Earlier this week I came across this music video of Gotye’s 2011 top single “Somebody that I Used to Know (feat. Kimbra).” I wasn’t too impressed with it at first, but as I listened to the lyrics again and focused on the performances of the two singers, I became captured by the song.
You can get addicted to a certain kind of sadness
Like resignation to the end
Always the end
So when we found that we could not make sense
Well you said that we would still be friends
But I’ll admit that I was glad that it was over
But you didn’t have to cut me off
Make out like it never happened
And that we were nothing
And I don’t even need your love
But you treat me like a stranger
And that feels so rough
You didn’t have to stoop so low
Have your friends collect your records
And then change your number
I guess that I don’t need that though
Now you’re just somebody that I used to know
Just a year ago, these lyrics wouldn’t have meant all that much to me. I recall when I was dating the first person I’d fallen in love with, I suddenly began appreciating songs about relationships. Songs that once were dumb became profound. It isn’t until one has a certain experience, I’ve learned, that songs become more available to our tastes, and perhaps others become stale.
“You can get addicted to a certain kind of sadness” and “But I’ll admit that I was glad that it was over” ring with a certain truth after last Fall. This truth however isn’t something that can be understood outside of embodied experience. At least certain “truths” must be felt (or lived) to be understood. And it was this truth about truth that made it difficult for most of my friends to understand what I was going through.
I was offered cliche condolences such as “You’ll find some one better next time.” Were these any more healing than the shallow delusional reassurances one receives when a loved one dies like “I know she’s smiling at you in heaven now”? These responses abstract from one’s experience and make a false promise of a future in order to distract one from the reality of the present and one’s coping with the difficulty of that reality. They are performed to close off one’s thinking and feeling the present to relieve the emotional burden from both parties. Distracting one from reality does not lead to the personal, emotional, and spiritual growth that one will need in and outside of one’s next relationship. Healthier than drinking away one’s sorrow, yes, but not healthy overall.
The power of the lyric “Now you’re just somebody that I used to know” is that it is dishonest. It too is an escape from reality, or at least a conscious attempt at it nuanced by such an attempt’s futility. If one repeats this lyric enough, perhaps one too can come to believe a false reality. It represents a defense mechanism against trauma. Rather than signifying the convalescence of a wound, it is as if a thick Ace bandage that does not heal wounds so much as makes the surface of the flesh callous, but thin enough that it may be painfully reopned.
I’m no fan of pop music as a genre. Often pop music is bare entertainment that creates rhythms that capture a wide audience. The near-universality of the appeal of pop music is what makes it so “popular.” A refined appreciation of technique and sophisticated song writing isn’t necessary. The cognitive level of appreciation that is necessary for appreciating “fine arts” isn’t necessary because the shared affect is enough to herd people into a pack. However, songs like “Somebody that I used to Know” is no less profound just because it doesn’t have superior performance and technique. It’s profound because it touches upon a near-universal experience of emotional trauma people experience in certain breakups. The lived knowledge of this truth is what creates the pack of pop culture. (Hence the Australian video’s 113 million hits in just six months)
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“But you didn’t have to cut me off / Make out like it never happened / And that we were nothing / And I don’t even need your love / But you treat me like a stranger / And that feels so rough”
I think this is where the song hits on a more interesting difficulty: the difficulty of self-annihilation, not simply the breakup. A lot of misunderstanding I experienced when sharing my story with friends was the tendency for them to focus on the heartbreak, as if the trauma was from losing the emotional possession of another person. Yes, that part was a difficult reality to face, but genuine love transcends heartbreak. If one really loves another, they will accept their desires and aspirations (within a reasonable limit… however that might be defined…). However, when someone you genuinely love desires to “cut me off” like “we were nothing” is crushingly difficult. This is the affect of the implosion of the security genuine love creates from acceptance of one’s vulnerability. Love is a bridge over nothing that secures two (or more) vulnerable beings. When one side removes their support, the otherside is left to carry all the weight, goes under from the burden, and is submerged into nothing. It’s this helplessness that is the trauma.