Exploring Gotye’s ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’

If the laws were suddenly changed to restrict break up songs from all artistic expression, a voidbreak up breakup broken heart would be left in popular music that might never be filled. From the old saw about country music (“What do you get when you play a country song backwards? You get your wife back, you get your car back, you get your dog back…”) to the ultimate girl-power breakup song (and a true classic), I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor, people have expressed thoughts and emotions through song as long as people have been writing music. Such songs speak for us of mutual, hurtful experiences.

Last year a Belgian-born, Australian-raised artist, Wouter “Wally” De Backer, who goes by the name, Gotye (GO-tee-ay, not “Goatee, eh?”) exploded onto the world music scene with the breakup song, “Somebody That I Used to Know,” from his project Making Mirrors. Featuring New Zealand-born Kimbra (Johnson), the song alternates a guy and girl talking through their feelings of a relationship that ended badly. The single has gone 8x-Platinum in Australia (more than 560,000 copies). By mid-April 2012, it had reached #1 on the music charts in 18 countries, particularly in Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Ireland, Denmark, and the USA.

As of this writing, the official video for the song has been viewed on YouTube more than 171.6 million times, while a brilliant cover of the song by the American group Walk Off the Earth has garnered more than 93 million views.

This is a song I love because the music is subtle and accurately expressive of the moods in the lyrics, but also because the lyrics are as meaty as a grilled New York Strip, seasoned to perfection.

It should come as no surprise to people who watch relationships that men and women do not communicate on the same level. Men typically grunt and talk in sports metaphors about most everything, except a few Bible scholar types who think all worthy things end in “-ology.” (One may surmise “urology” is excepted from that rule.) Women, however, tend to communicate thoughtfully and emotionally, at more levels than most men know exist. We are different, these wonderful genders. Yet, it often means men are often at a loss when trying to communicate with women, even those we love.

What man who has ever been in a relationship of any length at all has not found himself, on occasion after occasion, standing, with hands spread apart at the waist, completely dumbfounded staring at his eyes-narrowed significant-other, while he retains the ability to utter the single syllable, “What?”

When it comes to inter-gender communication, we men function better with a little more grunting and a little less poly-syllabic, thousand word orations. But, that’s where we find ourselves.

Enter Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know.” Below are the lyrics and a humorous but realistic exegesis of how accurately it captures the sometimes futile attempts of male/female communication, especially when strong emotions are involved. Breakup songs never had it so good.

[The Guy]
Now and then I think of when we were together
The guy begins with his best shot, bringing up his feelings. “I’m still thinking of you.” But it’s really a slam because he only thinks of her “now and then.”

Like when you said you felt so happy you could die
But, now he throws her words back in her face. He doesn’t remember he cannot win a war of words.

Told myself that you were right for me
See? I really liked you. You might even have been the one!

But felt so lonely in your company
Another shot to hurt her. Dummy.

But that was love and it’s an ache I still remember
This guy’s been reading bad poetry or something. A feeble attempt to express his feelings. The “ache” is obviously her fault.

You can get addicted to a certain kind of sadness
Well, maybe I wasn’t that happy. I was kind of happy sad being with you.

Like resignation to the end, always the end
“I was just resigned to this.” Wow. “The end” is her fault.

So when we found that we could not make sense
“We” means “you.” He’s not taking any blame.

Well you said that we would still be friends
The all-time breakup line.

But I’ll admit that I was glad it was over
Typical guy talk when emotions are involved. He’s hurt, so he lashes out to hurt her, “I was glad it was over.” He wasn’t of course, that’s why he continues with…

But you didn’t have to cut me off
Accusation.

Make out like it never happened and that we were nothing
Accusation.

And I don’t even need your love
Right. This comment is that of a 5-year old.

But you treat me like a stranger and I feel so rough
Now his hurt is on full display, but it continues to be about him. “I don’t even need your love…I feel so rough.” Make up your mind, dude. If he doesn’t “need her love,” why does he care if she treats him “like a stranger”?

No you didn’t have to stoop so low
“So low”? This one’s coming back around soon…

Have your friends collect your records and then change your number
Seriously? What was she supposed to do with her things, wait for you to put them on Ebay?

I guess that I don’t need that though
Now you’re just somebody that I used to know

Now you’re just somebody that I used to know
Now you’re just somebody that I used to know
This has been his ace in the hole all along. This is the dagger he’s waited to plunge into her heart. “You are nobody to me. Just somebody that I used to know.”

[The Girl]
Now and then I think of all the times you screwed me over
Oh. There’s another side to this story? Who’s the one that stooped so low?

Part of me believing it was always something that I’d done
And guess why she felt this way? That’s right. These were his accusations against her pre-song, “You make me crazy!” “I only do this because of you!” “This is your fault!” All the shouts of a weak, weak man.

But I don’t wanna live that way
Who would? His accusations led to her guilt.

Reading into every word you say
Because women communicate at a deeper level, she decides to protect herself from his Neanderthal ramblings. She shields herself from further hurt.

You said that you could let it go
Now she throws his words back at him. “If you could let it go, why are you still accusing and blaming?”

And I wouldn’t catch you hung up on somebody that you used to know
This is her moment of truth. She turns his dagger against him and fully disembowels him with it.

[The Guy]
But you didn’t have to cut me off
Make out like it never happened and that we were nothing
And I don’t even need your love
But you treat me like a stranger and I feel so rough
And you didn’t have to stoop so low
Have your friends collect your records and then change your number
I guess that I don’t need that though
Now you’re just somebody that I used to know
Though this is the chorus of the song, it’s also typical of men. We can be a one argument gender, and because we don’t readily translate female communication it becomes a repetition of the same thing over and over. It’s usually louder and louder, too, like a tourist trying to make a non-English speaker understand, “WHERE IS THE BATHROOM?” by increased volume.

[x2]
Somebody
(I used to know)
Somebody
(Now you’re just somebody that I used to know)

(I used to know)
(That I used to know)
(I used to know)
Somebody

Here is a live performance of “Somebody That I Used to Know” on Saturday Night Live.

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.