Gotye, Forgiveness, and Breakup Music

Before I became a Christian and before I met my wife I dated quite a few girls.  My relationships ranged from casual first dates to somewhat serious but immature relationships.  Furthermore, for whatever reason, most of the girls I dated did the breaking up part of ending our relationships.

Needless to say, I have listened to many a sad but empowering dating breakup song whilst crying myself to sleep at night and, therefore, consider myself to be somewhat of an expert on the whole, “Once I arrive in a stable and healthy relationship I am going to play this song in victory upon every remembrance of you” phase of grieving.

Perhaps this is why the grammy award-winning artist Gotye (pronounced Go-Ti-Yay, the French equivalent of “Walter”) and his hit collaboration with the artist Kimbra on Somebody That I Used To Know has stuck in my brain this past week.  On Monday, I and 40 million other Americans awoke to discover that some artist named Gotye won three Grammy Awards at the 55th Annual Grammy Awards Show – Record of the Year, Best Pop Duo/Group Performance, and Best Alternative Music Album.  And, like 40 million other Americans, I quickly clicked on the Spotify icon in my docking bar and cued up his album, Making Mirrors.

After the first listen, I texted my friend Derrick, an expert on all things hip and cool in pop culture, and asked him about Gotye.  Here is the recap of our phone dialogue:

UntitledDerrick is totally right.  The album is mediocre at best, but that song hits it out of the park.  It’s an iconic breakup song, immediately worthy of top 10 status.  But where does it rank at the end of the day? Inquiring minds need to know. Gotye’s Grammy trifecta begs us to ponder his song’s place in the pantheon of great breakup songs.

Let’s look at the current contenders in no particular order (With Links to Youtube).

My Top Breakup Songs Of All Time

Cry Me A River – Justin Timberlake. In case you missed it, Justin Timberlake used to date a well known pop diva named Brittany Spears.  As the story goes, she dumped him right at the peak of her popularity and just before the cusp of his.  Needless to say that these ingredients created the perfect storm for a breakup song – one that, in part, catapulted Timberlake into the stratosphere of American Music celebrity while simultaneously causing every music fan to cringe at the very notion of Spears.  Talk about your all time backfire. And the video can only be described by the words of Dave Chappelle as Rick James, “Cold Blooded.”

Rolling In The Deep – Adele.  Adele’s lyrics are helped by the piano-driven musical steam roller of a tune.  It is a catchy, soulful, R&B masterpiece.  I don’t mean to put down the lyrics – they are great – but it is the sound that provides the framework for impact.  So, when Adele gets to the chorus and belts out “We could have had it all,” everything comes together in a way that shames ex-boyfriends everywhere while making them ponder the philosophical question, “Wait, could I have been dating a Grammy Winner?”

You Oughta Know – Alanis Morissette. Ask anyone who broke up with someone in the 90s and they will tell you the same thing.  Alanis got me through a tough time. But she didn’t just provide listeners with a way to cope, she gave them an angst-filled tune to empower their broken hearts towards recovery and revenge.  And somewhere Dave Coulier is nodding along.

Here’s A Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares) – Travis Tritt. Dated? Yes. Country? Yes.  But nonetheless, cold blooded and victorious.  Even the music video lays the smack down on former lovers in the way that The Rock laid the smack down on the metaphorical Jobroni.  When she asks if they can get back together, Travis Tritt literally flings a quarter to his ex-girlfriend, supposedly played by Backstreet Boys lead singer Brian Littrell’s wife Leighanne (jury is still out on that one). Honestly, how many dudes have ever wanted to do something so cold blooded to an ex before?  Answer: Every guy who has ever been dumped.

These Boots Are Made For Walking – Nancy Sinatra. Due to being born in the latter part of the 20th century I do not have much by way of cultural awareness of this song.  That being said, I can still appreciate the impact of the line, “These boots are made for walking.  And that’s just what they’ll do.  One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you.”

