Keeping the Hard Times in Perspective

Somebody That I Used to Know
YouTube     Lyrics

Though many of us are looking for a lifelong partner, the majority of relationships end in breakups. Often we find some incompatibility in the other person, though sometimes we simply lose the initial chemistry that attracted us to them in the first place. Learning how and when to end a relationship gracefully is part of growing up, though some people will always struggle with that balance. It is the potential for failure that makes us value what we have, when we have it.

When researching breakup songs, I settled on Gotye because I feel that Somebody That I Used to Know is one of the few pieces that explores a varied perspective on the topic. The song starts out with a reminiscence of the relationship itself, how they were happy at times, but also the relationship didn’t quite fit. The relationship eventually ends, in what seems to be a pleasant and mutual manner. The tone changes when the male lead works into the refrain, heightening the emotion of the singing, and telling the story of how she cruelly cut him off. At first, we sympathize with the male perspective as he is the only voice through which we have interacted with the story. We see him as a victim.

The story changes completely when the female perspective starts singing. As the other reasons for the breakup become clear, our sympathies change. We find out that the male singer was a jerk, if not outright abusive, and how he remained obsessed with the relationship after it was over. She wasn’t cruel in cutting him off, her verses imply, but was rather removing herself from a bad situation.

Somebody that I Used to Know would have changed completely if one of the perspectives was omitted. It is rare for someone to accept full fault for a bad situation. Often it is more common for them to twist the circumstances to avoid embarrassment. Had the song started from the female perspective, I would have known that the male was an unreliable narrator and not sympathized with him. The choice in order, then, was both deliberate and telling.

As writers, we control our reader’s perspective of the story, and need to exercise that authority to establish the tone and facts as we want the reader to see them. If we choose to have an unreliable narrator, we need to clearly signal that in some way, as Gotye did by showing the varied perspective. Otherwise, the reader will assume the reliability of the narrator and may draw conclusions we did not intend. Perspective in our character’s relationships, especially during hard times such as break ups, is therefore essential.


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