Breaking Up and the Blame Game: A Feminist Analysis of Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know”

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.

Suggested Readings:

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.

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I couldn’t disagree more… the song shows that while she may have behaved badly during the breakup, he was manipulative during the whole relationship:
“Now and then I think of all the times your screwed me over/But had me believing it was always something that I’d done.”
The listener is initially sympathetic to the male speaker, but she not only calls that sympathy into question, but invalidates his complaints. The lack of change in the final chorus affirms his pettiness and unwillingness to admit his mistakes or work through their differences. Furthermore, I think lines like “I don’t even need your love” are deliberately childish in nature; he sings them in an angry and defiant way; yet since he’s obviously hurt by her rejection, it’s clear he DOES need her love.
You could also read the last scene (the retreat of paint from her body) as her (fortunate) release from the relationship, while it still “colors” his world.
I certainly agree the male speaker is “appalling[ly] self-center[ed]” but this is done deliberately to create an unreliable narrator and thereby make us question our gendered assumptions.


Interesting analysis but I saw it a little differently. Instead of portraying the man as in control, I thought it presented a bit of a role reversal. Men are usually portrayed as the ones who don’t want to remain friends or connected, are they not? And women are clingy, obsessive, and can’t let it go.

Ashley Baggett

Yvonne- Perhaps I didn’t state it quite well, but that was what I was saying towards the end. Yes, he loses control with her decision to cut him out, but he expected to retain the “upper hand” (which is why the gendered power dynamic applies). The expectation is key there.


Thank you SO much for writing this post! I completely agree with you. Every time I heard this song on the radio I knew that I didn’t like it and that it was somewhat sexist, but I couldn’t really explain why. Thank you for you insight!


So, I read this when it was first posted, but I didn’t have a chance to actually sit down and listen to the song until now. I will admit that I have never heard this song before, in part because I’m old, but I am happy that this gave me the opportunity to hear it — not because I liked it musically, but because it is clearly a clever song, and maybe even a beautiful song.

I noticed in your interpretation you seem to be dismissive of the question of whether the woman is his current or ex-girlfriend. I wonder though if that’s an uncharitable way to approach literary interpretation. I wonder if you might give a different interpretation if we accepted that it was the writer’s intention that it be his current girlfriend. Certainly, the writer cannot be blamed for ordinary people only seeing the surface interpretation if the writer leaves clear evidence that there is a deeper interpretation.

To me it is quite clear that her final lyric can only be made sense of if she is his current girlfriend since she says, “You said that you could let it go, and I wouldn’t catch you hung up on somebody that you used to know.” Now, we could really stretch that and come up with an overly-complicated interpretation that allows her to be the ex-girlfriend, but it really wouldn’t be fair to the writer to do so. I didn’t know there was debate over this (since I didn’t know the song existed), and I accept that the average listener may think it is his ex, but both the charitable and the plausible interpretations agree that this woman has to be his current girlfriend. It is almost made explicit in the song. And, in fact, it makes the song so much better to take her words literally, which can only be done if she is the current girlfriend.

But that completely changes the interpretation of the song. It definitely changes the interpretation of the girlfriend’s line, “Now and then I think of all the times you screwed me over.” This line is no longer mysterious at all. We know exactly how he screwed her over. She tells us: he is “hung up on somebody that [he] used to know,” i.e., his ex-girlfriend who he is now singing a whole song about!

Further — and this is the really interesting part — it completely changes the interpretation of the entire song itself. This isn’t a break-up song at all. As Meg said above, we have to take the narrator as unreliable (and the woman being his current girlfriend proves that), and that implies that the point of the song is how he cannot grapple with what he lost. Thus, we get contradictory messages where the truth merely lingers in the background. The most obvious place is here: “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.” He realizes she is right for him, but he didn’t realize it, but he was in love, but love hurts. It doesn’t make sense as a song, but that’s exactly because it doesn’t make sense to HIM, the narrator. He now knows how much he loves her, but it is too late. It is actually a beautiful song about the stupidity of this man who gave up his love and now must forever suffer in his own confusion.

So, I am very grateful that I got the chance to hear this song. It is definitely a clever song, and it may even be a beautiful song. I think it is beautiful, though I could be talked out of that. I don’t know that it is a deep song. I may disagree that it is open to “many interpretations.” That isn’t to say that my deeper one is necessarily the right one. I just don’t know that the song is that deep that there would be many. There is clearly one surface interpretation, and at least one deeper interpretation. Maybe a couple of others. I’d be interested in hearing if you have another deeper interpretation. I don’t know if it is fair to attack a writer on a surface interpretation that isn’t compatible with the actual words (even if it is clearly the surface interpretation, the evidence is too clear that it isn’t the writer’s intended interpretation, so how could it be fair to attack based on it?). But, I’d like to hear another deeper interpretation. I don’t know if I’ll be convinced it is a deep song since I doubt there are a high number of interpretations. It isn’t like it is Bohemian Rhapsody…

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