle-free middle-class twenty-something going through what John Mayer in “Why Georgia Why” would tell me was a “quarter-life crisis.”

In reality, though, I was fine and a bit pre-mature in wondering “about the outcome of a still verdictless life.” See, if you squint and stare long enough in the mirror, you can get pants-sh*ttingly scared thinking about the quick slippage of time and the weight of expectations when you’re 20. So much so, that you can psych yourself out of experiencing the joy that comes from organically finding a direction and embracing twenties slackerism for a hot minute or two.

According to Mayer’s “83,” life’s mounting complexities (such as being “another social casualty” on a date in “My Stupid Mouth,” or not understanding the allure of New York City until you meet an artsy girlfriend in “City Love,” I suppose) are so severe and angst-inducing that they require one to be wistful about the ease of childhood. In the song, Mayer (who was 23 when Room For Squares was recorded and released) wishes he was “six again” and says he wants things to be more like they were “at the start” of him. But who would trade the expanse of young adulthood for the caged-rat existence of childhood where you’re stuck in the backseat, eat what people tell you to, sleep when they tell you to, and have to ask for permission when you want to sh*t? Who would place more years between themselves and the ability to find other “bubble-gum tongued” people with whom to mack on as foretold in “Your Body Is A Wonderland?” No one. Mayer’s precocious nostalgia fails the legitimacy test upon reflection.

In the early 2000s, at the dawn of the emotive pop micro-era, Mayer eagerly aimed to split the difference between early ’90s grunge and late ’90s bubblegum pop by crafting over-earnest whisper songs about feelings, growing pains, the maddening pursuit of love, and being true to oneself. At the time, it was homemade soup — satisfying, savory, and comforting — but to hear it now with less welcoming ears, it sounds like hot bro-pop blather aching to sound deep. Still, I was a generic guy with generic troubles and I bought in. I also needed a theme song. And Mayer’s breakout hit, “No Such Thing,” which was the first single off of Room For Squares, was the ideal generic theme song for me.

In a way, “No Such Thing” feels like a spiritual successor to New Radicals’ “Get What You Give,” transitioning from a belief that your dreams can survive the sandstorm of life because you’ve “got the music in you” to thinking that you’re “invincible” as long as you are alive. The switch from Greg Alexander’s creepy intensity (his eyes seem to tell you to touch a hot stove, but you should not do it!) as he’s freeing puppies over to John Mayer’s oxford shirt sex appeal is a nice upgrade, though. Some things are “better on the other side,” after all.

Mayer’s track was the first one that I can recall which made me fix my gaze on my parents and their lives. There’s a moment where you move from thinking of your parents as, well, your parents, to one where they become adults who crash land into their lives same as everyone else does. Like a forensic accountant, you start to sift through their stories, wondering what “tiny tragedies” occurred along the way and how they impacted them. Of course, more than anything relating to their actual emotions, you selfishly wonder how to avoid the same missteps. This was particularly of note to me as I was working, at 20, in the same kind of job that my father had been in when he was near my age. He’d made a career out of it, climbing steadily up the ladder — that idea held no appeal for me. Who wants to grow up to be their father? Who isn’t terrified by the prospect? In my thirties, I can take comfort in knowing that I got off the path and went my own way, but back then I was scratching at the bricks within the prison of that fear looking for for a pinhole of light.

The main crux of “No Such Thing” isn’t elder analysis or regret, but breathlessly dodging the latter by evading linear progression. In a way, the song conflicts with “Why Georgia Why,” because it acts as a call and response: The question “Am I living it right?” is soothed by the hope that the “best” of Mayer is “still hiding up his sleeve.” Most of the album is filled with Mayer playing the part of the self-serious kid striving to be heard as he longs for direction in life and love (“My Stupid Mouth,” “Love Song For No One”), and projects a kind of world-weariness (“Why Georgia Why,” “83,” “The Great Indoors”). Here, he is more a wide-eyed idealist. “No Such Thing” tells you that you don’t have to grow up and walk the line to handle the merger onto life’s expressway — it’s a lie wrapped up in a really catchy pop anthem. The thing is, I’m not sure if Mayer realized it at the time. Self-awareness usually doesn’t bloom until you’re past your early twenties. Or, at least, that’s my personal experience.

I have to admit that Mayer, as a 23-year-old guitar-slinging philosopher in the midst of life’s journey does his best to capture an awkward phase of existence through his own, albeit flawed, filter. I can look back and be glad that I clicked so fully with something that was overly concerned with the weight of this life as opposed to something that wasn’t at all. Though, of course, frivolous things can have immense value as well.

Mayer does get some things right on Room For Squares. If you try to live through your twenties without occasionally trying to keep yourself on task, you’re more likely to wind up running “through the halls” of your “high school” because you’re late for your job as the janitor. But the declaration in “No Such Thing” that “there’s no such thing as the real world, just a lie you’ve got to rise above” is a silly and faulty message. If you still believe it, then you’ve got “the dreamer’s disease” that the New Radicals spoke of and it is clearly fatal. The “real world” can be pretty great if you “take your life (and) plot it out” in your own way and at your own pace without being in such a hurry to grow up or judge yourself for not adhering to an arbitrary timeline. Maybe that feels like a mixed message — just like Room For Squares. But let’s all agree that the real takeaway from this little exercise is that taking life advice from a pop song is almost always a bad idea that we all fail to avoid in our dumb and magical youth.