Do We Have a Right to Be Mad About John Mayer’s Britney Spears Comments?

Mayer's own questionable history with famous women makes his apparent breakthrough ring a bit hollow

February 25, 2021 1:04 pm
john mayer jessica simpson
John Mayer and Jessica Simpson at the Stereo in New York City, New York.

Like a lot of people who watched the Framing Britney Spears documentary this month, John Mayer came away from it with a newfound empathy for Britney Spears and disgust at the way female celebrities were treated by paparazzi as well as society as a whole. In a recent appearance on Andy Cohen’s “Radio Andy” SiriusXM show this week, the musician revealed that he “almost cried five times” while watching the doc, adding that he watched it “with such grace for [Spears], who got much more maligned by the inhuman experiment of fame than I did.”

“To go through this and come out the other side OK is to have infinite grace for those who struggle with it,” he said. “I came out OK … I have a very strong feeling that part of that is because I’m a man. And I have a very strong feeling that a lot of these things that happen to female performers is endemic to being female.”

Mayer even went out of his way to point out the double standard that male performers often benefit from: “If you’re a man, you’re an outlaw,” he said. “If you’re a woman, you’re kind of crazy. And when I watched that through that lens, my heart just ached the whole time.”

It’s great that Mayer has come to that realization; we need more prominent men — in every field, not just entertainment — to call out their peers and speak out about misogyny and sexism. But his own personal history with women isn’t free of controversy, and his comments led many on social media to call him a hypocrite and demand he apologize for the way he behaved during his past relationships with Jessica Simpson and Taylor Swift.

Arguably the most infamous of those transgressions was a 2010 Playboy interview in which he referred to Simpson as “sexual napalm,” something she later said “floored and embarrassed” her. “Sexually it was crazy. That’s all I’ll say,” he said in the interview, in which he also likened his penis to a white supremacist. “It was like napalm, sexual napalm. Did you ever say, ‘I want to quit my life and just fuckin’ snort you? If you charged me $10,000 to fuck you, I would start selling all my shit just to keep fucking you.’”

It’s the same kind of gross bragging and objectification we heard from Justin Timberlake in a radio interview about sleeping with Spears. A snippet of that interview is included in Framing Britney Spears, and it resulted in fans demanding he apologize to her. (Timberlake, to his credit, did eventually issue a pretty decent apology. Better late than never.) But Mayer’s mistreatment of Simpson goes beyond some dumb comments about how great she was in bed. In her 2020 memoir Open Book, the pop singer wrote about how Mayer was controlling and would regularly try to “win” conversations and make her feel inferior to him.

“He would tell me that my true self is so much greater than the person I was settling on being,” Simpson wrote. “Like there was some great woman inside me waiting to come out, and I had to hurry up and find her because he wanted to love that woman, not me.”

“I constantly worried that I wasn’t smart enough for him,” she continued. “I was so afraid of disappointing him that I couldn’t even text him without having someone check my grammar and spelling.” She also wrote about how her relationship with Mayer led her to develop a drinking problem. “My anxiety would spike and I would pour another drink,” she wrote. “It was the start of me relying on alcohol to mask my nerves.”

His relationship with Swift — which took place when he was 32 and she was 19 — was also problematic. Even if you ignore the age difference on the grounds that she was a legal, consenting adult at the time, we can’t dismiss the way he reacted to being written about in Swift’s breakup song “Dear John.” (“You paint me a blue sky / Then go back and turn it to rain / And I lived in your chess game / But you changed the rules every day,” she sings on the track, which also includes lyrics like, “Dear John, I see it all now, it was wrong / Don’t you think 19’s too young / To be played by your dark, twisted games / When I loved you so?”) He seems to recognize now how often women in the entertainment industry get called “crazy,” but was quick to paint Swift as a “crazy ex” and criticize her “cheap songwriting” at the time.

So is it hypocritical of him to speak out now about the ways Spears and other female celebrities were mistreated when he himself is notorious for being one of Hollywood’s shittiest boyfriends? Sure. But does that necessarily mean we should assume that now, a decade later, he’s not being genuine? It’s tough to say.

On the one hand, we have no way of knowing what kind of personal growth Mayer has or hasn’t had — or what kind of apologies he’s privately issued — and judging people on their past behavior when they’ve demonstrably changed their ways or spoken about regret feels a bit harsh. But even with his comments about Spears (which seem well-intentioned enough), Mayer has given no real indication that he’s capable of thinking critically about his own past with women. (In the same interview with Cohen where he spoke about Spears, he admitted he still listens to his famous exes’ music looking for “clues” that songs are about him.) What he said is a great start, but if he wants anyone to take him seriously about it, he needs to go a step further and take some accountability for his own actions.

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