A Closer Listen: Musings on Love, Heartbreak and John Mayer

Carlo Javier // Columnist 

Of all the different versions of “Daughters” you can find in John Mayer’s discography, I like the one in Where the Light Is the most. Like the other live renditions, this one starts with a preamble where slide guitarist Robbie McIntosh plays an impressive 30-second blues lick as Mayer eases his way into the opening strums of the song. 

One of my favourite moments of this version happens during a sliver of silence in between the plucks of the strings on McIntosh’s blues guitar. As a note dies down, you can hear an audience member saying: “We love you, thank you so much!” In response, you can hear Mayer whisper back with “I love you, too.” 

There is both a suspense and elation that comes immediately after you say the words “I love you” to someone. It reminds me of the egg toss game where you hope that they catch the egg with enough tenderness so that the shell doesn’t shatter upon contact, and you hope that they toss it back with the same tenderness so that you can catch it too. I like to think that this is exactly why hearing the words “I love you, too” feels so inexplicably magical. 

I especially like this interaction because it can take a few rewinds to really grasp the warmth of the exchange and because ironically, “Daughters” is a song about the failure of love, and not the blooming of it. 

John Mayer is ubiquitous enough in pop music that I have always been semi-aware of his work. What this means is that I have also always been semi-aware of his tainted celebrity stature. 

I feel that I had been quick to believe that Mayer is just another industry-manufactured pop star, armed with catchy hooks and a bevy of sing-along-friendly singles. Over the past year that I’ve found myself consciously seeking more of Mayer’s body of work, I felt validated to see that his music—especially Continuumhad been the recipient of some retroactive acclaim for its craftsmanship. 

I rediscovered Mayer’s music under the stress of immense grief. I turned to Continuum, believing songs like “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room” and “Dreaming With a Broken Heart” would help explain the harrowing things I was feeling in a reality that never felt as tender as the love songs we put on our Spotify playlists. 

I had experienced an especially agonizing breakup at the start of spring, when my then-partner of nearly four years decided it was over. I had always imagined heartbreak to be debilitating, but I felt a seemingly inescapable and desolate type of melancholy as I watched the blossoming spring and the bright days of summer pass me by. 

In the summer, when time felt too abundant, I took to long bus rides as a means of coping. I found it easier to acknowledge my sadness around strangers, where I felt no mandate to put on a mask. It felt oddly comforting to be sad in the ambiance of strangers. I found it easier for tears to flow while waiting for the next bus, or the coming train, than it was around my dearest friends. 

Where the Light Is runs a little over two hours long and perfectly fit my affinity for aimlessly long commutes. 

I had shared a conversation with a friend that while “Daughters” is sonically-comforting, it is not exactly a model track in regards to subject matter. There are many contentious points in its lyrics and the song’s ethos is both patronizing to women and a reinforcement of heteronormative gender tropes. The lines that always get me come towards the end, when Mayer shifts the focus of the song to the boy, singing: “boys you can break, you’ll find out how much they can take / boys will be strong and boys soldier on / but boys would be gone without warmth from a woman’s good, good heart.” 

At some point in my many months of long bus rides and endless repetitions of “Daughters,” I started to consider our intrinsic juxtaposition of masculinity with strength. 

One of my coping mechanisms was to scour the internet for breakup advice as well as stories about relationships that failed but found new life. While I came across a copious amount of heartwarming stories, I found more anecdotes and advice that were laden with contempt. Reading about breakups and heartache from people who’ve wronged one another made me feel pressured to expend energy I didn’t have, but reading about having to be strong and having to fight through the loneliness made me feel all the more helpless. 

Another favourite part of the Where the Light is version of “Daughters” comes at the end of the first verse. Typically, Mayer ends the first stanza with “Maybe it’s got nothing to do with me.” Hypothesizing that the collapse of his relationship was not something he could have prevented by having been a better version of himself. I like the one in Where the Light Is because he modifies this line ever so slightly by singing: “Maybe it’s got nothing at all to do with me.” Sometimes I wonder if this seemingly innocuous change is driven by rhythm. More often I wonder if it’s driven by lived-experience and an openness to surrender. 

I think about the expectation of strength amidst breakups and how maybe being strong isn’t only needed to come back from agonizing grief, but maybe strength is more important in knowing when a love that once existed has come to an end—even at the cost of agonizing grief. 

Maybe in the same way we now look back to John Mayer’s Continuum with adoration and respect, I will someday look back on this past year with gratitude and tenderness. It feels absurd for me to think I will reflect on harrowing experiences with kindness, but it also feels absurd that we would toss an egg to someone hoping they would catch it without breaking. Yet we toss it anyway. 

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