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Michael's Number Ones: "No Such Thing" by John Mayer



June 29, 2002


The nerds usually have the last laugh.

By the time you get to junior high school, that notion can seem hard to imagine. You're entering a land where anyone who shows a hint of social awkwardness or blowing the bell curve gets taken down like an antelope by a pack of lions. I could argue that seventh grade was the worst nine months of my life. It didn't help that I wasn't sent to the school where all my elementary school friends were going, as my parents feared it "wasn't safe". Instead, I went to the school where I got called homophobic slurs on a regular basis, and the one time I tried to stand up for myself, I was almost expelled from the school.

High school wasn't as bad, but the damage had been done by that point. I retreated into my own private world and put schoolwork to the side, nearly derailing my prospects of having any sort of viable future. Right around the time I started to emerge from that shell, John Mayer was scoring his first hit song around the theme of not letting your experience in school define your path in life. You could say it hit a nerve with me, enough to become one of my favorite songs of 2002.

John Clayton Mayer was born in 1977 in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the middle child of a high school principal and an English teacher. He developed an interest in playing guitar after watching Back to the Future, and starting playing a rented guitar when he was 13. He discovered Stevie Ray Vaughan around this time and became fascinated with blues music. Eventually, his parents took him to a psychiatrist because they feared his obsession with music was having a negative effect on his mental health, but that may have been related more to Mayer's parents themselves than his love of music.

Mayer credits a hospitalization when he was 17 with a case of cardiac dysrhythmia for jumpstarting his songwriting career. He was urged to enroll at Berklee College of Music in Boston by his parents after high school, but dropped out after two semesters to move to Atlanta and pursue music full-time. He briefly played in a couple local bands in Atlanta, but the projects fell through once Mayer realized he wanted to perform pop music.

Mayer decided to pursue a solo career, and eventually was able to independently produce and release an EP titled Inside Wants Out. Several of the songs on that record would go on to make his debut full-length album Room for Squares, one of which would be "No Such Thing". Mayer signed a deal with Columbia Records, and the album was released in June 2001 to little fanfare at first. But Mayer toured extensively behind the album and pretty soon the word of mouth he built up generated enough momentum for "No Such Thing" to be released as a single to radio stations.

The track begins with Mayer lamenting how people want him to conform to real world. He finds his teachers condescending and seeing the world in black and white. "I never lived the dreams of the prom kings/And the drama queens/I'd like to think the best of me/Is still hiding/Up my sleeve." He's come to realize there's "no such thing as the real world" and wants to go back to his high school to tell it to anyone who will listen. The instrumentation on the song doesn't really get in the way of Mayer's lyrics, but the guitar hook in the bridge is really something special. The song walks a fine line between enlightenment and cynicism, but Mayer threads the needle quite superbly.

Given his parents' careers as educators and their friction toward his love of music, it's no surprise Mayer would be bitter about how his time in high school tried to push him toward a more traditional career. Even though he's chiding his fellow students for falling in line, I feel like he's also critiquing boomer mentality at a time when it still wasn't clear just how much that generation fucked over millennials and gen Z. "And all of our parents/they're getting older/I wonder if they've wished for anything better/while in their memories/tiny tragedies."

About the only way this song would've been more perfect was if I had written it myself. I couldn't get enough of pop and alternative radio when this song came out, and made my dad buy me guitars in a half-hearted attempt to become a musician myself. In a sense, I might've been John Mayer if I was born ten years earlier. As it was, the timing of the song's release was pretty ideal.

I was starting to buckle down again in my schoolwork and trying to be more social, but a seed had been planted in me that the idea of doing your best in school just so you can get a white collar 9-to-5 career was kind of bullshit. The thing is, I don't necessarily blame high school for this way of thinking, especially after I moved to Washington State at the end of the year. But maybe the tragedy was that I never followed through on that thinking, seeing as how I pursued a career in accounting in college. Don't get me wrong, it's nice to have a career that more or less pays the bills each month, but damn if tax season doesn't suck out a little bit of my soul with each passing year.

Mayer initially wanted to film the music video for the song at his old high school in Fairfield, Connecticut. But seeing how the song's message is basically "school is bullshit", the school denied the request. Instead, he's filmed performing the song at the Georgia Theatre in Athens, Georgia. It's a pretty straightforward clip that lets the song's lyrics and melody stand out. Perhaps a more conceptual piece could've been clever, but it might have also muddied the message of the song, especially if it seemed like Mayer's own high school was in on the joke.

When "No Such Thing" reached the top of my chart, it was starting to make waves nationally, and it eventually peaked at #13 on the Billboard Hot 100. Mayer followed it up with the divisively silly bedroom pop song "Your Body Is a Wonderland", which Mayer claims was written about a girlfriend he had when he was 14. I didn't resonate with that song nearly as much as "No Such Thing", but it still got to #14 on my top 40. On the Hot 100, the song peaked at #18, and it earned Mayer a Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. I can see why people might've hated on the song then or now, but it just feels so light and airy as to be inoffensive to me.

The third single from Room for Squares was the far superior "Why Georgia", a song about Mayer's time in Atlanta. That one didn't do near as well nationally as his first two singles, but I heard it enough that it got all the way to #7 on my top 40 in 2003.

With his debut full-length album under his belt, John Mayer proved he had the musical chops and life experience to make him someone for me to keep my eye on in the pop music realm. He also proved that you don't have to follow a straight-B school path on the way to a dull job. And he wasn't done putting out songs that captured my attention when they came my way. We will see John Mayer again in this column.


I can't seem to find any notable covers of "No Such Thing", or usage in other media. "Your Body Is a Wonderland", however, was featured in a 2006 episode of The Office, where the characters Michael Scott and Andy Bernard serenade a pair of Benihana's waitresses with the song during a Christmas party, and Michael realizes he can't tell the two women apart. Here's the clip:

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