Let’s over-analyze to death…Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know”

I love watching music videos, and I love analyzing art. So this is the first in an irregular, ongoing series where I analyze music videos, and eventually maybe other things. First up is Gotye. Somehow I didn’t know about this song until a few days ago:

Below are my semi-casual analytic thoughts.

The best thing about this video is the sheer expressiveness of Gotye’s face, which strongly amplifies the emotion in both his lyrics and in his singing voice (especially during the chorus, which is by far the song’s best part). So the most successful moments in the video are the ones where we see Gotye singing—as well as when Kimbra comes in, and sing-yells at him. Those parts are all really great.

The worst parts are when we’re not looking at those things. The worst moment in the video comes 48 seconds in, when we cut away from Gotye for the first bit of animation. This interrupts the single continuous shot that has until then comprised the video, and practically kills the whole piece.

The 40 seconds after that prove the video’s nadir. The director (Natasha Pincus), I think, subconsciously understood this, which is why she kept cutting back to Gotye throughout. Overall, it’s unclear what’s happening here; there’s no sense that Gotye and the animation share the same space. And the editing is sloppy, especially starting around 1:17; the attempts there to rhythmically match the coloring-in to the guitar flourishes is just clumsy.

Things pick up considerably around 1:30, when the video’s two separate strands come together, and Gotye starts getting incorporated into the background. And so I’d suggest that this is where the video should have started. We could have begin with a single line of animation, creeping in from the right, following it as it brought us to Gotye and snaked behind him. He’d then start singing, while the animation developed behind him, eventually overtaking him.

All of this could have been done in a single shot (leaving aside the fact that stop-motion animation is actually multiple shots; my point is that the video could have given the appearance of a seamless, single shot). Indeed, that 48-second-long opener—the pan from Gotye’s foot to his head—implies that the video is going to be one uninterrupted piece. Think about it: it’s roughly 1/5 the video’s run time! And it establishes a logic that the video, as it stands right now, violates to no ultimate gain.

It’s also a mistake to start with Gotye’s foot, because it introduces a space (an entire plane of action) that we never return to. I would have stayed focused on his upper body: again, I’d have had the animation and the camera start to the left of him (on his right), panning or tracking across the wall/canvas to find his midriff, then moving up from there. It seems to me that all of the movement in the video should be left-to-right (more on this in a bit).

Of course, what I’m suggesting would would have been much more difficult to pull off, so I understand why it wasn’t done. But, technical problems aside, it would have been better, more unified, and more powerful. This video loses energy every time that it cuts. And while the homemade/hand-drawn aesthetic is nice, it isn’t essential; they could have used computers. (Also: doing it in a single shot would have paid some homage to one of Gotye’s clear musical influences.

OK, enough What If. Luckily, from 1:30 onward, the video picks up considerably (although all the cutting is still a mistake).

That carries us through to the video’s second half, which begins around 2:19, when we zoom out to reveal Kimbra’s presence. And while I don’t mean to belabor this, just imagine how much more powerful her reveal would have been had the first two minutes created a continuous, unified space! Also, the revelation of more space to the right (Gotye’s left) is another reason why the video should have begun with a rightward pan, and not by moving up from the foot, and why the floor should have been left out of it.

The nicest thing about the Kimbra reveal is how it forms a visual pun. The animation has been filling in the background, and now the camera is moving to fill in more scenic space. This is matched, in a sense, by the way the song’s arrangement gradually introduces instruments, both before the first refrain, and then again, during the Kimbra reveal.

Let’s consider now how the video interacts with the song’s lyrics. Up until this point (2:19), we’ve been focused on Gotye’s recounting of the failed relationship. Appropriately, the drawing has been developing behind him, and is now complete, including both him and Kimbra. He has presented his account, his memory of things.

The video’s tableau here strikes me as a play on the garden of Eden. First there’s an Adam, and then there’s an Eve. (Coincidentally, both Gotye and Kimbra are single-name artists.) The unfolding animation is the act of creation. The finished picture is brown and green, with the vague suggestion of the tree on the far right, beside Kimbra.

And of course the whole song is concerned with knowledge; it begins: “Now and then I think of when we were together.” The animation, then, represents Gotye’s reverie; the drawing is his memory of the affair. It’s a fractured Eden, to be sure, run through with neo-Cubist lines—but that fits, since he admits that it was, from the start, a fallen affair:

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

You can get addicted to a certain kind of sadness […]

So we have his version of things. (Note that you can see all the lyrics at YouTube.) However, the video, just like the song, cannot remain like this. In the second half, Gotye’s fantasy is challenged, then taken apart, by Kimbra’s recounting of events. She first asserts her separation by singing, then by moving, stepping out of her assigned place.

Note how her opening line echoes Gotye’s—but also rewrites the situation by filling us in on what his fantasy has, until now, omitted:

Now and then I think of all the times you screwed me over

In her first challenge to Gotye’s authority (emphasis on author), even the syntax follows the video’s logic: extra knowledge fucks things up. This is yet another reason why all movement should have been left-to-right! Because it’s the very last word in that line, “over,” that undoes all of the rest. Gotye, despite his (accepted) sadness, is clearly still hung up on that sentence minus its final word: sure, he felt lonely when he was around her, but at least they got to fuck. (The beginning of his complaint, “But you didn’t have to cut me off,” has obvious sexual connotations, which are reinforced by the way the next line starts: “Make out like it never happened …”) Kimbra, however, restores what Gotye would rather elide.

From here, the video neatly dramatizes the song’s refrain. Kimbra stalks toward Gotye only to berate him. (Her exaggerated open mouth makes for a particularly striking image.) This section works best when Gotye averts his gaze from her, while she confronts him directly, entirely clear-eyed. (It’s a mistake when he looks at her, and of course all the cutting is awful—just busy work.)

By now it should be clear that Gotye’s problem isn’t that the relationship was miserable, and isn’t that it ended—but rather that his ex-girlfriend’s current behavior makes it impossible for him to drift further and further into reverie. She, meanwhile, has moved on, empowered by the knowledge that she’s gained:

But had me believing it was always something that I’d done
And I don’t wanna live that way
Reading into every word you say

Her distancing herself, then—cutting him off—is the result of her having overcome those insecurities, and asserting the truth of the situation (“this guy’s being a creepy dick”) over melancholic fantasy.

Returning to our Edenic theme: the more that Kimbra knows, the nakeder she becomes. This extricates her from Gotye’s memories, distancing her—as well as curiously inverting the situation (Gotye is no longer sleeping with her—hence the double meaning in “know”). It’s crucial that the two of them are never naked at the same time.

This is all pretty tricky stuff, and works wonderfully. That said, the ending, with its cut to black, is completely bungled. Kimbra should continue the video’s rightward logic, and walk right out of the picture. I guess she kept her back turned because all concerned didn’t want us to see her boobs? But it’s too bad that prudishness overruled the logical narrative trajectory. To have her turn and stride away from Gotye would have done wonders, presenting her as a neo-Eve unashamed of her knowledge and resultant nakedness—indeed, empowered by it, and willing to use it to extricate herself. And then the video could have ended with Gotye standing there all alone, looking ridiculously frozen in his paint, his imaginary tableau incomplete.

… I hope it’s obvious that, despite my criticisms, I really like the song and the video, and think them both quite powerful and good—pretty tightly unified.

Beyond that, I’d like to claim that the more formally unified an artwork is, the more right and wrong one can say its decisions are. (This is something I’ll continue to try demonstrating in later installments.)

Furthermore, such artworks most succeed when their formal unity is kept tight, and fall apart when the logic of that unity falls apart.