According to all known laws of the music industry, there is no way that ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’ should have been a hit. Before its release, almost nobody outside of Australia had heard of Gotye and even in Australia, he was very much an obscurity. The chorus does not start until a minute and a half into the song, after two low-key verses, violating the accepted rule of pop music stipulating that the chorus should start within the first minute. The song was mostly recorded at Gotye’s house, not a professional studio. Rumour has it that the featuring artist, Kimbra, was only brought in as a replacement after a much higher-profile Australian artist dropped out. The main instrumental hook is an obscure sample of a Luis Bonfa jazz song. Gotye himself is a Belgian-Australian artist, a far cry from the usual Brits or Americans to whom international pop hits seem exclusive. The song wasn’t even following a trend – most international hits in 2012 more closely resembled Swedish House Mafia’s ‘Don’t You Worry Child’, with hard-hitting EDM production and sidechain compression, than stripped-back indie pop.
And yet not only was it a hit, it was an enormous smash. It topped charts across the globe. Not only did it top the Billboard Hot 100, but it topped its year-end list too. The music video now has 1.4 billion views on YouTube. It may not have had the TikTok-provided help many modern indie songs enjoy, but through twitter promotion from high-profile individuals including Katy Perry, and later inclusion in the TV show Glee, the song managed to burst out from its obscure origins and into the world music spotlight.
This immediately begs the question of how. How can a relatively unknown artist from Australia produce a song that violates almost every convention of pop music and still produce an enormous hit? This question, however, can be most easily answered by simply listening to it, whereupon the quality of this modern classic becomes undeniable.
‘Somebody That I Used to Know’ comes across as an honest song. In a landscape of music where we do not question the reliability of the narrator, the dynamic created between the perspectives of Gotye and Kimbra on the record, with the latter in her verse blatantly calling out the former for misrepresenting the truth in his, provides a satisfying layer of depth and realism that one can so rarely enjoy in popular music, or even in any other genre. Combined with an inspired choice of sample, well produced dynamic shifts between sections, and a relatively simple, catchy chorus with an earworm hook line, this song becomes a true ideal of indie pop – bringing something new and repeatedly interesting to the table on an excellent foundation of pleasing sonic quality. The relative mellowness of the production and tasteful sample choices give the song a timeless quality, as if it could have been a hit whether it was released in 2011, today or 1980. As a package, then, this song becomes a modern 21st Century classic, destined to stay in memory and to receive playtime for decades to come alongside the likes of ‘F—k you’, ‘Get Lucky’, ‘Kids’ and ‘Uptown Funk’.
We should, of course, not forget the final ingredient that made ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’ a hit – the video. Much like the rest of the song, it is distinct and unique, and its art style matches the album cover art well. The concept of two people naked against a background, performing the song mostly stationary, whilst both the wall and the people are painted in a matching pattern was immediately attention-grabbing and memorable. I would like to say this is because the two artists being nude brings out some ‘raw’ or ‘undisguised’ nature of the song lyrics and meaning, but while this may be true, it is likely this video stuck with people for the same reason putting tits in a YouTube thumbnail guarantees more views – sex sells. After all, much of the very early success of the song in gaining traction and shares from the aforementioned high-profile individuals were shares of the video.
I should admit here that I’m something of a Gotye fan. Making Mirrors was the first album I ever bought in physical form (and, given the advent of Spotify, one of the last). Beyond ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’, I would highly recommend that you listen to some of Gotye’s other highlight tracks: ‘Heart’s a Mess’, ‘Eyes Wide Open’, ‘State of the Art’ and ‘Easy Way Out’ are all excellent listens, and indeed all come with their own memorable videos.
I find it a great shame, then, that Gotye (real name Wally de Backer) has released nothing since. He apparently has absolutely no interest in maintaining a celebrity status and producing music for a popular audience (making his enormous pop success all the more astounding and impressive), and has spent the years since Making Mirrors maintaining the legacy of an obscure instrument called the Ondioline and performing as part of his long-time band, The Basics. He has yet to properly announce any future solo Gotye projects.
So, if you turn on Radio 2 in 40 years to listen to an oldies’ program in an attempt to escape whatever monstrosities our children will have come up with to play on Radio 1, don’t be surprised to hear the familiar opening notes of Gotye’s only major hit. After all, one can already find plenty of evidence on YouTube, from parodies to ‘80s remixes, that the song has scarcely left the public consciousness at all. And that is something you definitely cannot say about most charting songs from 2012.
Image credit: Pat David via Flickr