Content, Form, And Versioning A Song Everybody Knows: Gotye’s “Somebody I Used To Know”

by Thomas Brett

Sometime not overly long ago, Gotye’s song “Somebody I Used To Know” went very viral–becoming a song meme that was (and still is) hard to escape, whose video on YouTube has been viewed an astonishing 259 million times (or by some 518 million ears!). At least two or three of those views were mine, the first of which took place a few months ago while I was waiting on some take out fish. Curiously enough, I remember that I was at the fish place that afternoon because I was so impressed by the simplicity and contagiousness of the song. Plus, it features a child’s play xylophone part as one of its musical hooks. Hook, line, and sinker–I picked up my fish while glued to my phone watching and listening to the catchy song.

Born in 1980, Gotye (Wouter De Backer) is a Belgian-Australian multi-instrumentalist, singer, and songwriter. In July 2011 he released “Somebody I Used To Know” as the second single from his record Making Mirrors. The song has an old-fashioned twang about it, built around just a few acoustic guitar chords in d minor, with some small Theremin-like electronic flourishes, bits of flute, some bass, and that dry-as-sand staccato xylophone refrain. Gotye shares the singing duties with New Zealand singer Kimbra. But perhaps most significantly for a pop song in 2012, “Somebody I Used To Know” is without a drummer besides the guitar part slapping the strings on beats two and four. Despite having a partial rhythm section, the song unleashes itself in the chorus as Gotye pushes his voice from a mumble into vintage Sting-like high reaches of affect. That’s the main charm of the song: it’s mellow and dark for the most part, but then takes off in the choruses. The other charm of the song is its timbre. Gotye’s motley collection of instrument sounds (some of which may or may not be samples: see the KCRW performance below where a laptop is in play) have a vintage aura about them–like they have been run through the audio equivalent of the Instagram photo app. Gotye, by the way, records and releases his music himself.

Perhaps because of its instrumentation, its catchy chorus, its vocal performances, or its subject matter, “Somebody I Used To Know” slowly grew on listeners even without much radio play in Australia or anywhere else. Something about it resonated authenticity–real music as opposed to industry-created fodder. And then, thanks to few celebrity Tweets and some television appearances, Gotye’s song exploded, eventually reaching number one on the Billboard charts in not one but twenty countries. Talk about a hit song.

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When a song becomes popular, people not only talk about it but record cover versions of it too. This is the ultimate musical compliment–it’s as if your fellow musicians recognize the endless capacity of your sturdy song to withstand alternate versions. Sometime this summer, I noticed a version of Gotye’s hit booming from the bass-heavy stereos in cars slinking around my New York neighborhood. In full nerd-sleuth mode, I would stand still as the booming car drove by, looking like my dog sniffing the air for answers, trying to register the audible differences: the tempo is faster, there’s an electronic drum part…Is this a remix? Why yes, yes it is a remix by DJ Mike D. This version packed more dance punch that Gotye’s original, thanks mostly to its added electronic drum track. But perhaps because it’s a remix, the vocals seemed a tad more out of place: happy to be along for the ride in the new machine, sure, but from a different place.

Another Gotye cover is Mike Dawes’ remarkable instrumental rendition on acoustic guitar. Using fingerstyle techniques, strumming, hammer-ons, and harmonics, Dawes effortlessly coaxes all of the melodic and harmonic details of Gotye’s original version out of his six strings. His groove is impeccable too.

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Something that comes to mind as I think through the popularity of Gotye’s song is the friction between an artist’s original statement (the “content” as it were) and its absorption into the public music sphere (the alternate “forms” as it were, such as cover versions and remixes, etc.). Simply put, when a piece of music widely connects with many, many people, it suggests not so much the machinations of the music industry at work (though industry is always at work) but of the labor of an artist–and in Gotye’s case, quite an independent artist–who has said something singular in a way that resonates honestly. And even when it’s possible to digitally mix and match anything with anything, like add an electronic beat to a Gotye song or do an instrumental cover version, this isn’t the same thing as making that original statement–saying something singular that resonates for many folks and gets ball rolling. That for me, is why songs like “Somebody I Used To Know” are significant: they remind us that there’s always room at the top for thoughtful and new quirky creative stuff.