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Michael's Number Ones: "Bigger Than My Body" by John Mayer



November 8, 2003


I honestly believe that everyone has at least one novel inside of them. Few people are able to get it out into the world. Fewer still are able to get people to read it.

It's a frustrating feeling to think you're bursting with creative ideas, but with no way to express them, or to get them in front of enough people where it might make a difference. Whether it's impostor syndrome, self-sabotage, a lack of time and resources, or some combination of all of those things, most of us will go through life never getting recognition for the creativity within them.

John Mayer was lucky enough to get in front of the right people to the point where his debut album Room for Squares became an unexpected success. But I guess even he struggled with those feelings, if "Bigger Than My Body", his second #1 on my chart, is any indication.

For John Mayer's second album, Heavier Things, he took more creative control by recording most of the songs in his apartment in New York City. While many artists feel pressure to follow up a successful debut, Mayer seemed to be at ease. His debut dealt with all the anxieties of trying to define success when you become an adult. He likely still felt those anxieties when recording Heavier Things, but was more assured in his ability to express them.

"Bigger Than My Body" was the first single from the album. The instrumentation on the song is bold and bright, led by Mayer's punchy guitar-playing. Stevie Ray Vaughan remained a central influence on Mayer, but he moved to write the song after attending a Coldplay concert. He felt he could write something as powerful as what he saw at the concert, but was frustrated by not being able to. (Coldplay's already been in this column a few times, and will be again many more times.)

Unlike with "No Such Thing", Mayer wasn't trying to be sarcastic or clever with his lyricism. Mayer described the song as "trying to get something out of yourself that you want to be, and not being able to get there." In the hands of a lesser artist, a song about not being able to write a song might come off as contrived or glib. But Mayer deals with the subject plainly and without judgement, which makes his message effective.

Mayer's narrator knows he wants to do something great, but is restricted by his limitations. "Yes I'm grounded, got my wings clipped. I'm surrounded by all this pavement." Nevertheless, he's optimistic he'll eventually get to where he wants to be. "Someday I'll fly, someday I'll soar. Someday I'll be so damn much more cause I'm bigger than my body gives me credit for."

A cynical person might point out that point out that having a record label and production team behind you meant that Mayer would have no trouble getting his music out into the world. But I think many people in creative fields, regardless or their status or success, deal with the insecurity of not being able to produce the artwork they want to make.

I don't remember how much I connected with the message behind the song when it was a single. When you're 17, you usually don't have to worry about creating something that will please a massive audience. Still, I think the line "I'm bigger than my body gives me credit for", resonated with me in ways I did not realize at the time.

When I was at Stuyvesant High School, I knew I wasn't performing to what I was capable of. Given a fresh start in Washington, I made the most out of it. What I didn't expect was how much it would earn me the respect and admiration of my classmates.

I was also taking my first photography class at the time, planting the seeds for something that has become a passion for me, but also allowed me to understand the message of the song infinitely more clearly. It's one thing to take a great photograph and be proud of it. It's another altogether to make everyone else aware of it.

"Bigger Than My Body" got some decent airplay on pop radio when it was released. It peaked at #33 on the Hot 100, and became his third #1 on the Adult Alternative chart. He followed it up with "Clarity", another bright, somewhat more minimal-sounding song. It didn't make any impact on pop radio, but I still heard it enough that it got to #10 on my top 40 in 2004. The third single, "Daughters" did better, peaking at #8 on my chart, and earning Mayer the Grammy Award for Song of the Year.

Mayer's next album, 2006's Continuum, was also a success, moving over two million copies. The songs from the album didn't have quite as much impact with me, however. Lead single "Waiting on the World to Change" only reached #34 on my top 40, despite getting loads of airplay on VH1 and peaking at #14 on the Hot 100.

Mayer kept being a reliable presence on the charts throughout the 2000s. With his 2009 album Battle Studies, he got what would be his last top 10 on my chart. "Heartbreak Warfare" is a really great, understated song. It peaked at #3 in March 2010.

Around that time, Mayer gave an ill-advised and highly criticized interview with Playboy where he compared former girlfriend Jessica Simpson to crack cocaine. He withdrew from public life for a while and then developed vocal problems, taking several months to rest his voice. He's only been on my top 40 once since 2010: "Shadow Days", off his 2012 album Born and Raised, peaked at #38.

Mayer has continued to put albums out into the world, and they all seem to get attention one way or another. I was stunned to learn that his most played song on Spotify is "New Light" off his 2021 album Sob Rock. Since 2015, he's also been a member of Grateful Dead spin-off band Dead & Company. I've never gotten the appeal of The Grateful Dead, but Dead & Company have managed to sell out stadiums throughout their existence, so I guess it's just beyond my comprehension. Mayer seemed to indicate that the group's most recent tour was their last, though whether they will continue seems to be uncertain at this point.

Last year, I got to see John Mayer in concert at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. It was a remarkably minimal performance; he was the only person on the stage throughout the set. And other than "Why Georgia" and "Your Body Is a Wonderland", he didn't play any songs that I recognized. I got the sense that he's someone who just loves the art of playing music, and playing it before a large crowd of people. We won't see him again in this column, but if he still feels bigger than his body gives him credit for, then he's going to be around for a long time to come.


Here's Mayer performing "Bigger Than My Body" with country star Brad Paisley on an episode of CMT Crossroads in 2004.

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