A Song For The Dumped – Ben Folds Five. Just a head’s up.  These lyrics are raw and crass.  You have been warned.  And yes, many Christians who have been dumped have likely been tempted to say and think and feel these lyrics in the deepness of a sinful heart.  The difference between a Christian breakup and Ben Folds is that Ben Folds says what we all have been thinking.  And records it…as a cultural artifact for all to hear.  I’m not saying what Ben Folds did was right, I’m just saying…I understand.

Since You’ve Been Gone – Kelly Clarkson.  Here’s to the poppy equivalent of Travis Tritt’s quarter song.  A girl gets dumped.  Grieves.  Then discovers that life is better without the hassle of a loveless boyfriend.  Hello empowerment!  Also, this song benefits from a rocking and fast paced musical style.

You’re So Vain – Carly Simon. Let’s put it this way: Whenever you write a song about a self-absorbed lover and it leads to a #72 ranking on Billboard’s Greatest Songs Of All Time list, decades of speculation about the inspiration for the song, and a $50,000 auction price tag to reveal the identity behind the song’s character – you’ve written an influential break up song.  Can you imagine being either Warren Beatty, David Geffen, or Mick Jagger and living in a world where every time you walk into a department store that is playing that song you are forced into contemplating why you ever asked Carly Simon out on a date – all while the ladies in the makeup area publicly whisper to each other about the current nature of your vanity?  It is rare that a song has staying power in the entertainment industry whilst simultaneously burning three of the most powerful men in the entertainment industry.

Before He Cheats – Carrie Underwood.  My wife is from Oklahoma and she has a helpful insight into the power of this song. She says, “If there is one thing that Oklahomans love as much as their mammas and Jesus, it is their pickup trucks.”  And Carrie Underwood hits her ex where it hurts – by destroying his pickup truck.  That’s a country burn.

 My Final Rankings

  1. You Oughta Know – Alanis Morissette
  2. Cry Me A River – Justin Timberlake
  3. A Song For The Dumped – Ben Folds Five
  4. Before He Cheats – Carrie Underwood
  5. Here’s A Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares) – Travis Tritt
  6. Rolling In The Deep – Adele
  7. You’re So Vain – Carley Simon
  8. These Boots Are Made For Walking – Nancy Sinatra
  9. Somebody That I Used To Know – Gotye with Kimbra
  10. Since You’ve Been Gone – Kelly Clarkson

At final glance Gotye’s Somebody That I Used To Know is worthy of top ten status, even though it doesn’t crack the top five.  It is a painful, angst-ridden, beautifully written, thoughtful musical masterpiece. Kimbra’s voice lends a rich texture to the interplay between characters and brings a complementary harmony.  Furthermore, it is different from any other breakup song on record.  Where it fails to measure up against the competition is in the area of  vengeance.  The top five songs have a certain flair of triumphalism over the ex that catapults them towards the top of the list.

On Breakup Music and Forgiveness: 

The popularity and influence of Gotye’s song as well as the lasting impact of the other top ten songs highlights an important facet about American culture at large:  We resonate strongly with breakup music because we don’t know how to practice forgiveness.

My pastor has this great line about the forgiveness that Jesus Christ models in the Lord’ Prayer.  He says, “Forgiveness means receiving pain and not paying it forward and not paying it back.”  I think the reason that we resonate with each of these breakup songs is that when we are hurt we want to pay it back (by means of destroying a pickup truck) or pay it forward (by broadcasting one’s vanity to the listening world). I wonder what a song would sound like that promoted forgiveness instead of bitterness and revenge amidst a break up.  Perhaps it wouldn’t sell.  Then again, if Timbaland produces it anything is possible.

About Doug Hankins

Although not a Christian in his youth, Doug came to believe in Jesus during his teenage years. When not playing sports or pastoring Doug is probably spending time with his wife, reading a good book, or drinking some hot tea. Doug's first book Dawson Trotman: In His Own Words is available wherever books are sold. You can follow Doug on twitter.
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