In The Ones of the ’10s, I’m reviewing every single that hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the 2010s and working my way up into the present.
Gotye- “Somebody That I Used To Know” (feat. Kimbra)
HIT #1: April 28, 2012
STAYED AT #1: 8 weeks
One of the fun things about following the charts is that at some point a song so out of the ordinary breaks out to the point that it messes with your understanding of what a hit even is. We’ve seen time and time again on the Hot 100 of songs that get big despite not sounding like anything that’s on the charts. But sometimes the stars manage to align perfectly for that song to breakthrough when it wouldn’t have been possible before. Sometimes, the artist(s) behind the song doesn’t last long afterward but their song still manages to make a lasting impact.
That’s what happened with “Somebody That I Used To Know,” the lone #1 hit from Belgian-born and Australian-raised indie artist Gotye and New Zealand-born indie artist Kimbra. Both artists were unknowns outside their home countries but for a moment in 2012 they managed to take hold of the American mainstream in a big way thanks to their collaboration on the aftermath of a breakup. All of this complete with quiet exotic-sounding instrumentation that sounded nothing like what was popular on the charts in 2012.
Regardless, “Somebody That I Used To Know” wound up becoming an absolute phenomenon becoming Billboard’s #1 single of 2012 and winning Record of the Year at the 2013 Grammys. The stars managed to align perfectly for this song to crossover.
Born Wouter De Backer, Gotye moved from Belgium to Australia with his family at 2 years old settling in a suburb of Melbourne. (The #1 single in the US when Gotye was born: Blondie’s “Call Me.”) Gotye grew a passion for music early on learning many instruments and had his first musical experience performing in a high school band. During his time in college, an elderly neighbor of Gotye gave him a huge collection of vinyl records after his wife died which inspired him to make music.
In 2001, Gotye released the EP Out Here in The Cold which was where he adopted his stage name using the French equivalent of his first name Gaultier and spelling it phonetically. The EP generated some traction in Australia which happened around the time of forming a new band The Basics with a new songwriter friend Kris Schroeder. While their band was quickly finding its audience, Gotye continued down making music with the new stage name leading to his debut album Boardface in 2003 which made little impact.
For the next few years, Gotye went back and forth between his solo career and his career in The Basics continuing to build up buzz in Australia which helped with his second album, 2006’s Like Drawing Blood. The album helped break Gotye into the mainstream in Australia getting big critical and commercial success eventually going platinum. With the new success and a break from his band, Gotye began work on his third album which included a little song that would change his life in a big way.
The resulting album, 2011’s Making Mirrors, was another hit in Australia going to #1 and being certified triple platinum. But the album’s first single, “Eyes Wide Open,” an electronic indie rock fusion did little in terms of chart success. While the first single may have been a bust, audiences soon started gravitated toward the album’s second single, a minimal slow-building track written about the aftermath of a breakup.
Gotye wrote “Somebody That I Used To Know” about an ex-girlfriend he dated a while back and how their relationship wasn’t working out, “There is an ex-girlfriend I know. It was five-six years ago. It wasn’t a nasty breakup, but it was messy in the sense that we hurt each other more than we needed to because it wasn’t a clean break. I guess it’s closest to what the chorus is about. We both realized we had to move on and we haven’t seen each other since.” Recording and producing the song at his home studio he created on his parent’s barn, the song wasn’t planned as a duet but after feeling he couldn’t write much more about his character Gotye decided to get a female vocalist on his song to help get his story across more.
After a few failed attempts, Gotye landed rising New Zealand indie singer Kimbra to guest on his song after a recommendation by Gotye’s mixer who also produced Kimbra’s debut album Vows. Growing up in the North Island town of Hamilton, Kimbra took up guitar at 12 and quickly worked her way up performing in school and performing on local TV and festivals before being signed to an independent label at age 17. (The #1 single in the US when Kimbra was born: Alannah Myles’ “Black Velvet.”) Kimbra had also enjoyed success with Vows which went Top 5 in both New Zealand and Australia and winning the Critics Choice Prize at the 2011 New Zealand Music Awards, their version of the Grammys.
“Somebody That I Used To Know,” much like the previous #1 “We Are Young,” had a long road to its chart success. Initially, the song leaked onto iTunes and was getting radio play at stations in Australia and Europe before its single release. All of this activity helped to build up hype once the song was officially released in July 2011 which came with an eye-catching artsy music video showing Gotye and Kimbra naked against a wallpaper backdrop as they both become covered in body paint throughout. From there, the song kept growing and growing in popularity.
