Posts Tagged 'kimbra'

Meaning of Gotye “Somebody that I used to know”

Meaning of Gotye “Somebody that I used to know”

Challenge accepted…


He hasn’t come to terms with his break up with his former lover.   He is particularly affronted that what he called love was nothing to his former lover and is scared that it will happen again.[1]  He becomes involved in a new relationship.  His new lover explains how he has hurt her because he hasn’t “let it go”.  He recognises that he’s being a heel.  He signals to her that he has faith in her/is ready to “let it go”.  She signals her faith in him/the relationship.  There is an opportunity for reconciliation.


Throughout the video Gotye sings to the camera.  Kimbra sings to Gotye.  The thing which Gotye and Kimbra have in common is the painting.   The painting starts after the end of the first stanza.  By then we know:

(i) he has already broken up with whoever he is addressing;

(ii) he knew the old relationship was empty;

(iii) he feels hurt that his old lover thought it was nothing (/less than  nothing?).

The fact that his old lover cuts him off (even though the break up was amicable) suggests that his old relationship was not just empty, but was illusory – and that he had committed to this illusion.  He thought it was love.

The painting is the start of his new relationship with Kimbra.  That relationship develops through the second stanza.  It is only after the relationship has developed that we are introduced to the Kimbra character.  (He has his back to the wall, but she has her front to the wall –  I assume there is nothing in this other than the desire to have a G rating for the video.  Neither character acknowledges the existence of the wall/painting [see also note 1])

As Kimbra starts singing she turns her head so that:

(i) the green paint on her cheek aligns with the rest of the painting/relationship

(ii) she is addressing Gotye.

When she says he “screwed [her] over” he sighs noticeably.  When she says he hurt her (“believing it was something I had done”) he closes his eyes.

Just before she sings “I don’t want to live that way” she motions noticeably to break herself from the painting/relationship before approaching Gotye [see note 3].  She is still painted at this point.  They are almost touching – she addresses him but he continues to address the camera.   When she says that he had promised her that he was over his old lover Gotye closes his eyes/looks down, away from Kimbra.  When he starts singing again he still talks about how he was hurt by break up of the old relationship/confused by his realisation it was nothing.  Perhaps he is scared that his new lover will also think he’s nothing/that the new relationship might also not be real.  What if he commits to this new relationship and discovers she too thinks he/it is nothing? [Kierkegaard/Existentialism – how can you commit your whole being to something which you know can end – if that happens, won’t it destroy you too?]

While he is singing about his hurt, she seems to be imploring him to acknowledge she is there.  He doesn’t look at her.  She starts to move off.  He realises his new relationship is not an illusion/not nothing [see note4].  He starts to look towards her (he has not done so earlier).  She returns to her original position [does this put her “back to where they started”?] and the painting/relationship begins to come off her. As this happens his singing becomes increasingly more subdued.  He spends more time looking to her.

As the painting/relationship comes off her, he sings partly to the camera, but also partly to her.  When he is saying “you” in “you’re just somebody that I used to know” he addresses the camera.  But when he is facing Kimbra he’s singing “somebody” and “used to know”.  After she has moved away from him his singing doesn’t return to his earlier hurt.  All he sings about is how the old lover is somebody that he used to know – he is over her/her opinion of him now.  He also increasingly looks towards her – while she walks away there are cuts with him looking towards her and at the camera but he spends all of the end of the video (the last 15 seconds or so) looking at her.  His subdued singing, the content of what he is singing and the fact that he is looking to Kimbra is signaling that he’s ready to have faith in the new relationship.

While he does this, their stances are reversed.  She faces the wall/painting/relationship while he is looking to her.  As the song ends, she stops looking at the wall and turns her head to look at him.  Both of them sing the last word (“somebody”) to each other (they “harmonise”/”in harmony”).  This is the only time that they sing together – in fact it’s the only time they communicate with each other directly.  It is also the only time they make eye contact.  They are signaling faith in each other to each other.  She has faith that he has put his past experience behind him, he has faith that she believes in him/the relationship.  When the video ends they are both in frame, he is painted and she is not – she is ready to start anew.[2] The painting on the wall/relationship is still there.  They are looking at each other.

Whatcha think?


