While I rode the bus to school in 2006, destruction ensued far, far away from my little rural town in upstate New York. America shipped out its troops to Iraq in droves. Thousands of Iraqis were killed. Saddam Hussein was about to meet his fate, and the search for Osama Bin Laden continued. Every night on the news, I saw how adults were messing up the world, and I couldn’t have felt more disconnected. I was 16. I couldn’t even vote yet.
I was on that bus when I first heard John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change” over the radio in 2006. Admittedly, Mayer was my first celebrity crush. Ever since I saw him grace the TRL studio — baggy cargo pants, baby-faced, full of wit and charm — I doodled gel-penned declarations of my love for him in my journal. Despite being a complete dreamboat, I related to him. I felt seen when he recounted his awkward relationships and insecurities on Room For Squares (2001) and Heavier Things (2003).
So when he used that silky smooth voice to admit he felt powerless in our post-9/11, Iraq War-era, oil-seeking country on “Waiting on the World to Change,” I was like, yeah, me too. My cooler, older, socially conscious friend Hannah thought otherwise. “We shouldn’t wait for the world to change,” she said. “We should be fighting for change.”
We weren’t yet introduced to the Emma Gonzaleses of the world, the Malalas, the Greta Thunbergs. As young people, just finding our footing on social media, we had yet to find our voice. We had to deal with the system we inherited. It truly felt like we were sitting back, waiting until it was our turn.
Mayer’s frustrations with the things he cannot control — love, war, aging — are all over 2006’s Continuum. “We’re never going to win the world / We’re never going to stop the war / We’re never going to beat this, if belief is what we’re fighting for,” he sings on “Belief.” Some would call this apathy, but on an episode of NPR’s Morning Edition in 2007, Mayer fully backed his theory that a made-up mind could never be converted.
“I’m talking about … how futile it is to think that you could replace one belief with another belief,” Mayer said. “You only need to turn to a cable news show to realize that in the history of cable news shows, when they split the screen and had Seattle and L.A. on together, nobody ever went, ‘You know what, hold on a second, Charlie… Seattle’s got me on this. I’ll see ya at the rally.’ … The only way to change a belief is internally.”
While cities were destroyed halfway around the globe, American life was somewhat undisturbed. Because the conflict was not on our soil, you only saw the war if you chose to watch. It’s an uncomfortable concept to sit with today as America’s focus turns inward, when police are killing civilians and people are taking to the street to demand justice and changes to the system.
And yet, songs like “Belief” still hold water for some of us. For those actively trying to have “necessary conversations” with family, it may feel as though Aunt Karen’s beliefs will never change. It’s why so many of us blocked our Trump-loving cousins in 2016. It’s agonizing not seeing eye-to-eye, especially when civil rights are at stake. Especially when the government seems to be working against you, not for you.
The message on Continuum may not speak the same way to those who’ve marched against gun violence, racism, and climate change in the past five years, but it is a time capsule of the Bush era — before Gen Z taught us to demand a better world. It is a snapshot of many millennials’ teen years. While the world crumbled at the hands of politicians, we tied yellow ribbons around our trees and waited for change.
Mayer’s third album is also a time capsule for his personal life. Besides feeling world-weary, you could feel him grasping at other forces. On “Stop This Train,” he wants to pull the brakes on a life that’s full-steam ahead. On “Slow Dancing In A Burning Room,” he watches his relationship disintegrate without trying to save it. On “Gravity,” he fears an eventual downfall. Song after song, Mayer feels every aspect of his life slip between his fingers.
While waiting for the world to change, Mayer used Continuum to transform the things he did have control over: his sound, his image and his role in the music industry. Mayer had busted down the double doors of stardom with his debut, 2001’s Room For Squares. “No Such Thing” rocked minivan stereos everywhere, and the seductive “Your Body Is A Wonderland” earned him his first Grammy. He earned his second and third Grammys (one of which he literally broke to share with Alicia Keys) with “Daughters” on 2003’s Heavier Things. He was a pop heartthrob ruling radio with love songs, catchy choruses and a voice that felt like a boyfriend pillow. There’s a reason why, later in his career, Mayer has chosen to take Shawn Mendes under his wing: it’s because he used to be him.
In 2005, Mayer peeled off a layer of pop hunkery to prove he could cry the blues as well as his idols Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton. Mayer seemed to thrive in live settings, like when he played the 2005 Jammys with Buddy Guy, Phil Lesh, and Questlove, or when Clapton himself hosted him at the 2004 Crossroads Festival. Combined with drummer Steve Jordan and bassist Pino Palladino, the John Mayer Trio recorded Try!, a live album that broke Mayer from the confines of the studio and gave him space to make his guitar wail.
Try! wasn’t experimental by any means, but with two successful albums as a foundation, he had the privilege to play with his sound. It also gave him the ability to test out songs like “Gravity” and “Vultures,” which got a second life on Continuum. Fans could hear the side of Mayer that had been awaiting freedom.
Perhaps the most concise way to describe Continuum is “a pop record made by a guitar player,” as he said in a 2006 interview. “Waiting On The World To Change” became his most popular single to date, with 41 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 and a Grammy win for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. But besides the burst of pop on the opening track, the rest flows as blue-eyed soul. On “Gravity,” his guitar floats him off the ground, as a swath of cool voices keep him levitated. “In Repair” features a hearty organ, pumping hot air underneath lyrics about fixing his flaws. And to take his statement even further, he throws a nod to guitar god Jimi Hendrix by covering “Bold As Love.” Mayer’s now-famous guitar face can be heard all over this album.
Continuum was the prism that allowed him to shoot out into different musical directions. From there, he could tour with Dead & Company without it causing alarm. He could give Frank Ocean songs a wash of guitar on SNL. He could duet with Keith Urban. He could cover Beyoncé, write with No I.D., or record with Leon Bridges. He could release pop, country, and folk albums.
With Continuum, he started his next chapter. And even though it began with “Waiting On The World To Change,” he reminded us that we write our own narrative. Take control over what we can change, and get to work.