“Somebody That I Used to Know,” by Gotye, is an incredibly popular song that I have never read anything about. It bubbled up from the underground to the mainstream while bypassing the indie blogosphere more or less completely, in a way that feels strange. The song is an authentic viral hit; it came to my attention around the end of the year, when friends would mention off-handedly that it was their most-played track of the past 12 months. On Facebook it was the video mostly likely to be posted by friends I could never recall posting about music before. And yet no one ever said anything about the song, other than “I love this” or “Just listen.” After the fifth or sixth time I crumbled (!) and hit play. Sure enough, the thing is a goddam earworm. On YouTube it is closing in on 80 million views, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn those views were divided among a hundred or so people that just put the thing on repeat. (Meanwhile various uploads of Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games,” the song that launched a thousand think pieces, have pulled in less than half that.)
The success of “Somebody” is all the more notable for the fact that its singer comes across as a petulant creep. It seems that pancake-faced Australian crooner Gotye (pronounced “Goatse”) has broken up with his girlfriend, a fact that he says made him feel relieved. “I felt so lonely in your company,” he says. “I’ll admit that I was glad it was over.” The catch is that he hoped to keep her in his life: “So when we found that we could not make sense / Well you said that we could still be friends.” Shortly thereafter, she sends her friends to collect her records, changes her phone number, and quits speaking to Gotye completely.
What kind of woman does this, after assuring her ex that they could still be friends? In my experience, it’s the kind of woman who is backing slowly out the door before the guy goes crazy and stabs her. Right?! Quick, name the last relationship that you were in where your ex changed a phone number to avoid you. If that has happened to you, chances are you are under restraining order.
Another quirk of this song is that the heroine of the story does get her say, courtesy of “Kimbra,” a name I believe was chosen at random from the cast of “Jem.” Kimbra drops in for a quick verse at the end that doesn’t entirely cohere, but seems at least suggestive of the reasons the relationship didn’t work.
At first I thought Gotye had added a female voice as an afterthought, and that the words she sung belonged to the same creeper singing the rest of the tune. But now I’m not so sure: “Now and then I think of all the times you screwed me over,” she sings. “But had me believing it was always something I had done.” That’s the kind of controlling behavior endemic in abusive relationships, and the sort of thing that leads you to send third parties to collect your stuff once you’ve managed to extricate yourself. Suddenly I wondered whether Gotye was a cleverer writer than I had given him credit for, able to see a toxic relationship from all sides, and casting himself as the unreliable narrator.
I have trouble bringing myself to do this, though, because as a lyricist he argues his case with all the poetry of a divorce filing. The irony of the title comes from the fact that this woman is someone he still does know, and when he starts out by singing “Now and then I think of when we were together,” it’s clear that by “Now and then” he means “Now and always.” Listening to the song I’m reminded of a line Jeff Tweedy wrote about relationships a decade ago: “All my lies are always wishes.” Gotye pretends his ex is someone that he used to know so that someday it will be true.
In any case the song is catchy as hell. Gotye channels ’80s Peter Gabriel to great effect, and while his writing is plodding the music shows a light touch and even a bit of whimsy. (Is that a glockenspiel at the beginning?) Making Mirrors, from which the song comes, is a record of harmless world pop that seems designed to soundtrack the shopping experience at Pier 1 Imports. Consumers will examine throw pillows and furniture sets against a lightly orchestrated backdrop of Gotye’s aggrieved crooning, and hopefully will not pay too much attention to what it is that he’s singing about.