Semtex explores “Somebody That I Used To Know” through the lens of the period when it first came out, and how it would end up becoming an eternal soundtrack not just for relationships in general, but her own ephemeral ones as well.
In 2011, a then little-known Belgian-Australian multi-instrumentalist named Gotye emerged as the man who had an insight into every human being’s soul. That insight being manifest in something as deeply affecting as “Somebody That I Used To Know.” At that time, I had just secured another office job—my first “major one” after having moved to New York from Los Angeles, where I was also an office slave hoping to make it as a screenwriter (still am, in fact). Because I was a new employee, the manager placed me at a temporary work station in the Siberia section, where I was situated next to the ultimate bastard of the office world: the temp. To avoid conversation and better tune out the drudgery of the work, I tended to put my headphones on, often also having time to peruse Tumblr and Facebook (because these were still relevant social media outlets at that juncture) in between the monotony. Gchat (now more often called “Google Chat”) was also a constant sanctuary. Allowing me to talk all day to other friends who didn’t deign to work in an office, but instead, seemed to live a more “glamorous” (or at least more interesting) life by working in the service industry—and could therefore chill at home talking to me before they went out for their shift. Not like my salaried ass, who left at the ungodly hour of seven a.m. to get to the building semi-on time.
It was through Gchat that I was first introduced to Gotye’s song. My new roommate-turned-friend sent it to me and, though she still didn’t know me all that well, she had the gall to tell me, “This song is your life story.” As I turned up the volume to listen, I found myself somewhat offended that she would assess my personage in such a manner—it made me feel as though she was hexing me…like some kind of bruja. That I would forever after be cursed with the inability to maintain long-term friendships or romantic relationships. Granted, even before she said this to me, I had “fallen out of touch” with plenty of people in my “narrative.” But something about New York, and the disposability with which one tends to be treated (everyone faintly aware that “sticking around” is tenuous in that setting), suddenly made the revolving door of one-act characters more pronounced.
All at once, “Somebody That I Used To Know” started to come across more as a shrugging response to the inevitability of ghosting or being ghosted (sometimes referred to as one-night stands) in the city of New York. But beyond the confines of that often-limiting place, the single transcends. Remains poignantly resonant to this day, and probably always will. At least, until the human-to-robot transition is made complete. Anyone who has ever heard the song, whether then or now, has likely been affected. Briefly stopped in their tracks by how goddamn relatable the lyrics are. Of course, there are those, like Gotye, who are more taken with the instrumentals themselves, which borrow from Luiz Bonfá‘s “Seville,” a ditty that Gotye geeked out over in his discussion of coming up with the melody by remarking, “I started with the Luiz Bonfá sample, then I found the drums, and after that I started working on the lyric and the melody, and added the wobbly guitar sample melody. After that, I took a break, and a few weeks later I came back to the session and decided on the chorus chord progression, wrote the chorus melody and combined that with sounds like the Latin loop and some of the percussion and the flute sounds that further filled the space.”
And yes, it can’t be denied that without the instrumentals, “Somebody That I Used To Know” might not be nearly as chilling. But it is indisputably the words that make the runaway hit so indelible. In rehashing the initial hurdle of writing the lyrics, Gotye stated, “I was trying to take lazy decisions to finish the song. I considered repeating the chorus, an instrumental bridge, a change in tempo or key, I even considered finishing the song after the first chorus. But nothing felt like it was strong enough. So the third session was all about writing the female part and changing the perspective.” In this regard, “Somebody That I Used To Know” harkens back to a 2003 song from The Postal Service called “Nothing Better.” In it, the same switch in perspective occurs from the man in the relationship to the woman—in this instance, Jen Wood, who ripostes, “I feel I must interject here/You’re getting carried away feeling sorry for yourself with these revisions and gaps in history.”
Similarly, Kimbra counters to Gotye, “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/But I don’t wanna live that way/Reading into every word you say.” Hence, her being the one to end things with him. The reaction he gives to her “sudden” departure, however, is one that indicates he’d rather hold on to the familiar pain of the relationship than set the one he loves (or once loved) free and risk the choppy seas allegedly filled with plenty of other fish. This prompting Kimbra to further denounce him with the lines, “You said that you could let it go/And I wouldn’t catch you hung up on somebody that you used to know.” For those who are in long-term relationships can so often turn into strangers well before both parties realize they should break up. That inherent decay being part of the reason why it’s frequently both too awkward and dolorous to remain “friends.”
As for the music video that solidified the iconic status of Gotye’s biggest hit (and Kimbra’s, for that matter), it was directed by artist and filmmaker (as well as fellow Aussie) Natasha Pincus. The concept itself might appear simple enough, but the symbolism is teeming. While we watch a naked Gotye being painted into a picture (courtesy of body art by Emma Hack and artwork culled from Gotye’s own father, Frank de Backer), Kimbra eventually enters the frame when her portion of the song arrives. Pincus distills it to: “The concept was that they were trapped in a painting cloaking their togetherness, and we’d witness the construction and destruction of that throughout the narrative of the video.” Metaphorically speaking, he’s being painted into the background of her life, and she’s being painted out of “his” picture. Just as we all are when we’re “that person” in the dynamic. The one who “gets to” fill the role of cast-out reject rather than being the one to do the rejecting and subsequent ghosting. In this sense, it isn’t just that every relationship demise always goes back to “Somebody That I Used To Know” because most find it easier to “erase” someone they were once closest to, but because there is, without fail, that perennial person in the permutation who ends up more hurt by the fracture.
Some might question why “Somebody That I Used To Know” stands apart so distinctly in the musical canon when there are thousands upon thousands of songs that explore this type of topic (Taylor Swift, who should probably cover “Somebody That I Used To Know,” recently talking of erasure as well in “Could’ve Should’ve Would’ve” via the lyrics, “But, Lord, you made me feel important/And then you tried to erase us”). Perhaps it’s just another “lightning in a bottle” moment, or, maybe, Gotye’s combination of genuine emotion paired with such atypical instrumentals for a pop song was what did it. Gotye confirmed that the lyrics were “definitely drawn from various experiences I’ve had in relationships breaking up in… the more reflective parts of the song, in the aftermath and the memory of those different relationships and what they were and how they broke up and what’s going on in everyone’s minds. …it’s an amalgam of different feelings but not completely made up as such.” The engineer and producer of the song, François “Franc” Tétaz, would confirm, “He has an ability to write something incredibly personal and universal that you can really feel, and it had that.”
Indeed, Gotye managed to tap into the human psyche in a way that only music can. And it had certainly tapped into mine that early July of 2011, when I had just started the office job that would financially allow me to stay in New York long enough to embark upon an endless series of people who would ultimately become just somebody that I used to know.