To be perfectly honest, Gavin DeGraw’s “Not Over You” sounds like a song that a college guy would play on the piano in the student union in order to show off to girls. The song makes the singer sound kind of vulnerable, capable of deep loving, and in need of some emotional healing. “Dreams,” he sings, “that’s where I have to go/to see your beautiful face anymore/I stare at a picture of you and listen to the radio.” I think the appropriate emotional response is supposed to be a sort of internal and dramatic “aw!” But also while the song predisposes you to like the sentimental boy who sings it, it’s also supposed to make you want to be the object of that intense devotion. Who doesn’t want someone to keep holding the torch for you?
It strikes me as purely performative, though. Guys who do that stuff in real life seem like real dickheads. Surely, dudes playing guitar in public are the devil’s work. They seem to perform sensitivity in order to get attention and that attention they hope becomes the entryway to the ladies. Gavin DeGraw did not invent this persona nor is he currently the most successful of these figures, John Mayer is.
I’m also pretty sure that most women see through this charade as well. So why does it work? Why is popular music so full of patently disingenuous sentimental singers? Before I address that question, though, a quick aside. I’m not sure where the boundary lies between what I consider the performative sentimentality of “Not Over You” and the real sentiment of a song like “Johnsburg, Illinois” by Tom Waits. I don’t think I can explain the difference between these songs but I feel it nonetheless.
To return to the question of why false sentimentality works, the answer I think is rooted in our own unshakeable vanity. To have people in the thrall of your performance no matter how insincere is at the heart of all desire to be before a crowd. Regardless of how much I look down my nose at those goofballs playing guitar in public, a small part of me wishes that it was me that was getting the attention. Deep down we realize that even if all they’re singing about is trivial insincerities, musicians will always get more attention than most of us, and thus, despite ourselves, we wind up identifying in some small way with the singer. A similar thought probably occurs to the listener: even when you know you’re listening to conventional commonplaces about love and desire, you still wish they were directed toward you, that is, you identify in some small way with the object of the singer’s affection. We all want to be sung to even if there is little new or sincere in the emotions expressed by the song. Most of us are vain, vain people, and that vanity ensures that there will always be people in need of attention on either side of the microphone.