Gotye - Somebody That I Used To Know

by Mai Nguyen


What is a good music video? That was the question I asked myself when I started to search for a video I want to analyze. And the further I thought about it, the more I realized that I have never really occupied myself with that question before. In fact, it seems that in the world of music videos, one is more concerned about quantity rather than about quality. One talks about the most viewed, the most shared, the most expensive video but how often do we think about the aesthetics of music videos? I think that this attitude mirrors the fact that generally the music video is more perceived as a commercial tool rather than a piece of art. But with examples like Lady Gaga’s video for her song “Born This Way” from 2011, which is more than 7 minutes long, it becomes clear that the form of a music video can go far beyond a mere presentation of the artist and the song. 
So, I tried to formulate criteria according to which I would judge the quality of a music video. For this purpose, one quote of singer-songwriter Frank Ocean was very helpful to me. In an interview for BBC Sound of 2012, he states that while making a song he tries to “make a photograph out of something that [one] cannot see”[1]. And now, in my opinion, the challenge of a music video is to bring that actually invisible “photograph” to life but not just by acting out the lyrics word by word. Because the message of a song is also not just what can be read in the lyrics but rather it is about that “something” that hides in between the verses; the emotions that it conveys which would be otherwise impossible to verbalize. So, I chose to present Gotye’s music video for his song “Somebody That I Used to Know” featuring Kimbra from 2011 – a video, which, in my opinion, meets the above mentioned criteria of a good music video.
The video was published in July 2011. It was directed by Australian film maker Natasha Pincus who is also the founder of starkraving productions, a film production company based in Melbourne, Australia. She is mostly known for her directing work on short films and music videos. The background painting in which the singers, Gotye and Kimbra, gradually morph into during the video was based on a piece of work by Gotye’s artist father Frank de Backer. The painting on the singers’ naked bodies which might be the most famous feature about the video was realized by Emma Hack, an Australian artist, renowned for her outstanding body paint installations. The video and the song have enjoyed a huge global success and won numerous awards. At present, the video has reached over 500 million views on YouTube.

Now, after having presented some basic facts, this paper will first take a closer look at the visual themes in the video, focusing on the stop motion animation and the use of camouflage and nudity as visual metaphors. Then, it will provide an analysis of the relation between music and image which was highly inspired by Giulia Gabrielli’s contribution in “Rewind – Play – Fast Forward. The Past Present and Future of the Music Video” published by Henry Keazor and Thorsten Wübbena in 2010.
So, let’s press play.


The movement of the colors was made possible by the technique of stop-motion animation which means that during the process of painting the background and the bodies of the singers the camera was repeatedly started and stopped in order to create the illusion of movement. Nastasha Pincus said in an interview that the shoot of the video took three days whereas the third day was 27 hours long. Sometimes, the singers had to stand still for up to 7 hours.
At the beginning of the video, the camera shows Gotye’s bare foot and slowly moves up to his face, along one half of his naked body. Then, the background painting begins to complete itself. Just when Gotye starts singing the chorus of the song (01:33), the colors take over on his body and at the end of the chorus (02:18) the camera zooms out and reveals the completed painting with the two singers camouflaged into the background. Kimbra is facing the wall, turning her back to the camera. By stepping to Gotye (02:46), she destroys the harmony of the painting and after the second chorus (03:33) she steps back to her original place and her back starts to depaint itself until it is completely nude (03:58).
The movement of the colors defines the story line of the video. First, the camera sneaks into the scene, zooming very close on Gotye’s body. The viewer is left puzzled about where the colors might go and which role Gotye plays in the painting. One is witnessing how the painting is constructing itself until the final result is shown at the camouflage scene. Then, Kimbra comes into play and by stepping out of her position in the painting she marks the turning point in the video. Thus, her back depainting itself initiates the destruction of the painting.
The stop-motion animation makes the processes of construction and destruction appear very smooth and natural to the viewer. Even though there is a turning point in the story line it rather feels like a gradual transition rather than a sudden rupture. The story line in the video can be interpreted as the story of a relationship where the two partners are also not able to tell when exactly they started to distance themselves from one another and why they are not happy with each other anymore. Thus, the smooth transition between construction and destruction in the video may hint at the fact that, in daily life, changes in relationships also happen almost unnoticed. In this video, the love story does not end with a tragic heart break situation, overwhelmed by feelings of lost, hate and revenge but rather it depicts the slow and silent ending of a relationship where there is nothing left but indifference, resignation and soberness.
In nature, camouflage is used for reasons of protection. Animals, such as the chameleon, adapt to the color of their environment in order not to be detected by their enemies. So, referring to the relationship depicted in the video, one could argue that being in camouflage might have the purpose to represent the two partners as a unit, melting together in perfect harmony. But the indifferent facial expression of Gotye already implies that there must be another interpretation of the scene. The two do not seem to be happy about the situation which becomes clear to the viewer when Kimbra steps out of the pattern. Especially noteworthy is the way how she steps towards Gotye. She first rolls her shoulder and only takes one step to reach him. She seems to be very decisive about what she is going to tell him. She turns her head to the side, moves close to his ear and opens her mouth widely while speaking to him. She looks reproachful and her words clearly hit him. He closes his eyes, turns his head a little bit away from her, as if he wanted to say that he had enough of her and that he wanted her to stop talking.
So, in the music video, the motif of camouflage is not used in a positive way rather it mirrors the state of melting together as a lack of individuality, spirit and choices under which the two main characters suffer in their relationship. Being stuck in fixed positions, forced to represent perfect harmony feels like a burden, from which Kimbra finally wants to escape by depainting her back and thus, she ends the relationship between them.


