In Which I Am Impossibly Dense: Gotye Edition

After only twenty years of having first heard the song, I realized that Madonna’s “Like A Prayer” wasn’t actually about praying. I’m bad at this stuff. Help!

A bunch of years ago – 30, maybe? – an overly serious man named Gotye released a song called “Somebody That I Used To Know.” It was a ubiquitous song at the time. The song even ended up getting covered on Glee (which was also very popular) and, like Jonathan Franzen before him, Gotye whinged about being forced to accept even more money than the original had already generated for him. Artists gonna artist.

The song itself is simple enough. Gotye and a second singer, Kimbra, document the collapse and aftermath of a once-promising relationship. Their takes on what happened are predictably skewed – much like Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon before it, or perhaps its more modern contemporary, Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” – and the song ends without it being entirely clear what it was exactly that tanked the relationship.

Except that Gotye – although he might have been portraying a character, we are going to treat Gotye and Kimbra as actual characters in this – is the almost certainly the reason things went south. Right?

The Case For Gotye

To hear Gotye tell his tale of woe, things were fine. Fine.

Now and then I think of when we were together
Like when you said you felt so happy you could die

See? She was so happy that she could have died, which is an entirely normal thing that absolutely cannot be interpreted in any way other than her time with him was utter ecstasy. Except:

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

Almost immediately we are given reasons to suspect that Gotye is up to no good. Here he presents himself as the victim – sure, he was lonely, poor guy – but an apparently willing one, given that he aches for it.

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 that it was over

Ha ha, sure you were glad it was over guy, absolutely. You were so glad that you wrote a song about it much later in which you portray yourself as the victim and your ex-girlfriend as the monster who left you lonely. Glad is definitely the word that describes such behavior. But do, go on:

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

Jilted ex-boyfriend is one thing. This behavior is something else entirely. Ignore for a moment that Gotye is still at his, “I’m the victim!” shtick and focus instead on what she’s doing: completely excising him from her life. “Cut me off” and “never happened” and “nothing” is somewhat serious behavior for a break-up that just a few seconds earlier had been described as two people discovering that “we could not make sense.” That “we” is doing a lot of heavy lifting here given the behavior being subsequently described.

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
Now you’re just somebody that I used to know
Now you’re just somebody that I used to know

Sending friends for belongings? Changing phone numbers? What was Gotye doing exactly, besides being an utter maniac?

The Case For Kimbra

Suppose that the conclusion from Gotye’s first attempt at his own story was a sort of nervous indifference.  “Yeah, maybe he really was the victim here,” we might think, “but goodness, some of that stuff in there wasn’t good, and he was the one doing the storytelling, and he was the one in a position to stack the facts as sympathetically as possible.”

Then take Kimbra’s version for a spin:

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
And 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 

Here’s some exclusive footage of Kimbra’s portion of the song, in which she describes Goyte as, at best, a manipulative jerk, and at worst, as an obsessed loser, all before laying waste to the idea that she really is somebody that Gotye used to know. That it takes her a quarter of the song’s total lyrics to eviscerate him is all the more telling.

The Case For Gotye

Thoroughly humiliated, Gotye’s attempt to curry sympathy goes…badly.

But you didn’t have to cut me off
Make out like it never happened and that we were nothing

Yes, she did have to cut you off, you creepy weirdo. You were an awful human being. And still are, frankly.

And I don’t even need your love
But you treat me like a stranger and that feels so rough

He might as well have trotted out the internet’s staple “Actually, I’m not even mad right now. I find this funny.”

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

Repeating the evidence of his own monstrousness isn’t enough to convince him. She sent her friends. She changed her number. She did everything imaginable to cut ties between them.

Somebody, I used to know
(Somebody) Now you’re just somebody that I used to know
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

There’s what he’s saying about himself, and there’s what he is actually doing, and those appear to be two wildly divergent things.

Except

But, again, I didn’t realize that “Like A Prayer” wasn’t about praying at all*. On the rare occasions that I actually listen to lyrics – unlike my wife and daughters, who are capable of remembering all lyrics to all songs, seemingly whether or not they themselves have actually heard them, I cannot even remember lyrics to my most favorite songs – I struggle to tease out their meaning.

So then maybe then I am wrong about this one. Maybe Gotye isn’t the monster that he appears to me. Maybe Kimbra really did treat him badly. Maybe it is in fact remarkable that I am able to consume any media at all without my brain shortcircuiting.

*Apparently, I’m just bad at figuring out sex stuff.


Staff Writer
Twitter Instagram 

According to a faithful reader, I'm Ordinary Times's "least thoughtful writer." So I've got that going for me, which is nice.

Please do be so kind as to share this post.
TwitterFacebookRedditEmailPrintFriendlyMore options

17 thoughts on “In Which I Am Impossibly Dense: Gotye Edition

  1. Thank you so much for making me listen to this song again! I was hoping it would remain just a song I used to hear.

    (Also, Kimbra really does eviscerate him.)

    I actually think I understand where he’s coming from. He was a jerk in the relationship, perhaps because it was never really what he wanted (this happens all the time, of course). He put his dissatisfaction all on her shoulders and, if he’s anything like people I know, her actions, but wanted to still be friends, because he has a hard time letting go.

