The Number Ones

April 28, 2012

The Number Ones: Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know” (Feat. Kimbra)

Stayed at #1:

8 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present. Book Bonus Beat: The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music.

When Fun.’s “We Are Young” reached #1 in the spring of 2012, it seemed like a fluke — an operatic quasi-rock anthem breaking through in an age of overdriven dance-pop. We had no idea what was in store. “We Are Young” was merely the opening act for an even more leftfield smash that would turn out to be the biggest song of the year, both in the US and around the world. Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know” didn’t sound like a dominant smash, but that just meant that people had to adjust their ideas of how a dominant smash could sound.

“Somebody That I Used To Know” isn’t a pyrotechnic banger from a familiar name. It doesn’t jump around and demand your attention. Instead, it sneaks up on you. “Somebody That I Used To Know” has everything you could want from a great pop song. It’s got big hooks, cool production, interesting voices, sharply drawn lyrics, a memorable music video. For months and months, the song did sneak up on people, picking up steam thanks to alternative radio play and online word of mouth. Eventually, it picked up enough steam that it became totally undeniable. In its immediate wake, Gotye, the artist responsible, cleanly and definitively stepped away from the spotlight, and he hasn’t released anything under that name since.

Wouter André De Backer — he goes by Wally — was born in the Belgian city of Bruges, and he moved to Australia with his family when he was two. (When De Backer was born, Blondie’s “Call Me” was the #1 song in America. In Belgium, it was Goombay Dance Band’s “Sun Of Jamaica.” In Australia, Split Enz’ “I Got You” held the top spot. There’s not much “Call Me” in Gotye’s music, but I hear echoes of the other two songs in De Backer’s stuff.) De Backer’s family settled first in Sydney and then in the Melbourne suburb of Montmorency. As a kid, De Backer loved music, and he formed a high-school band called Downstares. While studying at the University Of Melbourne in the early ’00s, De Backer started putting together art-pop songs that he made from samples and handing out CDRs.

De Backer put out his music under then name Gotye, a family nickname. (It’s Gauthier, basically.) When his sample-based songs started getting local attention, De Backer and another songwriter started a band called the Basics, and they played shows around the area. In 2003, the same year that the Basics released their debut album, a local indie got De Backer to compile a bunch of his sample-based solo songs into an album called Boardface, which isn’t out on the streaming services today. As the Basics kept working, De Backer kept recording solo tracks as Gotye in a series of different home studios. (He was moving around a lot.) In 2006, he released Like Drawing Blood, his first proper album. It went platinum in Australia — you only need to sell 70,000 copies to do that — and the single “Hearts A Mess” made the Aussie charts.

The independently released Like Drawing Blood wasn’t exactly a smash, but it got Gotye’s name out there. The album came out in the UK and got a not-exactly-negative Pitchfork review. International critics, when they noticed Gotye, tended to describe De Backer as an interesting thinker with an open ear and a talent for pastiche. “Hearts A Mess” popped up in TV shows like Gossip Girl, and Australian director Baz Luhrmann eventually used the song on the soundtrack of his 2013 Great Gatsby movie. De Backer built a permanent studio in a barn on his parents’ farm, and he got to work on a new album. His lightly overwhelmed 2010 single “Eyes Wide Open” became his biggest Australian hit yet. (Later, “Eyes Wide Open” became Gotye’s only US chart hit other than “Somebody That I Used To Know.” On the Hot 100, it peaked at #96.)

While working on his second album, Wally De Backer bought a copy of the Brazilian bossa nova guitarist Luiz Bonfá’s 1967 album Luiz Bonfá Plays Great Songs at a thrift shop, mostly because he liked the title and cover art. (Bonfá, best known for scoring the 1959 film Black Orpheus, died in 2001.) De Backer took a sample from Bonfá’s hip-swingin’ instrumental “Seville” and built a restrained, hypnotic track around it. In a 2021 Stereogum oral history, De Backer said, “When you’re lucky with sampling records, you hear this piece of music for the first time and when you hear an indefinable quality you say to yourself, ‘I have to hear it again and again.'” That loop became the backbone of “Somebody That I Used To Know.”

Around that sample, Wally De Backer wrote a song from the perspective of a guy who’s been completely written out of his ex’s life. De Backer later claimed that “Somebody That I Used To Know” was written from personal experience but that he didn’t have any one relationship in mind when he came up with it. His lyrics on the song are specific in a universal way: “You can get addicted to a certain kind of sadness/ Like resignation to the end, always the end.” The way he sings it, his narrator wanted out of this couple, and so did his ex: “I told myself that you were right for me/ But felt so lonely in your company.” When they break up, they tell each other that they should remain friends, but they don’t really mean it. Still, De Backer’s narrator is stunned and jilted when he learns that his ex doesn’t actually want anything to do with him anymore.

