Jody Rosen on the New No. 1 Pop Song, “Somebody That I Used to Know”

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
April 24 2012 4:04 PM

Top of the Pops: Gotye featuring Kimbra, “Somebody That I Used to Know”

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Australian musician Gotye, aka Wally de Backer

Photo by Kristian Dowling/Getty Images

Wally de Backer is a Belgian-born Australian with a funny stage name, Gotye, that he pronounces like a Frenchman. (GOH-tee-yay, as in Jean-Paul.) His big hit, “Somebody That I Used to Know,” is a cosmopolitan mishmash in its own right. The song is built around a vintage sample from a Brazilian guitarist, a chiming xylophone, and some beats. It sounds a bit like Les Baxter-style 1950s exotica, and bit a like Portishead.

The singing, by Gotye and duet partner Kimbra, is pro forma indie: quavering sensitive-young-white-people vocals. It’s a modest song—smart, catchy, pretty, and immaculately crafted, insinuating but not overpowering. The story it tells is likewise small-scale, a melancholy little breakup drama that plays out on an uncluttered stage set. It sounds like a song that you’d hear tinkling in the lobby of the nicest boutique hotel in Antwerp.

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So what on earth is “Somebody That I Used to Know” doing at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100?

Pop pundits have greeted Gotye’s triumph with head- and chin-scratching. Are we seeing a revival of “alternative rock”? (Gotye was preceded at the top of the charts by New York pop-rockers fun., whose “We Are Young” held the No. 1 spot for six weeks.) Are audiences tiring of pop divas and hip-hop, gravitating from big spectacles and emphatic voices to more modest and circumspect ones? Is it, as chart-watcher Chris Molanphy has argued, evidence of a new populist hitmaking hierarchy, in which iTunes downloaders and Spotify streamers pick hits for radio?

Perhaps. Whatever else it is, “Somebody That I Used to Know” is an awfully well-made piece of music. Gotye is a decent singer, but his real skills are as a producer and arranger. He knows how to build drama through dynamics, adding and subtracting a beat here, a guitar lick there. (Listen to the section from 1:25-1:35, where the second verse turns the corner into the first chorus.) He has a classical feel for counterpoint. The final chorus, where wordless background chorales swoop around Gotye’s lead vocal, is lovely.

And he’s a sharp lyricist, capturing the sting of a soured romance with wit and precision. “Somebody That I Used to Know” climbed to No. 1 on the strength of hundreds of thousands of digital downloads, but the song looks back to a time when breakups were measured in CDs and LPs. “You didn't have to stoop so low,” Gotye sings. “Have your friends collect your records and then change your number.”

Jody Rosen is a Slate contributor.

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