Friday, January 22, 2010

John Mayer: A Pharoah of our Time?

John Mayer.

I'd call myself a fan of his music.  Especially his 2001 album "Room for Squares"  and 2008 live album "Where the Light Is."  He even played a nice duet with one of my musical heroes, Paul Simon:

(Interestingly, both Simon and Mayer are ambivalent about their Jewish identities.  How do we even know that John Mayer is (half) Jewish?  From one of his Tweets of course...)

Anyway...I always thought of John Mayer as this guy with a white-bread bland celebrity reputation.  Nice guy.  Nice songs.  That's it.

This month's "Rolling Stone" magazine is turning all of that upside down.  Click here and here for the online material relating to their John Mayer cover story.  (Disclaimer 1: There's some off color language in this material, as well as colorful references to his sex life.  Disclaimer 2: Rolling Stone has only published excerpts from their interview with him online.  To read the whole thing, you have to go out and buy the magazine from a newsstand.)

I was blown away by how incredibly narcissistic he is!  I know - I shouldn't be surprised.  After all, he's a celebrity.  But still.  This guy is wallowing in more self pity than I thought would be possible for an entertainer as successful as he is.

Of course, we're all allowed a little self pity once in a while.

What makes his situation so difficult for me to handle is the crude language that he uses in terms of objectifying himself, and his future significant other (a mysterious woman out there that he has yet to meet, but who he is literally pining after, nonetheless).

This is not the kind of rock star that I can get excited about.

I get that the people we look up to aren't perfect.  None of us are.  What I have a real problem with is the duplicity that our celebrities and political leaders sometimes practice, to cultivate an image of themselves that is inconsistent with who they really are (and what they represent).

That brings us to this week's Torah portion, Parshat Bo from the Book of Exodus.  Our parsha brings us the final three plagues in the Exodus story, culminating (next week) with the Israelites' release from slavery.

Low and behold, our vast tradition of commentary suggests that Pharaoh and John Mayer share a duplicitous aspect in terms of their personalities.  Like John Mayer, our tradition records that Pharaoh engaged in duplicity in order to win the favor and attention of the Israelites at the beginning of their enslavement.

For example, we have a midrash (Exodus Rabbah 1:10) that notes that Pharaoh had a large necklace made for himself - a heavy chain with a brick hanging from it.  And every time an Israelite complained that the labor they were forced to do was too difficult, the Israelite would be brought before Pharaoh in the palace.  Pharaoh would present himself sweaty and exhausted, with the brick-necklace around his neck (to "prove" that he himself had been laboring all day!)  And he would ask the Israelite: "Are you more delicate than Pharaoh?"

Another midrash records that, one day - early in their enslavement - Pharaoh went out to the Israelites, picked up a shovel and joined them in the making of bricks.  The Israelites were so "inspired" (or scared?!) by the presence of Pharaoh, that they worked doubly hard that day.  When the sun went down, Pharaoh put down his shovel, and ordered his advisers to count the number of bricks that the Israelites had produced.  That unusually high number became the quota of brick-making that had to be met from that day forward.

In both instances, Pharaoh practices duplicity - he tricks the Israelites into thinking that he is a much nicer guy than he actually is.

The very fact that our rabbis of 2,000 years ago crafted midrashim on this particular aspect of Pharaoh's personality suggests the significance that they attached to duplicity, and the contibuting role that it played in making Pharaoh so very evil.

Okay: am I suggesting that John Mayer is evil, in the grand scheme of things, aside the likes of Pharaoh?  Of course not!  (Although he himself has admitted, after reading the Rolling Stone article, that he would not want to date himself.)

But his story is a reminder to us (just like Pharaoh) of the dangers that are implicit when we trust a celebrity or political leader a little too much.  We must remain ever-skeptical and aware of the fact that just because someone weaves a certain public persona of themselves - that that's not who they actually are.

The recent Tiger Woods soap opera drama is another example.  And so, perhaps, is the recent story about Senator Harry Reid's quasi-racist comments about Barack Obama.   Unfortunately, the reality is that there are far too many examples to mention.

What can we do?  Learn from our celebrities' and politicians' continuing to strive to be as honest and authentic about ourselves to others as we can be.

Shabbat Shalom.

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