Hiding In Plain Sight: Gotye’s Hit and Abuse Culture

This past summer, you couldn’t go anywhere without being bombarded by Gotye’s hit single “Somebody That I Used To Know.” The music video – two naked people being painted against a wall – also spawned many parodies, including a rather popular Star Wars parody that many fans enjoyed and promoted. The song was catchy enough that it became an ohrwürme: a ditty that you can’t get out of your head once it starts because it loops so easily in your mind. Even now, the song is so ubiquitous that it will occasionally be sung in everyday conversation if the lines become relevant. (Another good example of a song becoming that ubiquitous is Adele’s “Rolling In the Deep” – in particular, “We could have had it allllll…”)

That’s why it’s so terrifying that the song, when analyzed, actually describes abuse perpetrated by the male character Gotye takes on in the narrative. In our culture, abuse and rape are made everyday and ordinary in order to weaken survivors of such even further and to normalize the behaviors to the advantage of the perpetrators. Gotye hides this abuse in plain sight, and he does so wonderfully – to the point where the narrative and many people who hear the song actually think that the party being treated unfairly is him!

Let’s set the record straight on this hit single.

Before we get into the actual analyzing of the lyrics, I would like to say a few words regarding the construction of the song and how I decided that such an analysis is even possible within “Somebody That I Used To Know.”

My hypothesis is thus: “Somebody That I Used To Know” is, in reality, a description of a relationship wherein the male voice is the abusive party. Gotye places himself into the character of the male voice, and he writes the song in a way in which you are expected to pity him and assume that he is the one being mistreated. This is because Gotye himself does not realize how entrenched he is within abuse culture. The creation of this narrative of abuse was not a conscious decision.

In interviews, Gotye states that the song is a conglomeration of feelings from several failed relationships packed into a single song. Therefore, all feelings expressed within the songs originate from within himself. However, he makes the conscious choice to ascribe certain pieces of thought and experience to the two characters he creates within the narrative: the female voice and the male voice. Gotye himself takes on the role of the male voice, and the vocalist Kimbra takes on the role of the female voice. However, because Kimbra was used as a throwaway addition to his song – he originally didn’t even pick her as his second-choice vocalist and is rudely dismissive of her in interviews – her identity within the framework of the narrative is less important than his. (Already seeing a problem?)

Because Gotye wrote the lyrics, it would theoretically be difficult to see what’s going on in the narrative. If the female in the narrative is in an abusive relationship, it’s hard to tell if her abuser is feeding her words. Logically, one would think the abuser would make sure she wouldn’t be able to even hint at such. However, as I will show you, it’s actually quite obvious that, when analyzed, the words of the female voice are describing abuse. This revelation is what spurs one piece of my hypothesis: even Gotye himself is so entrenched in abuse culture that he doesn’t realize he allowed “his” victim to speak candidly. It also is the crux of another key point of mine regarding how abusers masterfully manipulate their situation to make it seem as though they were the one abused.

Still, one may wonder: can we validly take this as a storyline with two separate characters if all of the emotion is supposed to originate from Gotye? The answer is yes. Here is the roughest of outlines of the “plot,” so to speak:

Verse I: introduction to the situation
Verse II: exposition; the situation unfolds
Verse III: the counterpoint; the situation reversed; the “oh?” moment

This is, as you can see, very much a story. Although Gotye claims that these are all snippets from separate relationships, he clearly sets them up in a format that suggests that he and the female counterpoint vocals were in the same relationship as two separate entities. Therefore, we know that we can take the song as a cohesive narrative about a single relationship. (Additionally, the music video and comments regarding the music video’s artistic development support the interpretation of this being a single relationship between the two narrative voices of the song.)

The Song Itself

Some people would attempt to analyze this via the chronology of the song itself, but this is foolish. First: women are more likely to be the abused one in a cisgendered, heterosexual relationship. A cursory Google search reveals that even a sloppy reporting venue such as Glamour Magazin(American edition, of course; magazine for young women ranging ~16-25, I’d say) found that 60% of their young female readership were in abusive relationships.

