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The Dangerous Daily Grind: A Rhetorical Analysis of Gotye’s “Easy Way Out”

For most of us, the daily grind is a given, an automatic side effect of being alive and well. Day after day, we sleep, we eat, we work, we shower off, and we sleep again. This never-ending cycle is something that goes unquestioned and uncontested, as long as we are physically healthy and mentally stable enough to keep at it. At least, that is the assumption. Let us not forget that there are still some of us left in the world who like to challenge assumptions. Case in point: an alternative musician by the name of Wally De Backer, better known in the world of music by his bohemian stage name, Gotye (pronounced “go-tee-yay,” like the French name “Gauthier”). His original song “Easy Way Out,” and the subsequently released music video of the same name, provide an interesting look at the concept of the daily grind, and what these constantly repeated routines might mean for those of us who are still capable of hearing the distant cries of our weary minds and our aching hearts.

This song and its video are intriguing enough to merit analysis as a persuasive text. In the contemporary study of rhetoric, a text is “a collection of verbal and/or nonverbal signs that create meaning” (Brummett, 2015, p. 4). That description obviously fits Gotye’s richly symbolic creative work. Proceeding through the narrative arc of the video, a critical viewer can make many insightful observations about its implied strategies, both in the verbal and the nonverbal realm, as well as the way this text relates to the context of larger society.

“Easy Way Out” is the second track on Gotye’s 2011 album Making Mirrors. Set to upbeat alternative rock music, Gotye’s thought-provoking lyrics speak of the exhaustion of trying to hide one’s true emotions while keeping busy with the distractions of a superficial lifestyle. The title of the song can be heard at the end of the refrain: “Wearing me out, / (all this) hanging around, / (it just starts) getting me down, / (till I’m just) looking for an easy way out” (De Backer, 2011).

The music video for “Easy Way Out,” produced in 2012, utilizes a combination of acting by Gotye himself, an elaborate set, and quirky special effects to present an artistic interpretation of the song’s lyrics. The viewer follows Gotye’s character, a young male white-collar worker, through what appears to be his daily routine: getting out of bed, having coffee and a cigarette at the breakfast table, typing up papers at an office desk, riding home on the subway, sitting on the toilet and getting out of the shower in his bathroom, and finally, returning to his bed. This basic routine is shown four successive times, but with each repetition of the cycle, the man appears more exhausted, bored, and miserable. In addition, the environment around him begins to fall into chaos, eventually catching on fire. Toward the end of the video, the viewer is taken on one last “tour” of the man’s surroundings, which resemble a disaster scene by that point. The final shot shows Gotye’s character sitting on the floor of his burned, destroyed bedroom, covered in soot and looking hopeless and lifeless as he sings the words, “Looking for an easy way out” (De Backer, 2012).

In looking more closely at the rhetoric behind this artistic work, several methods of analysis can be used; however, in this essay, the primary focus will be dramatistic/narrative criticism. According to Barry Brummett, an expert in the rhetoric of popular culture, “Dramatistic/narrative critics believe that language and other sign systems are the grounding for human reality and motivation… In other words, the most fundamental reality is the symbols we use” (2015, p. 202).Following this school of thought, people use words, stories, and other symbolic units to help them make sense of the problems in their lives. Since Gotye’s video “Easy Way Out” is clearly an attempt to address some common human difficulties by creating a symbol-rich narrative structure, the dramatistic/narrative approach seems to be a natural choice for this analysis.

As Brummett suggests in his book Rhetoric in Popular Culture, it is often advisable to first look at what a rhetorical text seems to be saying on a more surface level, and then progress into its deeper implied meanings. Brummett uses the term “direct tactics” to refer to the most obvious kind of persuasive appeal: “A direct tactic is any straightforward request or prompting for you to think or behave in a certain way… often accompanied by a reason or rationale for you to think or act as urged.” However, he also notes that “some texts seem almost devoid of direct tactics” (2015, p. 104). This appears to be the case with Gotye’s “Easy Way Out.” Certainly, the song lyrics contain no direct admonitions to the listener. Instead, Gotye presents his ideas as a rather cryptic first-person narrative, describing his inner feelings without advocating any particular response from the audience.

Piercing more deeply into the content of the music video, a careful critic can discover numerous examples of what Brummett calls “implied strategies.” These are the implications of signs within the text, how these signs are arranged, and how they relate to one another (Brummett, 2015, p. 105). In keeping with a focus on dramatistic/narrative critique, the critical viewer might examine the ways in which the implied strategies in Gotye’s video create an understanding of life’s problems as a drama or narrative.