In some ways, “Somebody That I Used To Know” is a tantrum of a song. De Backer doesn’t long to reunite with his ex; he just wants confirmation that their time together was as important for her as it was for him. He doesn’t get it. She cuts him off. She changes her phone number and sends her friends — male friends, one assumes — to get her records from this guy. Now, she’s just somebody that he used to know.

Wally De Backer built the “Somebody That I Used To Know” instrumental track before he started writing the lyrics, and those lyrics took time. Eventually, he had the idea to add in a female perspective. On the third verse, another voice comes in, and now we aren’t just listen to this guy complaining anymore. It’s an old pop-music trick — the “Don’t You Want Me” move — and it adds so much to the song. This girl doesn’t look back fondly on the relationship. She thinks the guy is a fucking asshole, and she doesn’t want him in her life anymore: “Now and then, I think of all the times you screwed me over/ But had me believing it was always something that I’d done.” She basically tells him to grow up and get over it. He can’t.

Later on, De Backer told American Songwriter that he wanted a “high profile female vocalist” to sing the girl’s part on “Somebody That I Used To Know,” and it sure sounds like he had a particular singer in mind. But he doesn’t say who she was, and that recording never happened. He tried it with his at-the-time girlfriend singing that part, but she couldn’t summon the right kind of venom. At the time, De Backer’s engineer François Tétaz was working with the young New Zealand-born art-pop singer Kimbra, and she became the second voice on the record.

Kimbra Lee Johnson, the daughter of a doctor and a nurse, grew up in the New Zealand city of Hamilton and started singing when she was young. (When Kimbra was born, Alannah Myles’ “Black Velvet” was the #1 song in America. In New Zealand, it was Sybil’s version of “Don’t Make Me Over.”) As a teenager, Kimbra wrote and recorded a couple of singles and won some kind of televised award. She got a manager, signed to Warner Bros., and moved to Melbourne to start work on her 2011 debut album Vows. In 2010, she guested on “I Look To You,” a single from the Australian dance-rock band Miami Horror; on Spotify, that’s still her biggest song aside from “Somebody That I Used To Know.”

François Tétaz was producing Vows for Kimbra, and he connected her with Wally De Backer. Kimbra was a big fan of Gotye, so she was down to sing on the track. De Backer came to her apartment and recorded her part in her bedroom. She’s a great addition to the song, mostly because she sounds pissed at him. “Somebody That I Used To Know” is a song full of sly little hooks. It’s soft and hypnotic in a way that feels oddly addictive. That little xylophone-sounding riff, in particular, scratches some kind of imaginary itch whenever I hear it. But all those sly little hooks become less sly when Kimbra’s singing. De Backer murmurs his verses and then belts out the chorus in a pained yelp, like he’s feeling sorry for himself. Kimbra comes on all blustery and accusatory, demanding that he now regard her as somebody that he used to know. She sounds a little like Katy Perry. Looks a little like her, too. People noticed that when the video came out.

The video is a key part of the “Somebody That I Used To Know” story. It’s simple and weird and eye-grabbing — exactly the kind of thing that people emailed to work friends in 2011 and 2012. The Australian director Natasha Pincus filmed De Backer and Gotye in stop-motion, with body-paint slowly covering them up. They’re made to blend in with an abstract painting that De Backer’s father, who also did the cover of Gotye’s Making Mirrors album, made in the mid-’80s. Gotye and Kimbra are naked, but there’s nothing sexy about the situation.

De Backer seems slightly flirty and knowing at first, but once the paint starts covering him, the stop-motion makes him look twitchy and nervous. By the time, Kimbra shows up, he’s been made fully into part of the background. She blends in with the painting, too, but she ruins the illusion so that she can get close to De Backer and yell in his ear. There’s some great face-acting in the video — De Backer’s pained grimace, Kimbra’s laser-eyed glare.

The “Somebody That I Used To Know” single came out in July 2011, but it accidentally leaked online a few months earlier, which probably helped juice up the word-of-mouth around it. After six weeks, Gotye had the #1 single in Australia, and it held that spot for eight weeks. The video continued to spread to the rest of the world. Celebrities tweeted about how much they liked it. In the Stereogum oral history, De Backer says, “Facebook shares were still a big thing, and it was one of the first music videos that was just shared so much on those platforms that it was one of the most viewed things period.”

Like “We Are Young” before it, “Somebody That I Used To Know” got a big boost when it showed up in an episode of Glee. (The Glee cast version peaked at #26.) Almost immediately afterward, “Somebody That I Used To Know” cracked the Hot 100, and it rose steadily for months. Gotye and Kimbra sang the song together at Coachella in April, and the crowd singalong was loud enough that they couldn’t hear their own in-ear monitors. That same month, Gotye and Kimbra also played Saturday Night Live, and Gotye played himself in a Digital Short where Andy Samberg and Taran Killam parodied the video.

