This is a little old (over a week, which in internet time means dead and buried), and I don’t usually bother attacking bad essays by people who, as far as I know, don’t normally write about pop music, but there are so many things that irritate me about Dodai Stewart’s take on Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” on Jezebel that I feel the need to mention it. The piece is like a crash course on everything that’s wrong with internet punditry.
On the surface, there’s nothing that mistaken about it. Everything that Stewart says about the man’s side of the song is exactly right: it does sound like a crap email from some dude whose expectations about a relationship, and the end of one, don’t seem to include any self-knowledge or any idea of what the woman is feeling. But as people point out in the comments, because she never takes the woman’s verse in the song into consideration, Stewart’s attack is meaningless. While she doesn’t misrepresent the male character’s point of view, she does misrepresent the song as a whole. She turns an attack on a character Gotye created into an attack on Gotye himself, which makes no sense at all.
Stewart than adds to the problem by trying to explain herself to those commenters who call her on her chicanery. First, she admits that she’s aware of the woman’s verse, but was focusing on the guy. In other words, she confesses to leaving out essential information so her attack on the song makes sense (or so she could attack it at all). This is the equivalent of what politicians and political commentators do when they selectively quote their opponents while leaving out all modifiers, qualifying phrases, and context. It’s the cheapest shot any pundit can take. It puts Stewart, by her own admission, in Breitbart territory.
She then resorts to the lamest excuse of all time: it was just a joke. “of course it’s tongue in cheek,” she replies to one commenter, “do you know what site this is?” Yes, we do, but first of all, there’s nothing in the piece that suggests it’s tongue-in-cheek, and second, it isn’t funny. Not once. Claiming the piece was tongue-in-cheek doesn’t excuse Stewart’s errors, it compounds them.
Even more irritating, though, is the unspoken assumption that lies behind the creation of this piece in the first place. The biggest clue to this can be found in the headline (which to be fair, Stewart may not have written, but since it echoes everything in the piece itself any editors who may exist at Jezebel were following her lead). It’s not in the business about a crap email, though, but in the opening phrase: “America’s Number One Pop Song…”
We all know what that means, don’t we? It means this song is popular. Millions of people have bought it, are streaming it, are listening to it on the radio. And we all know what the pop masses are: they’re stupid. They’re only buying and listening to this song because it has a nice lilting melody and a cute arrangement and a lead vocal somewhat reminiscent of Sting. The pop masses don’t pay attention to lyrics; they have no idea what this song is really about or what a douche this guy really is. They need to have it explained to them.
That Jezebel is the last place anyone would choose to explain anything to the masses (choir preaching is their forté) is beside the point. What matters is that one can feel superior to the general public by making assumptions about them that they lack the intellectual wherewithal, or interest, to refute. The idea that people are attracted to this song because of the lyrics, because of the message it conveys, because of the back and forth between the two characters, never enters Stewart’s head.
It’s too long ago for me to remember, but did people feel the same need to explain this song’s obvious antecedent, The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” (the storylines are different, but the basic idea—obtuse male refusing to recognize his ex’s need for independence, with verses given to both characters—is the same)? Since the idea of the general public being idiots is the most common, if unspoken, justification for punditry (the second most common is that they are unable to speak for themselves and need the pundit to express their desires), I suppose there were people who did, but they didn’t have a monster soapbox like the internet to stand on. They just bored their friends with it.
If only Stewart had chosen to do the same.