Similarly to the motif of camouflage, nudity is used in another sense than usually expected. Normally, nudity is seen as a symbol of purity, intimacy and vulnerability but in the video it rather represents strength, self-confidence and liberty. When Kimbra steps back to her position in the painting, her back starts depainting itself. Gotye observes her, without leaving his position, his face showing resignation as if he has already given up on their relationship. He seems to have accepted to let her go. With her nude back, Kimbra stands out in the painting and thus, destroys the harmony of the camouflage, which can be seen as a metaphor for her decision to end the relationship.
But she does not simply leave the scene. In the last moment of the video she even looks directly into his eyes and this is also the only scene where the two are facing each other. In this scene Kimbra’s nude back emphasizes the tension and the confrontation between the two. The video ends abruptly after this moment and, as viewer, one is left in the dark about how the confrontation is going to resolve. Will he try to get her back or is this the final end of their relationship?
So, Kimbra, who leaves the protection of the camouflage, turns out to be the stronger character of the story. She has enough courage and self-confidence to take action and to confront him with her problems. Getting rid of the painting is to her like setting herself free from her stuck situation. Gotye, instead, remains in the painting and passively watches her leaving. In the last scene of the video, when the two are facing each other, his facial expression seems to express acceptance and regret. 

The Relation between Music and Image

“[A]ny kind of analysis will be based on an attempt of accurate and in-depth comprehension of the message the author wants to convey to the recipient, and mainly of the ways through which this is achieved.”[1]
Giulia Gabrielli
Taking this quote as a starting point, the following analysis of the relation between music and image in the music video will first focus on the director’s intention behind the concept in order to further examine on how the audio and visual elements in the video work together as a composition later on.
In an interview with the Australian Center for the Moving Image (acmi), published in 2013, Natasha Pincus said that, for her, the lyrics of the song expressed a reciprocal connection between loss and completion and thus lead her to the image of a relationship as a tapestry. The camouflage was supposed to represent unity and completion whereas the depainting exemplified loss and disconnection. Having understood the visual concept of the video, it is now interesting to see how this picture of a tapestry is realized and how “music and image manage to melt [and] meet”[2] in the video. Because one must not ignore that in music videos – more than in other audio-visual texts, such as films – image and sound are deeply intertwined with each other. In other words, “[we] only have a music video when the spectator perceives [it] as a whole, as a sum of elements which are perfectly integrated into each other.”[3] 
An important aspect for perceiving sound and image of a music video as elements of one unique entity are the points of synchronization that occur throughout the video. According to Chion, “[a] point of synchronization, or synch point, is a salient moment of an audiovisual sequence during which a sound event and a visual event meet in synchrony.”[4] These synch points are crucial for the unity of a music video as they create vertical bonds between the horizontal and parallel tracks of sound and image.
These synch points emphasize the deep interaction between sound and image in a music video so that one might also talk about “duties” that the two elements have towards one another. Gabrielli summarized those “duties” as follows:
1.     The ‘Duty’ of Images towards the Music
A.    Paraphrasing the verbal text of the song
B.    Facilitating the comprehension of the verbal text
C.    Creating an expanded reading and interpretation perspective of the song
D.    Orienting expressivity of the song by creating a specific atmosphere
E.     Creating matches with given parts of the song

