During each night of his solo acoustic tour, John Mayer switches up the setlist. This past weekend during a show in Sacramento, California, the singer and songwriter reached back a decade and performed “Paper Doll” from his 2013 album Paradise Valley. Reflecting on the record’s tone, which has long been rumored to have been written about Taylor Swift, Mayer expressed some regrets about how the song was received.
“I wonder if people don’t like it because it sounds a little pissed off,” Mayer mused on stage. “I don’t like ‘pissed off’ as a song. I think it was more hurt. Is there something about it that’s a little bitchy? I try not to give bitchiness in the song, and that happens sometimes. I guess I don’t do it very well, sarcastic bitchy, but I didn’t really see it. I guess it is a little bit like, meh.”
A couple of hours before Mayer hit the stage, news of Swift’s split from long-time boyfriend Joe Alwyn splashed across everyone’s Twitter timeline. Swifties around the world promptly set off a bat signal to let everyone know true love was dead. In what was possibly a strategic move on her end, the news broke during one of the weekends the singer has off from her catalog-spanning Eras tour.
Similar to Mayer, in a way, Swift changes up the setlist each night. “You think you can just go online, you think you can just scroll and know the setlist?” Swift teased the audience at her Arlington, Texas, show earlier this month. “You think you can just come prepared with little flashcards? ‘I know what she sings next, I know what she wears next.’ Let it be said about the Eras Tour: We’re tricksy. That’s what we are. We enjoy a good, healthy setlist hijinks.”
Swift’s surprise songs so far have included the likes of “Mirrorball,” “This is Me Trying,” “Tim McGraw,” “State of Grace,” “Snow on the Beach,” “Clean,” “Death by a Thousand Cuts,” and more. She still has dozens of shows to go, but the likelihood that “Dear John” — which examined Mayer’s relationship with her when she was 19, and he was 32 — will ever make it onto the setlist is slim to none.
Despite the fact that “Paper Doll” seems to answer directly to “Dear John” at times — responding to Swift’s “You paint me a blue sky then go back and turn it to rain” with “If those angel wings don’t fly, someone’s going to paint you another sky,” among other parallels — he has insisted that she wasn’t the inspiration being the song.
“When ‘Paper Doll’ came out, 100% of the people believed it was about somebody, and the person that they thought it was about brought a certain amount of a superficial, pop culture back-and-forth about it that I think kind of shat on the song,” Mayer said during his Instagram Live show Current Mood in 2019, the last time he semi-regularly performed the song (though it did make an appearance on the setlist for three shows last year). “The song is not about that person. And I could never tell anybody that’s not true, because then I would be breaking my rule that songwriters don’t say who the songs are about or not about. So I had to burn ‘Paper Doll’ to save the integrity of being a singer-songwriter.”
Mayer is big on his rules about the right and wrong ways to be a songwriter. In a 2012 interview with Rolling Stone, the musician claimed that not only did “Dear John” humiliate him, but he also thinks it was a poorly written record. “I will say as a songwriter that I think it’s kind of cheap songwriting,” Mayer stated. “I know she’s the biggest thing in the world, and I’m not trying to sink anybody’s ship, but I think it’s abusing your talent to rub your hands together and go, ‘Wait till he gets a load of this!’ That’s bullshit.”
More than 10 years later, Swift is still the biggest thing in the world, and Mayer is still trying to make “Paper Doll” seem more interesting than it actually is, bitchy or not.