The video opens with a familiar domestic image: a person lying on a rumpled bed in his pajamas, with morning light streaming through the window. Ostensibly, this is a peaceful scene. In the background, though, there is the sound of an emergency vehicle’s siren. This is a good example of a particular type of implied strategy: conflict. Conflict occurs when concepts that would normally be in opposition to one another appear together in a text (Brummett, 2015, p. 110). The sound of the siren suggests that there is an undercurrent of danger beneath the façade of normal life. Later on, this symbol of danger will come to fruition when the man’s house catches on fire and his life begins to fall apart (De Backer, 2012).

When a symbol is developed or “perfected” like this, one is witnessing a process known in dramatistic/narrative criticism as teleology. “One important thing that any narrative or drama does is develop its symbols. … The great Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, for instance, once said that if a gun appears in the first scenes of a play, it must be used by the end of the play,” says Brummett (2015, p. 204). Teleology brings an idea full circle. By pairing a scene of domestic life with the sound of a siren, Gotye hints that danger is lying dormant in daily routine, like the man in the bed; waiting to devour one’s life, like the fire that eventually, inevitably, destroys the house.

One also notices upon seeing the first frame of the video that there is a whimsical-looking animated cat sitting on the bureau next to the man’s bed. The cat seems to be watching the alarm clock, anticipating that it will soon ring. Ring it does, and the cat reacts by running away, escaping into the kitchen as the man brings his hand down on the clock to shut it off.

Throughout the course of the video, the cat appears in this role of the observer, watching the man’s actions, while the man completely ignores the cat’s existence. Eventually, when the house is on fire, the cat can be seen struggling helplessly in the background, consumed by flames. Meanwhile, the man sits on the toilet reading a charred newspaper, evidently oblivious–or just indifferent–to the tragedy that is befalling his pet (De Backer, 2012).

The cat illustrates another kind of implied strategy: implication. Specifically, the cat appears to be an example of transformation, which Brummett describes as follows: “A transformation sign is not what it seems to be; you perceive it and know that it is standing in for something else” (2015, p. 108). In the case of this video, the feline seems to embody the quality of innocence. The cat’s shy yet curious posture throughout the story suggests the possibility of living in an open-hearted awareness of what really matters in life–something which the man is evidently trying to repress in himself. The way the man ignores the needs and desires of his pet resembles the way that he ignores himself, and his own needs and desires. The cat’s ultimate destruction suggests impending doom for the man as well.

Of course, the video’s central figure is the man. Played by Gotye himself, the man is young, white, and apparently a member of the middle class, working a white-collar office job. His character appears in almost every scene. Actually, thanks to special effects, he sometimes appears multiple times in each setting: the bedroom, the kitchen, the office, the subway, and the bathroom. When he appears multiple times, each image of the man is dressed a little differently and performs a different action, but all appear to represent the same character, just at different stages of his daily routine. These multiple images also seem to represent the character’s various emotional responses to the life he is living.

The character of the man exemplifies another type of implication: a keystone sign. “Sometimes one sign or kind of sign, a keystone sign, assumes centrality in a text,” explains Brummett. “If a keystone sign were removed from the text, the whole thing would lose its current meaning” (201, p. 107). As the keystone sign for the visual side of this production, the man is at the center of the tragic narrative. When his hygiene, health, and sanity start to disintegrate, everything in his environment mirrors his downfall.

It is also worth considering the existence of a keystone sign from the verbal side of the video, that is, the lyrics of the song. An obvious contender for this role would be the words of the refrain, since the refrain is stated three times over the course of the song. And, indeed, without this frequent insistence that his busy lifestyle is “wearing [him] out” and “getting [him] down,” Gotye’s listeners might have a considerably more difficult time trying to decipher the meaning of his other lyrics, which are more ambiguous in their expression of these negative sentiments (De Backer, 2011). Incidentally, the words “wearing me out” actually appear in the visual world of the video: on day two of the repeating cycle, the second time the man is shown riding the subway, graffiti has begun to appear on the walls and chairs of the subway car, and the scribbled message “wearing me out” can be spotted on one of the seats (De Backer, 2012). Of course, the statement that the singer is “looking for an easy way out” also sets the tone for the song, indicating clearly that circumstances are so bad, they need to be escaped.