That SNL appearance was enough to push “Somebody That I Used To Know” to #1, and it stayed there for two solid months. It happened to be the #1 song in America when my son was born. (My daughter, born during the “Boom Boom Pow” reign of terror, is jealous that he got the better song.) Eventually, Billboard named “Somebody That I Used To Know” the year’s #1 single. At the 2013 Grammys, Prince handed Kimbra and Gotye the trophy for Record Of The Year. Watching the show, I watched Prince open the envelope and say, “I love this song,” and I was sure that he was about to read Frank Ocean’s name. Nope. When they gave their speech, Wally De Backer and Gotye were so shocked and starstruck that they went on too long, and the music started up. The Grammy producers didn’t have to cuuuut them off.

“Somebody That I Used To Know” remains just unbelievably huge. The song went against the early-’10s grain, calling back to an early-MTV moment when that kind of soft, withholding new-wave track could become an international juggernaut. Whenever I hear it today, it still stands out. As huge as the song became, I never got sick of hearing it. It was too slinky to be oppressive, too playful for its sincerity to cloy. At this point, “Somebody That I Used To Know” has gone platinum 14 times over, and its video has more than two billion views.

Especially for a couple of previously unknown artists, a hit on the level of “Somebody That I Used To Know” can be completely overwhelming. Both Gotye and Kimbra turned out to be one-hit wonders in the truest of senses, at least in America. Kimbra has kept working. She’s collaborated widely — with Snoop Dogg, Dawn Richard, Son Lux, future Number Ones artist John Legend — but she hasn’t been back on the Hot 100. Instead, Kimbra’s got a pretty great art-pop career, and if she doesn’t end up on another gigantic hit again, she’ll be fine.

In Gotye’s case, the one-hit wonder thing has been entirely intentional. Wally De Backer has released absolutely no more music under the Gotye name. Instead, De Backer kept making music with his band the Basics, whose most-streamed song by far is a live-in-studio version of “Somebody That I Used To Know.” De Backer also guested on a few records from people like culty British producer Bibio and played a New York tribute show for the electronic music producer Jean-Jacques Perrey. He became a dad. He could release another Gotye album anytime he wants, but he doesn’t seem to be in any rush.

For years, Wally De Backer refused all advertising on the “Somebody That I Used To Know” video, even as it became one of the most-viewed clips in YouTube history. In the process, he left millions on the table. (In the Stereogum oral history, De Backer says that he finally changed his mind: “The paradigm has changed. I decided to use the income I’d make from that to fund the other projects I’ve been working on.”) On the “Somebody That I Used To Know” video, the top comment is five years old: “now Gotye is literally somebody that we used to know.”

GRADE: 9/10

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BONUS BEATS: “Somebody That I Used To Know” knocked Fun.’s “We Are Young” out of the #1 spot, and Fun. paid tribute, covering it in a pretty great BBC Live Lounge session with Paramore’s Hayley Williams. Here it is:

(Paramore’s highest-charting single, 2014’s “Ain’t It Fun,” peaked at #10. It’s a 7. Hayley Williams also made it to #2 as a guest on B.o.B.’s 2010 single “Airplanes.” It’s a 6. Eventually, Williams will appear in this column as a retroactively-credited songwriter.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Jeffrey Tambor and Alexandra Billings singing “Somebody That I Used To Know” at a trans talent show, while Tambor’s adult kids get into fucked-up shenanigans, on a 2014 episode of Transparent:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Miranda Lambert and Dierks Bentley following a cover of the Loretta Lynn/Conway Twitty duet “After The Fire Is Gone” with a countrified version of “Somebody That I Used To Know” at a 2013 show on Long Island:

(Miranda Lambert’s highest-charting Hot 100 hit, the 2014 Carrie Underwood duet “Somethin’ Bad,” peaked at #19. Along with her group Pistol Annies, Lambert also reached #12 on her then-husband Blake Shelton’s 2013 single “Boys ‘Round Here.” Dierks Bentley’s highest-charting single, 2003’s “What Was I Thinkin’,” peaked at #22. On the Hot 100, “After The Fire Is Gone” peaked at #56 in 1971.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Kelly Clarkson, who’s been in this column a few times, covering “Somebody That I Used To Know” on a 2020 episode of her talk show:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: A lot of rap songs have sampled or interpolated “Somebody That I Used To Know” over the years, so I picked one to stand in for all of them. Here’s Brooklyn drill rapper Sleepy Hallow rapping over a sample on his 2023 Doechii collab “Anxiety”:

(Sleepy Hallow’s highest-charting single, 2021’s “2055,” peaked at #51. Doechii’s only Hot 100 hit, the 2023 Kodak Black collab “What It Is (Block Boy),” peaked at #29.)

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now on paperback via Hachette Books. You don’t wanna live that way, but please read every word I say and buy the book here.

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