He hasn’t come to terms with his break up with his former lover.   He is particularly affronted that what he called love was nothing to his former lover and is scared that it will happen again.  He becomes involved in a new relationship.  His new lover explains how he has hurt her because he hasn’t “let it go”.  He recognises that he’s being a heel.  He signals to her that he has faith in her/is ready to “let it go”.  She signals her faith in him/the relationship.  There is an opportunity for reconciliation.


Natasha Pincus, the film maker behind the music video has a different view, implying Gotye is singing about his current relationship with the Kimbra character.  Michael Cathcart describes it as a break up song/tiff song.  It is not either.

PostScript [4 June 2012]: What if Kimbra is the “Old Gf”? – The Two Person Interpretation

An anonymous commenter below says I am way off and there is no new girlfriend, just the old one.  This is what I thought when I first heard the song (and is consistent with the Pincus (that is, the author of the video!) statement linked to above).  I couldn’t make sense of video if there were only two people, him and his ex-gf.  The problems I had with the 2 person interpretation (2PI) are:

(i) Gotye doesn’t sing to her.  If she was in the room and he was upset with her, why wouldn’t he look at her?  Especially when she comes up beside him.
(ii) Kimbra is literally singing to him. This is inconsistent with what Gotye is saying she does/has done – according to him, she didn’t even show up to collect her records, and has cut him off and treated him like he was nothing.  Whatever she’s doing, it’s not shutting him out and treating him like nothing.
(iii) (incidentally) the singing to him is also inconsistent with the idea that maybe she’s off somewhere else thinking about him and telling her story from afar
(iv) Kimbra complains about him being hung up on somebody that he used to know.  Why would she say this if Gotye was singing about her? (See below)
(v) if you interpret the painting as the relationship, then it only starts after Gotye has already broken up with whoever he’s singing about. If you don’t interpret it that way, what is it?  It starts after they have broken up, yet is part of him, her, and “the background”;
(vi) Gotye says that they broke up because they “found that they did not make sense”.   This isn’t consistent with what Kimbra is complaining about.

(vii) they harmonise right at the end.  Why would they do this if it’s all over and they’re not having anything to do with one another anymore?

So, is it possible to resolve these problems and make sense of the 2PI?   I really like the way Anonymous tackles my issue (iv) above – Kimbra’s statement is about herself – why are you complaining about the way I treated you, when you always told me you wouldn’t get hung up on anyone (and therefore wouldn’t get hung up on me).

Unfortunately I can’t get the proposition that they are singing in response to each other, mainly because the conversation doesn’t make sense to me.  If she is saying to him “look, schmuck, this is the reason I didn’t talk to you after we broke up” then:

(i) why is she bothering to tell him anyway?  She’s broken off all ties, how did they get back in the room together all painted?

(ii) she says “now and then” I think about stuff.  She doesn’t say, at some time in the past when we were in the relationship I thought about stuff and that’s why I broke it off and that’s why I didn’t talk to you afterwards.  That is, it explains why she doesn’t want to talk to him now (despite the fact that she is) but doesn’t explain why she cut him off when they broke up.  This is a tense problem similar to (iii) below.

(iii) the tense is wrong.  She says “but I don’t want to live that way, reading into every word you say”?  She is expressing what she doesn’t want to do now.  Why doesn’t she say “I didn’t want to live that way”;

(iv) after she has just explained to him why she did what she did, not only does he say “[well, you didn’t have to cut me off]” he also says “but you treat [not treated] me like a stranger and that feels so rough” – but she’s right there beside him, decidedly not treating him like a stranger (this bit – how could he say she is treating him like a stranger when she’s there talking to him – actually drove me a bit nuts trying to decipher it initially);

(v) she said that they could be friends, then cut him off.  He thinks they broke up because “we found we could not make sense” – consistently with him feeling lonely with her.  Now she’s saying they broke up because he was a jerk? But he felt that there was something wrong with the relationship.  It’s not really consistent with her breaking up with him because he was a jerk.

(vi) what is the painting?  It only begins after they have broken up.  Before she sings it is already complete and she is already a part of it.  How can she be explaining what she did after they broke up if she’s still part of the relationship?  If it’s not the relationship what is it?