As the video unfolds, imagery remains immensely important. This makes it natural to examine some key elements of “Easy Way Out” from the perspective of visual rhetorical criticism. Visual critics argue that images, like language, have a structure and a context, and require interpretation in order to extract meanings from them (Brummett, 2015, p. 197). One important quality of images is their ability to create a particular point of view. “The visual critic needs to ask what sort of visual world is being created, and how the ‘rules’ of that world affect the audience,” according to Brummett (2015, p. 199). In the case of the “Easy Way Out” video, the viewer is given an unusual point of view: in the opening frame, once the man wakes up and starts moving, the camera also begins to move, rotating continuously to scan the circular set and its five different environments: the bedroom, the kitchen, the office, the subway, and the bathroom. The camera follows Gotye’s character on this seemingly never-ending journey through his humdrum daily routine a total of four times. As noted earlier, viewers will notice the man’s mannerisms becoming more and more indicative of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion as the merry-go-round goes round. On day five, at which point the house is on fire (thanks to the man’s careless, perhaps somewhat spiteful placement of a lit cigarette on the morning newspaper during day four), Gotye’s character awakens in his bedroom,appears to finally notice the house fire, and then seems too fazed by this realization to even get out of bed. In other words, his action finally stops. But does the camera stop? No. It continues to rotate at the same steady pace, offering “the same” views of the surroundings, except that each of the five scenes is now in ruins (De Backer, 2012).

What is the rhetorical point of view created by the camera’s nonstop circular movement? One possible effect is a sense that if a person becomes unwilling or unable to keep up with the relentless requirements of a fast-paced society, that person will be left behind. Society does not stop when one person stops, no matter how badly that person may need a respite from his constant activity. Society continues its hectic cycles, apparently not noticing or caring that its nonstop, superficial, impersonal busyness has triggered an individual’s emotional and physical collapse.

This last part of the video also provides a powerful example of the quality of absence, which is another type of implied strategy (Brummett, 2015, p. 110). When the viewer is shown the charred remains of the man’s house, immediately noticeable is the total absence of human activity in the rooms. This inactivity stands in stark contrast to the first part of the video, which features the man’s incessant activity. There is also no evidence that anyone has tried to do anything about the burning of the house, which is subliminally troubling. The absence of emergency personnel in particular is perhaps a dark commentary on society’s indifference to the suffering of the individual. The stillness in the house is eerie, primarily because it invokes the feeling that society does not care about the destruction of a home, nor about a person’s basic wellbeing, sanity, or survival.

The bulk of this essay has examined the implied strategies within Gotye’s creative work. Additionally, it can be enlightening to consider a text such as this music video within the context of much larger societal issues. In the case of “Easy Way Out,” it could be said that Gotye is making a compelling statement about modern society. Particularly in the West, the past century or so has seen the rise of industrialization, and with that has come a cultural mindset that tends place high value on things like productivity, efficiency, competition, and consumption. This set of values, Gotye’s video suggests, is fatally flawed. In fact, many cultural critics would agree with this stance, arguing that these values have been emphasized at the expense of far more important matters–quality of life, for instance. Gotye cleverly uses the poignant narrative of one man’s slavish and ultimately toxic devotion to the mundane system of materialism to illustrate the idea that modern society has, in essence, lost its way. This kind of distillation of broader issues into a readily accessible rhetorical text is known as metonymy (Brummett, 2015, p. 119).

Gotye’s artistic portrayal of daily routine as a disaster waiting to happen definitely flies in the face of society’s norms. As noted at the opening of this essay, most of us have accepted the idea that a repeating cycle of everyday activities is a natural part of life for healthy people. But then this ingenious alternative musician presents us with the story of a man who discovers that simply going through the motions for too long can be dangerous for the human psyche, and suddenly, an entirely different narrative is suggested. What Gotye has done with this song and this video is subtly redefine what a healthy and successful life is supposed to look like. Ignoring one’s needs and desires, forcing oneself to keep running on a meaningless treadmill of unrelenting busyness, is anything but beneficial to people, Gotye argues. In fact, it is an almost sure path to destruction.

In the last analysis, Gotye’s music video for his song “Easy Way Out” packs a powerful persuasive punch. Thanks to a wide variety of effective implied strategies, both verbal and nonverbal, he produces a gripping narrative that is both appealingly creative and richly meaningful. His artistic endeavor is evidence of the fact that alternatives to the norms of society do exist. While the world may attempt to drive our noblest instincts to extinction, we do not have to comply with such coercion. Instead, we can create a new reality, live by our own standards of success, and find our own “easy way out.”

Works Cited

Brummett, B. (2015). Rhetoric in popular culture. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

De Backer, W. (2011, August 19). Easy Way Out. On Making Mirrors. Melbourne: Eleven.

De Backer, W. (2012, February 24). Gotye – Easy Way Out – official video. Retrieved
December 10, 2015 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mEpfyBOdKxU