2.     The ‘Duty’ of the [Music] towards the Images
A.    Keeping the images together
B.    Determining the choice and rhythmic configuration of the visual elements [5]
In Gotye’s music video, the images mainly fulfill the first (1. A) and the fifth function (1. E). The images provide a visual translation not only of the lyrical meaning of the song but also of the music itself. For example, the movement of the colors represents, on the one hand, the construction and destruction of the relationship described in the lyrics but, on the other hand, the movement simultaneously matches with the playful jingle which occurs right at the beginning of the song and which appears several times throughout the song. This directly leads to the second function of the music towards the images (2. B) which shows how deeply the two channels are interwoven with one another and that in order to understand the full meaning of this music video, it would be fatal to disregard their connection and to treat them as two separate entities instead. Here, the stop motion animation as a visual technique and the jingle as a musical theme work closely together, providing a nice example for a synch point.
Another striking synch point can be found in the solo part of Kimbra (02:33). Especially in the moment when she rolls her shoulder to step towards Gotye (02:47), another drum set is added to the music and the rhythm becomes slightly faster. Her frustration and anger can be heard in the reproaches she addresses to him (“I don’t wanna live that way / Reading into every word you say”). In contrast to the sober and calm tone prevailing throughout the rest of the video, in this scene, Kimbra’s facial expression and gesture are loaded with emotions. Her body posture shows that she is searching for confrontation and the way she moves her head emphasizes each word she is saying. The scene reaches its climax at the moment when Kimbra is shouting “Somebody that I Used to Know”, which is also the title of the song. This moment marks the turning point of the video and also of the song. The significance of that moment is also highlighted by the absence of music so that one’s attention is completely focused on Kimbra.

Of course, one can find many other synch points throughout the video. But they all work in a very subtle and implicit way which also defines the aesthetic quality of this music video. Instead of narratively depicting the story behind the relationship, the video appeals to the emotions evoked by the song in a very artistic way, leaving room for individual interpretation to the viewers.


During my research, the question about the future of the music video was often discussed. Theories varied from extinction to reinvention of the music video and the issue of YouTube and other online video platforms was mentioned many times.  In my opinion, the music video has evolved to an indispensable part of the music industry in particular, and of pop culture in general so that its extinction can be seen as impossible. But it is true that even though the music video still has its purpose as a commercial tool, its form and especially the expectations of the audience about it have remarkably changed in the course of time. While, in former times, the promotional function of the music video was obvious and explicitly shown – as it was mainly used as a substitute for live performances and to recompense the fans for the lack of live performances – nowadays, the music video has emancipated itself from this context and has become a visual interpretation of the music.[1] Today, it takes more than recording a live performance to satisfy the fans due to the fact that YouTube and other online platforms already provide an inflationary offer of those kinds of videos. The audience now assumes that a music video mirrors the artistic self of an artist and thus, the music video has a huge impact on the image of a singer or a band.
Lastly, I want to mention that I enjoyed looking at the music video from an aesthetic and also academic perspective. This experience was very new to me as music videos are mostly considered as flat and low-brow culture. But I think that the video for “Somebody that I Used to Know” has shown that a music video can go far beyond a word by word illustration of a song. I was impressed by the depth, the emotionality and the creative realization of the concept of video. Also, I remember that after my presentation of Gotye’s music video in the seminar, one fellow student remarked that she had not expected the video to have such a coherent story line. And this is exactly how I often felt during the presentations of the other students in the seminar. There were so many surprising details, allusions and intertextual references that I would have never paid attention to.
So now, let’s press rewind and see if there are other things that you might find.


Secondary Literature
Gabrielli, Giulia. 2010. “An Analysis of The Relation between Music and Image. The Contribution of Michel Gondry.” in: Keazor, Henry and Wübbena, Thorsten (eds.). Rewind, play, fast forward: the past, present and future of the music video. Bielefeld: Transcript. 89-109.

Keazor, Henry and Wübbena, Thorsten. 2010. “Introduction” in: Keazor, Henry and Wübbena, Thorsten (eds.). Rewind, play, fast forward: the past, present and future of the music video. Bielefeld: Transcript. 7-31.

Chion, Michel. 1994. Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen. New York: Columbia University Press.

About the Music Video “Somebody that I Used to Know”
· [accessed 01/08/14]
· [accessed 14/08/14]
· [accessed 01/08/14]

About Natasha Pincus
· [accessed 01/08/14]
· [accessed 01/08/14]

About Emma Hack
· [accessed 01/08/14]
· [accessed 01/08/14]

[1] Keazor/Wübbena (2010): 23

[1] Gabrielli (2010): 89
[2] ibid.
[3] ibid: 91
[4] Chion (1994): 58 
[5] Gabrielli (2010): 99

[1]  Frank Ocean interview - BBC Sound of 2012: [19/08/14]