Now, maybe the painting is not their relationship.  Maybe it’s their network of friends connecting them and they’re sending the message out to her.  I quite like this interpretation, but it also doesn’t make sense.  It’d explain why she’s back in the room with him, but wouldn’t explain why the painting comes off her at the end of the video.   The background of mutual friends would presumably get smaller as time went on, not more elaborate.  Moreover, if it was friends connecting them, why is the wall blank at the start?  Wouldn’t the network already be there, but with certain links becoming more emphasised?  It also spreads out above and beyond both of them so is not merely a communications channel.  I do hope it’s not his Facebook “Wall”(!!)

Maybe it’s a flashback?

I can almost pull off a 2PI if he is having a flashback of some sort.  Then, the Kimbra we see is not the “real” Kimbra, rather it’s the Kimbra in his mind’s eye.  It is him resolving for himself the criticisms he is making of her.  I think the argument that “hung up on somebody”  means “hung up on Kimbra” is even stronger in this case, because it would be him chiding himself about what he had said earlier and the tense problems are more easy to dismiss.  The problems with this interpretation are:

(i) if it is her in his mind’s eye, why doesn’t he address her directly?  If she was physically there, maybe he’d be too hurt to look at her, but that makes no sense if it’s his recollection;

(ii) there no interaction between what he says and the explanations she is providing.  If it his recollection of her, he is the source of the explanations, so you’d think there’d be better matching;

(iii) similar tense issues with what Kimbra say, perhaps not as strong;

(iv) the ever-present problem of the painting.  What is it? Why is it on him and her?  Why is it removed from her but not him?  On this interpretation it can’t be their relationship, because she’s just a figment of his imagination.  It might be his emotions and angst at trying to sort everything out?  But the progress of the painting doesn’t seem to be tied to what he’s singing – the painting starts after his first stanza and continues through the second.  It is finished on the wall by the time he starts his chorus “But you didn’t have to cut me off…”.  During his chorus it engulfs him.  If the song is about him providing an explanation to himself, it’s hard to interpret the painting anymore – if he has a resolution at the end of the song, why isn’t the whole of the painting removed?

Additional Conclusion

One of the strengths of the piece is its ambiguity and the manner in which everyone can see something of their own experience in it.  That ambiguity might be because it’s just plain inconsistent.  The painting, in particular, yearns to have a meaning applied to it, but it is hard to give it such a meaning in any way which is consistent with the rest of the song/video. It might be this lack of clear meaning that is the real reason it is such a good piece.

End Notes:

1: The issue is not that Gotye is upset at losing the previous relationship.  He admits that the relationship was empty, is happy they split up and asserts that the old lover is just somebody that he used to know.  The issue is that the old lover really is “just somebody that [he] used to know”.  That is, the relationship was nothing when he thought it was something.  We know his new relationship is “something” because it’s all over the wall – it literally (err… in a figurative sense) exists outside of him/her.  However, he doesn’t seem to see it so can’t be sure about it, and this is what is hurting her.

It may be that Kimbra faces the wall because she can see that their relationship is meaningful, while he has his back to the wall because he hasn’t seen it.  She never turns fully with her back to the wall.

2: The removal of the paint from Kimbra is actually pretty hard to parse.  If she is leaving the relationship, why does she stay in the picture?  Why does she face the wall/relationship?  Why does she sing to/with Gotye? Why doesn’t the paint cover her face as it does Gotye’s? (and why does she have such heavy eye makeup??) [Update 4 September 2013: I really like Daniel Gomes suggestion that the painting is his memory of the old relationship, so that’s how he initially sees Kimbra, but now he’s seeing her for what she is.  This interpretation is broadly consistent with the argument above. +1 Daniel!]

From her point of view, she can’t see the paint on her own back.  Does the removal of the paint mean that this is how Gotye sees her – she sees him as being part of the relationship, but he doesn’t see her that way?  Does it mean that Gotye sees her as a person/for what she is rather than as an adjunct to the relationship?

3. The way Kimbra removed herself from the painting annoyed me for a while.  If she was tearing herself away, then it would be more pronounced.  In retrospect she is not breaking from the relationship, so much as loosening herself from it. Seen in this way the less pronounced movements make more sense.

4. A less sympathetic interpretation is that he’s worried that if this relationship ends the current gf will also treat him like it was nothing.

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