Scores of songs discuss love and breaking up. Ending an intimate relationship with a significant other is well known for its challenges: how to end it, what happens after, how to move on, who gets to keep the pet, etc. Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” takes on this topic, and while its tune is catchy and quite beautiful, the song’s lyrics are enough to make any feminist or egalitarian individual cringe.
The song is a story told from a male perspective about how he felt wronged by his ex. His hurt is evident. He could even appear as a victim, and his audience might just feel a twinge of sympathy for him if it wasn’t for his appalling self-centeredness and his gendered power expectations.
The man states that even when she felt blissfully happy, he felt “so lonely” in her company. He sings, “I’ll admit I was glad it was over….I don’t even need your love.” Interestingly, the breaking up didn’t bother him. What upset him was the fact she couldn’t remain friends with him. Not everyone can (or should) remain friends with their exes. The audacity of his expectation increases when the woman finally sings (midway through the song), “Now and then I think of all the times you screwed me over, part of me believing it was always something I’d done. But I don’t want to live that way reading into every word you say.” The listener now realizes he likely did something along the lines of lying or cheating to deserve the phrase “screwed me over.” He shouldn’t be surprised by the woman’s actions, but he seems to be. While some debate exists over if the female voice is Goyte current or ex-girlfriend, to the average listener not analyzing the lyrics, the song sounds as if the woman is THE woman from his past relationship.
His response to “screwing” her over? “But you didn’t have to cut me off. Make it like….we were nothing.” Not much of an answer there….Ultimately, the man resents being completely cut from his former significant other’s life and dislikes being treated like their relationship was insignificant. Here is the moment for that thought- you can’t be serious, right?!? He didn’t want the relationship, apparently mistreated her, but he wants her to place her feelings aside so that he can remain in contact with her as friends (maybe), as acquaintances (probably), and/or as “friends with benefits.” The man in the song is self-absorbed to say the least. He interrupts her and ignores the fact he holds a degree of accountability for the failed relationship. She had reasons for needing a clean break, but to him, she “didn’t have to stoop so low” by cutting him out of her life. He’s definitely exhibiting signs that he internalizes the gender norm of a sexual double standard and holds a hierarchical view of relationships- one in which the male’s wishes should dominate the female’s.
Her story, her perspective, her feelings are marginalized in the lyrics and the video as well. The video begins showing a nude male (PG rated, of course). Nudity typically denotes vulnerability, and the viewer in hearing the man’s perspective first is inclined to feel a certain amount of sympathy. As he sings and his voice rises, he becomes painted with multicolored geometric shapes, blending into the pattern on the wall behind him. 2 minutes and 27 seconds into the 4 minute and 4 second song, a painted female, whose back is facing the camera, is emerging from the background of the wall. She had been painted to fit in with the wall’s scheme. At 2 minutes 33 seconds, she finally sings and moves closer to him, breaking out of the image. She looks at him intently, singing her reasons for not remaining friends. There is no camera shot of her entire face or of her looking into the camera. This gaze is unabashedly a male gaze and invites a reading that the woman and all her reasons are secondary, the other, important only as she relates to the man. Moreover, his word is the last word, and she steps away slowly back to her original spot. At this point, the paint is removed from her back, frame by frame until she stands nude with only a camera shot from the waist up. The result? She is rendered vulnerable, desirable since he is no longer in control of the relationship, and ultimately out of the picture as he sings, “Now you are somebody that I used to know.”
Art in every form possesses multiple interpretations, but this analysis is a needed reading of the song. Why? What’s the point? The media is infamous for its objectification of women and treatment of them as sexual objects. This song has mass appeal. It was the number one song in multiple countries crossing over in different genres of music. It’s YouTube video has, as of March 8, 2012, been viewed over 198 million times. It was covered by the television show Glee. And, as of May 7, 2012, it ranked within “YouTube’s All-Time Top 30.” People of various ages listen to the song and watch its video. “Somebody That I Used to Know” subtly perpetuates a patriarchal message to its listeners/viewers, and this message unfortunately upholds the inequalities inherent in many gender norms. Somehow, somewhere- in politics, in the media, in social interactions- this message has to change if equality is ever to be a reality.
Bordo, Susan. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.
Kemp, Sandra, and Judith Squires. Feminisms. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Price, Janet, and Margrit Shildrick. Feminist Theory and the Body: A Reader. New York: Routledge, 1999.
Rose, Jacqueline. Sexuality in the Field of Vision. London: Verso, 1986.