For this reason, and because the female narrative has the least to say, using her testimony as a litmus test for the rest of the song is, to me, the way to go. As you’ll see, some behaviors Gotye describes aren’t inherently abusive or problematic…until compared to what exactly he reacts.

Female Narrative, Verse III

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

Line 1: This was not a supportive relationship. Most relationships do not end on a contemplative note that goes, “Wow, you not only did not support me, but you actively compromised me in ways that surmounted to “screwing me over.” Huh.”

Line 2This. Gotye not only compromises her and does not support her – he actively tries to make her feel as though the bad things that happen in the relationship are her fault. It’s one of the largest, classic hallmarks of abuse. The fact that Gotye actually ALLOWS the female voice to say this is stunning: he is so entrenched in his own abusive tendencies that he doesn’t realize that the narrative he has set up is one of male-on-female abuse.

Lines 3-4: These support the clincher. The abuse target realizes what the abuser is doing – an insurmountable task while in an abusive relationship – and wants no part in it. It’s a logical desire. “Reading into every word you say” is another big indication of abuse. The female voice was made to feel as though everything that went wrong in the relationship – every little unhappy tic of Gotye’s – was her fault; ergo, she became hypervigilant in her quest to, in her eyes, stop creating problems. She had to listen carefully to every word this man said; otherwise, he was likely to abuse her. I’ve been in this situation. I know it intimately.

Line 5: Likely the female voice is referring to their breakup. The male voice had promised her that he would be respectful and, judging by other aspects of the song, not contact her and “let it go” peacefully. However, the female voice is interjecting that this is not happening. Another abusive trait.

What’s interesting, though, is that the male voice validates and verifies everything the female voice tells you. The difference is in the fact that both the male voice and Gotye himself expect you to equally pity the male narrator. Abusers don’t think they’re doing anything wrong, and if they can actually be cajoled into admitting that something in the relationship is wrong, they’ll either entirely or partially shift the blame onto their partner. This is wrong.

Let’s hear more from the man himself.

Male Narrative, Verse I

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

Here is where I can see people becoming confused. This verse isn’t necessarily indicative of abuse; it’s ambiguous at best. By itself, in the beginning of the song, it sounds like the male voice is simply contemplating a failed relationship. It’s common for both parties in a relationship to try to “make things work,” so to speak – even though they “felt so lonely” in one another’s presence. It’s obvious that the narrator is, for someone who supposedly only thinks about this “now and then,” still very much hung up on this “ache” of love.

That’s why we’re looking at this by taking Verse III into account first: the male voice is the central voice – the one Gotye identifies with the most. Therefore, it’s going to set itself up as very sympathetic to the listener. It does – rather well. Scarily well. Just like a real abuser would.

Where’s your hint in Verse I? Line II.

Like when you said you felt so happy you could die
you felt so happy you could die
so happy you could die
you could die

Am I saying he’s a killer? No, of course not. Some would chalk this up to poetics (which is also problematic, and I will address this momentarily). However, riddle me this: when was the last time you heard someone actually say this? Even if this is in the common vernacular for you and your friends, what type of person would use that instance as the crowning memory of their past relationship?

We’ve already established Gotye’s abusive tendencies. We already know this relationship was abusive. Now, we’re playing detective: picking up the small clues, the little hints given in everyday banter that don’t quite add up. This happens in real abusive relationships, too. The abused partner sweeps them under the rug because, oh, this person is kind deep down. With their history, it makes sense that they’d say that. They just don’t know that it’s a little weird. With time, they’ll heal – I’ll help them. And, my favorite: oh, they didn’t mean it like that.

Women give excuses for men and for their abusive partners all the damn time. It needs to stop. That’s why I give this line no excuse. The accuracy of this song’s portrayal of abuse is terrifying, down to even this minute detail of odd things being said in the everyday.

On Poetics

Some may try to derail this and chalk it up to overreacting. Tara, they say, this is ridiculous. Clearly Gotye is just trying to set up the atmosphere…

…to which I say, yes. Yes, he is: a melancholy atmosphere where abusive things are put on a pedestal as deep and meaningful when they were, in reality, disgusting and traumatic. I’m sick of this bourgeoisie bullshit of glorifying abuse and suffering as some sort of higher calling. It’s an unhealthy, sick fetish fantasy of the privileged: idiots whose lives are too good for them to realize it. It’s weird. Knock it off.

