Interpreting "Somebody That I Used To Know," By Gotye

Musically, one finds a wide variety of influences here. Ones that readily come to my mind are Tom Waits, Beach Boys, and Genesis. This work successfully and beautifully weaves retro and pop elements to form a modern, yet folksy work.

Lyrically, the story is of a break-up. Standard fare in contemporary music. Girl left me, melancholy, end scene.

However, while most break-up songs are told from ONE side, this one possesses something unusual, something unique. A female voice joins, not merely to sing along, but to sing against. The soliloquy transforms into a dialogue, where the woman offers a rebuttal, and the man finishes the song out on what seems to be an unresolved note…

The missing piece is revealed in the visual, which ties the story together and elevates the work into something truly artistic.

The strange coloring of the background, the blending of the male character into the tapestry represents the man’s thoughts: he “colors” the story to fit his narrative. The man stares intently at the camera, focused entirely upon selling his story to you. As verse one finishes, the listener is lead to believe the conclusion will be but simple melancholy, a recollection of love lost.

With his feelings revealed, the camera pans out and reveals the frozen figure of a woman, the woman. Notice that she is colored, blended into the tapestry; everything about her is as he wants to remember it. Also notice that she is facing away.

This symbolizes the conflict that destroyed the relationship: he could never fit her “square” personality completely into the “round” hole he had created for her. Her face is therefore seen as the symbol of her rebellion, and his mind is attempting to remove this aspect from his memory of her to preserve his all-important narrative.

This explains why, when she turns to speak, her face remains uncolored. The narrative is challenged, she no longer fits into his tapestry, his narrative, his narcissism.

As she speaks, as she builds her case and challenges the narrative, she consciously steps out of the lines. The man for the first time looks down and away from the camera; his body no longer connects, his own story no longer fits and flows. The man feels shame.

The woman does not notice the camera; she only has eyes for him as she speaks. This is because she still loves him, at least the qualities the audience only glimpses in his stricken silence.

The breakup, originally asserted by the man as being her doing, is revealed to be entirely his fault. Though he may have at one time truly loved her, his desire to be properly perceived and defined by others as “the guy in love with the girl” became more important. The perception of being became more important than being itself: the background paralyzed the fore.

His response, his repeat of the chorus represents his hostility, his rage towards the challenge to the narrative. The man does not face her directly, he cannot face her, he instead looks to, pleads to the audience. His first response is to preserve the narrative, to save face.

The woman, recognizing the pattern, moves away, saddened that he has not learned from his mistakes, that the man is perhaps doomed to repeat them.

As the song winds down, she is “uncolored;” she has been removed from his narrative. One could interpret that he has begun to mentally block her out of his mind to salvage his narcissism…

Except that he breaks from the camera for the first time to look at her, to see her.

The man now sees the woman as a person, somebody he used to know, for the first time in a long time. Perhaps ever.

On a note of possible redemption, end scene.