Listening to “Somebody That I Used To Know” today, it’s amazing that it managed to be as big as it was. In a year that was otherwise dominated by loud pounding EDM and carefully crafted pop hits, the last thing you would have expected to be the biggest hit in 2012 was this soft minimal artsy song anchored by a bossa nova guitar sample, a xylophone, mellotron, soft percussion, and from what I think is a slide guitar sung by two unknown indie artists. It’s also a song that forgoes any normal pop song structure most notably by not having a chorus between the first and second verses. I remember hearing this song several times in 2012 but since I wasn’t a big music follower back then didn’t think about how much the song stood out in the pop landscape. This must have been crazy for anyone following music in 2012.
On Gotye’s part, he credits the song’s success with its virality and the fact that it stood out, “iTunes, YouTube and Facebook — at the different points they were at — all had a pretty big impact on how this song and video were shared initially. To even have a few hundred million views, it was one of the most-watched music videos at that time. People were breaking down the trends in pop music over the last few years, and the melodic math that came out of the Swedish influence like Denniz Pop and Max Martin and Dr. Luke. Then someone at the end of the seminar said, ‘And then there’s this one anomaly, which is “Somebody That I Used to Know.””
What also helps is that “Somebody That I Used To Know” is a pretty great song in its own right. The biggest thing that sticks out about the song is its main melody, a two-note acoustic guitar riff played over and over throughout. That riff comes from “Seville,” a 1967 instrumental from Brazilian guitarist Luiz Bonfá. Gotye has said “Seville” helped to inspire some of the lyrics. Bonfá, who died in 2001, was given proper songwriting credit and his estate reportedly gets 45 percent of the royalties from “Somebody That I Used To Know.”
It’s a good use of the sample lending the song a cool exotic and spooky tone along with the other elements of the production. All of this helps to bring attention and add emotion to the subject matter. It’s quiet and pleasant sounding while also hinting at the despair in the lyrics. It also compliments both Gotye and Kimbra’s performances who both sing in a very quiet but bitter tone. As the music builds into the chorus both artists build with it.
In the lyrics, “Somebody That I Used To Know” presents itself as a he said, she said discussion regarding a relationship. For the first half, Gotye sings about being in a relationship where his girl is happy. Deep inside, he is not happy and is hiding his sadness. Once Gotye and his girlfriend finally break up, Gotye is glad it’s over while his girlfriend pledges to remain friends. But on the chorus, Gotye lashes out at his ex for breaking that promise treating him like he doesn’t exist anymore by changing her numbers. Gotye is fed up with this that he doesn’t refer to his ex as a person anyone but as “somebody that I used to know” as if she didn’t mean anything.
These lyrics could have made Gotye come across as self-centered and mean-spirited but we get the ex’s perspective on the third verse with Kimbra. Kimbra cuts through Gotye’s bullshit and says it’s him that’s responsible for their relationship not working out. Kimbra doesn’t get a lot of lines in her part but it’s enough to give us an understanding of where she’s been to show that there are two sides to this story. Gotye made the right move to make the song a duet in showing how a broken relationship affects people on both sides instead of being one man’s bitter outburst at an ex. Nobody comes out good which furthers its relatability. I haven’t been in a relationship yet but from what I know they are often messy and this song is a good representation of it.
Both Gotye and Kimbra wouldn’t reach these heights again. Gotye’s only other Hot 100 entry, “Eyes Wide Open” wound up peaking at #96 on the Hot 100 during “Somebody That I Used To Know’s” run at #1. Aside from that, both artists haven’t touched the Hot 100 since though they’re not exactly artists who need the charts in order to succeed. After the fame died down, Gotye announced a hiatus from releasing music in 2014 saying he’s not in a rush to releasing a follow up to Making Mirrors but has hinted recently at a new album. Kimbra meanwhile has released two albums since and is still out there.
So Gotye and Kimbra now are, in referencing the title, somebodies that we used to know. But for one moment in time, they manage to breakthrough with a timeless piece of music. Sometimes that’s all you need to make your mark.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the 2012 Saturday Night Live digital short where Andy Samberg and Taran Killam meet Gotye backstage and do their best to imitate the “Somebody That I Used To Know” video. It’s not embeddable but you can watch it on the link below:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the 2012 cover compilation “Somebodies: A YouTube Orchestra” that Gotye posted on his YouTube channel:
(There’s also a scene in 2014’s Boyhood that uses “Somebody That I Used To Know” but I couldn’t find video of it anywhere)