Male Narrative, Verse II

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 could still be friends
But I’ll admit that I was glad it was over

At this point, I may have people rearing up in disagreement. I’m going to need the majority of you to look me square in the eyes and repeat this to yourselves several times:

Interpreting this chronologically is bad.
Interpreting this chronologically is bad.
Interpreting this chronologically is bad.

Okay? Good. We’ve already discussed why, but here it is again: Gotye has already proven himself to be an abuser. He is an abuser with SO MUCH SWAGGER, so much hubris and confidence, that he ALLOWED his female voice – he wrote it, after all – to SAY THIS:

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 [and now you’re going back on this]

He allows her to say this, yet he still expects – DEMANDS – you to take his side. And you will. The way he sets up his first two verses? You do. That’s why I brought the female voice back into this; the song is designed to add her voice in as an afterthought, as the “oh?” moment. Gotye was trying to prove that he’s deep and understands nuance with this line – he’s trying to state, “Look at me! I’m a hipster deep and understand that relationships are a two-way street, and both parties are to blame!” In reality, he’s showing his true colors as an abusive ass.

Now, back to Verse II.

Lines I, II, and IV are the most important here. Line III is simply setting up the fact that the relationship failed (yeah, we can tell), and line V? I don’t care how he feels about the relationship. He’s already proven himself to be an abuser when you decide to look at Verse III beforehand. The interpretation I’m doing now? Simply icing on the cake. The interpretation of Verses I and II is simply for those of us who need a full analysis. It’s a service for those who can’t see warning signs.

You can get addicted to a certain kind of sadness
Like resignation to the end, always the end

The male voice stated that he’s “addicted” to failed relationships. He dooms them from the start. Addiction implies that, despite the negative consequences – and to a male abuser, there are few – he gets something positive from the experience. In some way, this guy gets off to ruining his relationships.

The fetishization of the tragic – what I’ve referred to as a hipster and bourgeoisie tendency because it is – is unhealthy, remember. He expects the audience to not know that and pity him. Gotye wants you to sympathize with the male voice and think that his failures can’t be completely his fault because – the darn saint! – he realizes he does this.

Admitting to this knowledge doesn’t make it better; it makes it WORSE.

This man consciously goes about dragging women into relationships with him, knowing full well that he’s “addicted” to the “sadness” of “the end (ALWAYS the end).” He knows that he wants the relationship to culminate into a heartbreaking failure. He KNOWS that. He doesn’t tell women that beforehand. This man is a predator.

On My Personal Connection [A Life Lesson For Others]

In my most recent abusive relationship, I gave my girl a lot of leeway. She came from a very abusive background, and she was only now getting some sort of grasp over it. We met on a one-month trip abroad to Japan – it’s likely that the distance caused by that trip was actually what triggered the even dismal understanding of her situation that she had then. (So not only was it dismal, it was as new to her life as I was.) I told myself that, like me, she had been abused – she needed love and understanding. So, I gave that to her. No one had ever given me that, so I gave that to her.

Here’s the hard part. Here’s the tragedy.

Abused people can abuse others. Their past abuse does not make that okay.

I’ve been part of that cycle before – both as the abuser and the abused. In an abused person’s first relationship – ESPECIALLY if it begins somewhat healthily – perpetration of abuse CAN happen. It’s not predestined, and it’s not guaranteed to happen. However, if this person hasn’t dealt with their abuse and completely understood that it was wrong to be treated that way, they can carry over abusive things done to them into the relationship and perpetrate them. On a fundamental level, they don’t know that what they’re doing is bad because they’ve yet to realize that it was bad when it was done to them. This is the fucking tragedy of abuse: it can create more abuse, even if the person is a beautiful individual who would never willingly hurt a fly. The keyword is “willingly.” Abusive tendencies are almost subconsciously ingrained. (Abusive actions still require consciousness to commit, however; therefore, a subconscious tendency is still a culpable act.)

