Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Elliott Smith knows how to say “fuck you” to a past love

In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This Love Week, we’re talking about some of our favorite kiss-off cuts.

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Some of the best breakup advice I ever got was to essentially turn the tables: Instead of feeling sorry for yourself for losing your significant other, pity them for breaking up with you. For most of us, it’s impossible to reverse that thinking overnight, but somewhere in the middle of abysmal pity and smug rebound is Elliott Smith. He takes the idea of reversing the pity party, but adds a strong dash of bitterness, and the end result is a nice balance of a whimsical tune, barely masked hatred, and at least the pretense of moving on.

This song first appeared in my life a couple years after its release, when a friend sent me a post-breakup survival mix CD in the mail (this was the pre-Dropbox era, after all). It included a great many cathartic songs ranging from angry to triumphant, but “Somebody That I Used To Know” wedged itself into a sweet spot for me, and I listened to it on repeat. The acoustic guitar work at the beginning sets up a much sweeter song, but Smith’s brackish tone sours it immediately, in the best possible way: “I had tender feelings that you made hard / But it’s your heart, not mine, that’s scarred.” The song never reaches beyond its bones of guitar and voice, but it doesn’t need to raise the volume to be heard. Although Smith’s narrator is stung by the shock of a breakup, he still works in a middle finger: “You don’t need my help anymore / It’s all now to you, there ain’t no before / Now that you’re big enough to run your own show / You’re just somebody that I used to know.” Yeah, you used to be important to me. But not anymore.

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When you’re the one devastated by a breakup you never saw coming, it’s a struggle to trudge out of your own self-pity and try to change your thinking. And sometimes, while you’re trying to fake your way back to happiness, the most cathartic thing you can do is outwardly maintain your composure while offering up a snide “fuck you.”

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