I believe that as much as art informs culture, culture informs art. It’s rare to see this emerge in the traditionally vapid world of pop music, but there is a current over-played song that strikes me as unintentionally illuminating a troubling aspect of our society.
I believe that the song “Somebody That I Used To Know” by Gotye featuring Kimbra illustrates a fundamental disrespect that has run rampant in our society. [Disclaimer: I realize that the writing of a song, especially a duet is a complex process. For the sake of this analysis I will name the characters by the artist who voiced them. I realize this likely does not directly reflect either of their lives and I hope you realize that too.]
In the first verse Gotye describes the “good times” of a now expired relationship:
Now and then I think of when we were together
Like when you said you felt so happy you could die
Told myself that you were right for me
But felt so lonely in your company
But that was love and it’s an ache I still remember
Already Gotye describes not only that he’s being dishonest with himself; he’s telling himself it’s a good match, and trying to ignore a lonely feeling when around his partner. Perhaps even more alarming he says “but that was love” implying that either the feelings or the dishonesty are part of love.
In the second verse Gotye develops the theme that he was unhappy in the relationship:
You can get addicted to a certain kind of sadness
Like resignation to the end, always the end
So when we found that we could not make sense
Well you said that we would still be friends
But I’ll admit that I was glad it was over
The amount of suffering described so far makes me concerned that Gotye is, in some way, perpetuating his victim-hood. If he was unhappy, why didn’t he address it in a straight forth manner? The way it’s worded makes him appear to be in a passive victim-like status.
In the bridge we find the turn of the tale:
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 that feels so rough
No 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
Here it appears the up-to-now passive character is lashing out at his past lover: she “cut him off” and “stooped so low,” treated him “like a stranger.” It’s only natural to lash out at someone who’s hurt you, however the transgressions he describes seem only reasonable: “make out like it never happened,” “treat me like a stranger,” “have your friends collect your records and then change your number.” These seem like perfectly reasonable post-break-up attempts to be gentle to one’s own psychological healing. After breaking up with someone I’m likely to treat someone as a stranger if I’m not ready to interact with them again yet. I might also ask friends to get my stuff from the ex’s house so I don’t have to put myself through that. And if it was a particularly bad relationship, it’s totally within my right to change my phone number. Gotye, why are you whining about all this?
And this is when the ex-girlfriend’s response comes in:
Now and then I think of all the times you screwed me over
But had me believing it was always something that I’d done
But I don’t wanna live that way
Reading into every word you say
You said that you could let it go
And I wouldn’t catch you hung up on somebody that you used to know
This new perspective sheds light on the fact that Kimbra feels screwed over, coerced into believing it was her fault, and lied to [I’m extrapolating from tone and context that “you said that you could let it go” is a direct response to the prior portion of the song, combined with a pre-song statement on the part of Gotye.] The tone of this portion of the song sounds assertive and is in contrast to Gotye’s tone. This is the end of new lyrical content in the song.
Overall I see this story telling the tale of boy who is not only confused, but perceives himself to be helpless in his current position. The woman, on the other hand, has taken a stand, taken care of herself and is trying to move forward while still annoyed at her ex’s position on break-up.
Gotye’s character in all this is the part that deeply troubles me. As he and his ex describe it, it appears he has deeply betrayed/pissed off his ex. His response seems to be to whine and complain, and do so to her. This isn’t constructive for him and it shows a basic lack of respect for his ex. When faced with an ex who changed her phone number to avoid him, the more constructive choice would be to ask yourself “what was my part in causing such a strong reaction?” and use it as an opportunity for self-reflection and growth. Also, if she changed her number, she doesn’t want to talk to him, so why has he engaged her in the dialogue that is this song? The description of her actions in the song make a case that she is establishing a very clear boundary. By engaging her in this dialogue, he’s disrespecting this boundary.
So, the lesson to be learned here: Whining is bad. Self-reflection is good. Learn to identify boundaries and respect them.