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Gotye's "Somebody That I Used To Know" is a Uniquely Beautiful Song
An honest look at dejection that tugs at your soul.
I can remember the first time that I heard the Belgian born, Australian raised, recording artist Gotye’s 2011 ode to dejection “Somebody That I Used To Know.” The second single off of the “Making Mirrors” album strikes the listener with such unassuming unapologetic honesty that it instantly sets itself apart from the traditional lovers lament song format. A song with the power to inspire one to simultaneously empathize and reflect subconsciously practically begs to be deconstructed. What is the secret behind this song’s addictive power?
Heart ache and heart break, while poignant in nature, are rarely expressed honestly. Matters of the heart and soul are notoriously one sided in the context of music. Pain leads to the desire to lay blame elsewhere and neglect personal accountability. Empathy creates villains. Using a break up as songwriting material is an attempt to depict an unfavorable set of circumstances from a singular perspective. Gotye’s song transcends the lovers lament dilemma by presenting the narration from three unique angles. Firstly, the apparent distance between the relationship and the end thereof is considerable. This gives the narrator time to digest what went wrong, his resulting emotions, and where to appropriately assess blame. Then, he describes the aftermath of the break- up. Betrayals of trust usually occur during the romantic involvement, not after. Gotye’s narration chronicles a betrayal of an oral agreement to remain friends and his dismay when he finds himself written off completely. That’s what hurts him. The relationship itself is described as having deteriorated over time into something somewhat void of emotion and interest. The song’s narrator admits that he was happy when it ended, but never expected that his former lover could erase all but completely erase him and his former importance from her life. The third unique angle is the second point of view. This is achieved through a duet. New Zealand recording artist Kimbra fills the role of the former lover and shares her sentiment about what has happened and how she feels.
The lyrics and the dejected tone of Gotye’s voice invoke a feeling of commiseration. The dilemma presented in the song is not a rare one. It is an easily relatable turn of events. Boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, either boy or girl loses interest, boy and girl break up but agree to stay friends, one moves on faster than the other, somebody’s feelings get hurt. Even though Gotye personifies the victim in the duet, he is not without feelings of residual guilt. There is evidence of feeling of penitence in the official video. The moment that Kimbra expresses her reasons for leaving, Gotye’s eyes wince as if to express that he’d become so wrapped up in searching for an explanation for her behavior, he didn’t realize that her leaving was a result of cause and effect. “Now and then I think of all the times you screwed me over,” she says. “But had me believing it was always something that I’d done.” This exposes an oversight of Gotye’s part. All he seems to remember, as he sings in the first verse, is that she’d once said she was “so happy I could die.” If love is a battlefield, the role of victim and victimizer are doled out interchangeably. It all depends on the point of view. People need to reality check each other. Rather, they feel the need to reality check each other in order to get their point across. This duet is, at its core, an attempt to set the record straight. It is cause and effect. Even though the primary narrator carries some delusional beliefs as to how he may have been wronged unprovoked, the song as an objective resource that accounts for multiple perspectives remains honest. There isn’t any acknowledgement of conflict resolution at the end of the song. When Kimbra fades out, Gotye repeats the same chorus. “You didn’t need to cut me out. Make out like it never happened and that we were nothing.” His resolve isn’t publicly influenced by Kimbra’s admission that he wasn’t the only one who felt short changed emotionally.
“Somebody That I Used To Know” is beautiful in its simple presentation and allowance for complex interpretation. The official video relies on facial expressions and emotive eyes to provide a sentimental resignation to sadness and confusion. The visual is coupled perfectly with the audio. The music video artistic medium seems to have gradually lost momentum since their widespread introduction on MTV in the 1980’s. “Somebody That I Used to Know” is complimented by its video perfectly. It opens the song up for a deeper view. Something could also be said for Gotye’s acting. As simple as it seems to stand against a backdrop of geometric lines and paint, both Gotye and Kimbra use their body language to further the depth of the story. Without the video, the morose and tormented nature of Gotye’s nature would be apparent, but the facial acknowledgement of guilt would not be seen. There is penitence through the imagery. Body language is a very telling form of self- expression. Sometimes vocalizing thoughts makes a strong and complete point, but gestures can reveal hidden sentiment or the level of intensity; the strength of the conviction.
So, why does it resonate so heavily with the listener? People like it because it is catchy and provocative, sure. However, there is a deeper element that draws people in and compels them to turn up the volume. The three angled approach to exploring dejection and loss in retrospect, works for this song. It plays out like a car accident. It’s a marriage of curiosity and morbidity. I don’t believe that people generally take pleasure in the pain of others, but in the case of painful personal reckoning, it conjures up a feeling of empathy. People can relate, thus they are curious to see how things play out for somebody else. “Somebody That I Used To Know” paints a familiar picture, but the brush strokes are different. The primary voice doesn’t seek empowerment or allies, or even the truth. He picks a specific aspect of his break-up and explains the emotional effect thereof. He has “resigned” himself to “loneliness.” He may or may not have deserved the cold treatment he received, but she had a choice too. She didn’t have to write him off even if her decision was justifiable.
I expect great things from Gotye in the future. “Making Mirrors” topped ten million units in sales. It won a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album and has been certified platinum many times over in a variety of countries. I have a feeling that this is only the beginning.