I wish I could highlight this section and put it in all caps and make it sparkle and vomit rainbow cats so everyone could see it because to me, it’s so important. It was such a trap. It’s still a trap. It’s a trap for many other people, too, I imagine.

Onward to Verse II, Line IV:

Well, you said that we could still be friends

Compared to what we just discussed, it doesn’t have the same fanfare. However, it’s still a very common mark of an abusive relationship: the female voice, according to the male voice itself, was so afraid to completely break off the relationship to the male voice’s face that she offered, despite not wanting “to live that way” ever again, to be friends. Do you think she did this “just to be nice” or to be cruel?

No. She did this because she was terrified.

Gotye himself will now confirm that with his oft-wailed chorus.

Male Narrative, Chorus

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

Hopefully, by now even those of you who aren’t too great at picking up on subtle abusive hints (and that’s most of us) can see the absolute train wreck that is the main chorus. In light of the female voice, and in light of the analysis of the male voice’s two verses in context of the female voice, this is horrible.

The female voice owes Gotye nothing. It’s not “cutting you off” when you break up with someone and no longer wish to communicate – especially when the relationship was abusive. Assuming that the female voice indeed is now “making out like it never happened and that they were nothing” – she cut him off; how does he know? – she’s likely doing it as a defense mechanism: disallowing such a traumatic event to have importance in your life is also known as denial, and it’s common.

Gotye doesn’t care about her feelings here. He considers the female voice creating healthy space and boundaries only within the context of his own feelings – as being “treated like a stranger,” which apparently feels “so rough.” It can’t be as rough as being abused by this jerk, but he doesn’t know that. He’s too self-centered.

Girls, what does it mean when you break up with someone, and it’s so difficult that you send friends – people who really shouldn’t be involved unless something REALLY bad happened – to collect your things from your ex? Some people claim that girls only do this to be “bitchy” and “cruel” – Gotye just did. His ex “stoops so low” as to have her friends collect her records. This is misogynistic and places the focal point of blame upon the girl. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but in this context – in the context of this ENTIRE piece – does it seem likely?

Furthermore, what does it mean when you break up with someone, and it was SO difficult that you had to change your damn cellphone number? This isn’t common practice for the everyday breakup. It’s a hassle. Back in the day before cellphones, it cost MONEY. (It may still, depending upon your carrier.) This only occurs when 1) you feel unsafe, and 2) the guy WON’T STOP CALLING. Please remember that Gotye is SO sure that you’re going to sympathize with him that he outright put this in there. It’s astounding.

The icing on the cake is the last two lines. The penultimate “I guess I didn’t need that though” is both petulant and obvious – of COURSE you don’t need her number, her attention, or her physical belongings. You DON’T OWN HER. Obviously, he only “guesses,” so he’s not entirely sure, and he still feels like he deserves to have these things.

In light of everything – ALL that stuff I just discussed – it’s the titular line, though, that really says it all:

“Now you’re just somebody that I used to know.”

In this line, he takes away the female voice’s humanity. She’s just a “somebody” now. She’s not important. She’s being written off because his feelings have been hurt. His feelings have been hurt because she finally decided to get away from his creepy, abusive tendencies. To the very end, he denies her humanity – not even a first name was attached to this, as is common for songs about old flames. Nope. Just “somebody.”

Abuse is real. Very real. I hope you’re as disturbed as I was when I finally sat down and looked at this. Actually, what I REALLY hope is that you already knew this and just scrolled to confirm your suspicion. Please, for the love of god, take this seriously. This is real music that you REALLY internalized and likely identified with — and NOT as the female voice. This is dangerous. Remember that.

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4 thoughts on “Hiding In Plain Sight: Gotye’s Hit and Abuse Culture

  1. Thank you SO much for explaining something so clearly that I could neve make anyone else understand. Shared on my Facebook so others can see.

  2. This is an amazingly awesome breakdown of the song. Thank you. And yes – so clearly abusive, so easily internalized, and so fully accepted by our culture. Ugh.

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