4.19.2012

What's It Mean?: "Somebody That I Used To Know."

What's It Mean? may take off as something bigger, where we discuss the meanings of songs, and not the versions of explications that come from SongMeanings.com, etc. Let's get a little academic and have fun with it. But mostly, this idea is born from the insane popularity and over-play attached to the Gotye song "Somebody That I Used To Know." At its heart, the track seems to be a sad lament on lost love, and even if you Google around, you get some common theories that avatar Gotye is sad, and avatar Kimbra tells him that "they broke up for reason, so stop being hung up on me." The text is deeper than that, though, and far more sad.

Our main character, Gotye for all intents and purposes, is singing to an ex, about how she left him and now treats him like they never happened. He opens the song saying both that he "felt so happy [he] could die" in the previous relationship, but that he also felt "so lonely in your company" and that "that was love and it's an ache [he] still remembers." It's a complicated 4-line stanza. He's already establishing himself as an unreliable narrator. Gotye never really loves the woman he's singing to, and admits that without admitting it, right away. He was happy, but lonely, as if he was only really dating a simulacrum of a person to begin with. And the final line is an admission that love is imperfect, but that he has also idealized love to such an extent that it's a concept, rather than a dialog between two people. Right away, we can argue that Gotye's avatar here is unsympathetic, and perhaps a bit of headcase.

In Stanza #2, he ups the ante on these concepts. Love is "a certain type of sadness" that he becomes addicted to. It's a drug, not a dialog. It's a torture of sorts, like a lashing administered upon himself like he's an ascetic monk. And it was always "resignation," a sort of pathetic acceptance that he wasn't going to find someone else. We have to remember here that this is HIS perspective, so it's not objective. Now, imagine how you'd feel if your significant other said that they were resigned to be with you. That's shitty. That's being told, essentially, "I can't do any better, so oh well." It's a kick in the fucking teeth. And even as Gotye says that they decided they would still be friends, he's "glad that is was over." Those aren't the words of a sad man. Those are the callous words of someone who never loved where he was, and then has the terrible audacity to complain about how his actions led to equal and opposite reactions. It's a serious moment of psuedo-sociopathy.

When we break into the chorus, the catchy, wonderful chorus (And don't get me wrong, I love this song. It's beautiful, but I'm arguing, misunderstood.), Gotye cries out that while he didn't love her, and she made him sad and lonely and addictive, and don't forget, "resigned," that she didn't have to "cut [him] off" from her entirely. He doesn't want to be treated like a stranger, either, or to think that she changed her number, but there are two big things. First, why if you felt lonely, sad, addicted, and resigned, would you want to hear from that person again. And two, why are you calling someone about whom you can say such things. Maybe some would argue that love is that complex, and yes, I agree to a large part of that, but he should be SURPRISED. And that's the tone of chorus, pained surprise.

Then Kimbra stops by to offer the female perspective. She tells him how he "screwed [her] over" and left her obsessing that it was her fault. Clearly our protagonist is an asshole, or at least a case can be made that his callous interpretation of their relationship, combined with her frank heartbreak, means that he wasn't really in it at all, and isn't a good guy. The kicker comes when Kimbra sings the "You said that you could let it go/ And I wouldn't catch you hung up on somebody that you used to know..." part. She's saying, right there, that Gotye's avatar was talking about his ex, before her, his previous ex, when she and him were together. He never let go of the woman before her, and it destroyed them. And now, he's repeating his destructive pattern of only loving the gone and unattainable, instead of loving the here and now. It's really difficult for me to even conceive of a case where Gotye's character is a good guy here. He seems at total fault. And frankly, it's devastating to consider that he'd get back out there and do the whole thing again to another woman.

Because he repeats the chorus, and that sentiment about feeling ditched and left behind by his former paramour, but it's done in such a way that it's clear he's not listening to Kimbra's advice, or her feelings. He's a relationship Chernobyl doomed to repeat over and over and over again. And that's the song. Disagree? Drop some comments below. If nothing else, let's have a little dialog because I don't want this to be one-sided. And as I said, "Somebody That I Used To Know" is a great song. And while it will be destroyed by radio overplay, it's a huge sonic bright spot in this still young decade. Dig. And that's for hanging out to find out What's It Mean?

7 comments:

  1. I disagree with the resignation piece - I think when he's saying "resignation to the end, always the end" I don't think he's saying that he's resigned to that woman because he can't do better, I think he's saying that he's resigned to that (and every) relationship ending. And when something ends, that's when he's the happiest (since he sees himself as a martyr to his pain). She broke the rules by not giving him control over the ending.

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    1. But I'm totally with you on the rest! Good job!

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    2. Ooh. Good point! I have to give you credit. That was a bit of a misread on my part. The repetition of "the end" is the key and I glossed over it. I would argue that my point would be valid if not for that second "always the end." But, then, that's not the text. Thanks for commenting!

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  2. It’s not “the female perspective,” it’s Kimbra’s perspective. Perhaps I’m being nitpicky in a post that highlights what I like about the song (this kind of thing happens in so many former couples, and I don’t really feel sorry for you Gotye I think you’re being kinda whiny and unreasonable), but one woman’s perspective does not represent all women in the same way that you would never expect Gotye’s perspective to represent all men.

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  3. Good point. I hadn't intended the phrase "female perspective" to be an umbrella over the gender, just over this specific dyad. Still, you are completely
    correct. This is an enclosed narrative that has nothing to do with relationships generally, or men's and women's perspectives. I appreciate the picky-ness.

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  4. when i first heard this song, i thought "this is what half the people in sputnik are thinking about the other half."

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