    She wanted to be friends until going through the breakup process, which was probably nasty, and now wants nothing to do with him. He’s still an insensitive jerk and doesn’t understand why.

    Report

    • “He’s still an insensitive jerk and doesn’t understand why.” Communicating that fact, while still speaking with an authentic-sounding voice, is a pretty remarkable feat of songwriting when you think about it. So as annoying as this song can be, it does have at least that much going for it.

      That and Kimbra’s voice is silky and lovely. (FWIW, I interpret the implication of her “We can still be friends” remark during the breakup as something she felt impelled to say to deflect some of his anger and clinginess, and not something that she meant sincerely even when she said it.)

      Report

    • So he’s going to spend the next 50 years of his life making the same mistakes over and over again, and drinking heavily because of it, but never taking any steps to fix the broken thing, which is himself, – and at the end of his life the other bookend will be “Hurt”?

      Report

  2. I think you’re probably right, that Gotye’s voice is supposed to be the unreliable narrator, and Kimbra’s the one that has a proper perspective on things.

    I share your difficulty figuring out what lyrics are about, and also generally have a difficulty hearing what the lyrics even are – things others easily sing along to after hearing them a handful of times, I still hear as

    mumble wumble yeah fnoo
    wiz bizibizi mumble chewww

    (probably the chorus)

    (lyrics may or may not continue during guitar solo)

    Barely relatedly, does anyone else think it’s pretty clear we’re supposed to think Billy Jean is in fact the lover of the voice of the song, her child is in fact his, and the whole thing should be read as a shabby attempt to dissemble before his wife and gaslight his mistress – which makes the song just perfect for wedding dances, apparently?

    Report

    • I think that is the canonical interpretation of Billie Jean, yes. After all, when she displays a photograph of her baby, the narrator is compelled to admit that “his eyes were like mine,” which we in the audience can quite reasonably take as evidence that Billie Jean is accurate when she says the narrator is “the one.”

      Why this subject matter should be deemed appropriate for a wedding remains beyond me, but the song does have a rather catchy dance rythym.

      Report

    • I have since given up on figuring out why certain songs are appropriate for weddings. Case in point: YMCA. Why is a song about gay men hooking up at the gym appropriate for a straight wedding? It’s too camp even for a gay wedding.

      Report

      • Where do you do the chicken dance but at weddings?

        Where do you do the YMCA dance but at wedding?

        In 20 years, do you know what people will *STILL* be doing at weddings?

        The chicken dance and YMCA.

        But they will also be doing that “Whip/Nae Nae” song.

        Report

  3. Ok, gang, this is really important. If you want a relationship to succeed, both parties (and genders don’t matter one iota here) really need to take the attitude that “there’s this thing, this pattern, this habit, that we get into that isn’t good and if we’re going to beat it, we’re going to have to team up”.

    Instead of, you know, taking the moral high ground and insisting that they are the bad actor. Not me. Never me.

    This song perfectly activates the second reaction in people. I’m pretty sure “Gotye”‘s pain was real, even if he wasn’t so good at articulating it. The posturing of “I’m glad it’s over” when he’s obviously trashed by it being over is classic. And of course, we all too often buy into the notion that men should not admit to feeling pain. Boys don’t cry, don’t you know?

    Report

  4. I share your difficulty with knowing lyrics, which is one reason I really like being able to google them now.

    I also share your interpretation of that song, with one reservation. We don’t really know exactly what happened in the relationship. Each of the characters is unreliable. While Kimbra’s perspective gives us the information we need to know, and while we can balance that with the fact that Gotye actually does most of the talking, which makes me, at least, think something is up about how the relationship is of the “he talks, she listens” variety, at the end of the day, we don’t know how much the Gotye character has crossed the line into being an insensitive, gaslighting jerk or is just someone who’s clueless about his own responsibility for things.

    That’s a spectrum, I believe, and not an either/or. Gotye’s not necessarily a bad guy, or isn’t only a bad guy. And Kimbra isn’t necessarily wholly in the right–although I think we can see she has a strong point.

    Report

  5. I’ve always like the reveal in Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”:

    No it ain’t no use in callin’ out my name, gal
    Like you never done before

    He’s trying to win a break-up, when she’s barely enough noticed he lives in the same town.

    Report

  6. So much of the song’s meaning is conveyed through its construction. We hear one interpretation, then another, so we’re meant to believe the second one. The form is a question and an answer, a problem and a resolution. We don’t expect to hear the truth, then a lie. Why would you write a song where one person tells the truth, and then another person jumps in and gives you falsities? No, if two people disagree in a song, the truth comes at the end. That’s more consoling. We like to believe that we gain knowledge over time, that the facts will finally come out. We forgive being lied to in the first half because we heard the truth in the second.

    Report

  7. I just watched the video, and it definitely supports your reading of the lyrics. Also, visually interesting.

    Then I watched the parody video, What Happened To The Star Wars I Used To Know. Strong recommendation.

    Report

Comments are closed.