It’s the song of the season. It’s been out for more than a year. And it’s suddenly everywhere. That mumbly call-and-response xylophone-tinged ditty about two exes who feel equally wronged by each other. It’s “Somebody That I Used to Know,” by Gotye, an Australian singer (It’s pronounced Go-tee-yay, and it’s not his real name, which is Wouter de Backer), and you may have heard it on “Glee,” “American Idol,” “The Voice,” “Gossip Girl,” “Saturday Night Live” or, as I did the other day, blasting from a car full of late-teenage girls, who were singing it at the top of their lungs.
So how did a mousy-looking guy’s sad anthem that pays obvious homage to Sting and Phil Collins become the song on the tip of everyone’s tongue this spring, with a viral video that’s gotten more than 150 million views? Gotye follows in the long musical tradition of the breakup song.
“Somebody That I Used to Know” has proven so irresistible because everyone loves a breakup song — the more heartfelt and melancholy, the better. And Gotye and guest vocalist Kimbra’s back-and-forth is certainly bleak, especially for a relationship that, by the song’s description, ended as a slow fade rather than a big explosion: “You can get addicted to a certain kind of sadness / Like resignation to the end, always the end.” With both singers offering their perspective, there’s something for either of the wronged parties in a relationship here, even though both are saying pretty much the same thing: That they were a bad fit. Whether one interprets this as the height of breakup tragedy or merely sad circumstance is up to the listener and his or her present relationship situation.
The melody of “Somebody That I Used to Know” is upbeat enough that you can see the light at the end of this breakup tunnel (or sing it in your car with the windows down), but still melancholy enough to let you wallow. It also expresses what you wish you could say to your ex. That’s the key to a good breakup song, as discussed on a 2007 episode of “This American Life”: ”There’s something so satisfying about listening to sad songs,” said Starlee Kine, a woman who examined breakup music after a relationship ended. “They make you feel less alone with your crazy thoughts. They don’t judge you. In fact, they understand you.”
The chorus — “I guess that I don’t need that though / Now you’re just somebody that I used to know” — packs its final, subtle punch. It’s denigrating to the ex, but through its shrug-it-off resignation, it’s not overtly mean — which makes it empowering in that “The best revenge is a life lived well” sort of way that all parties in a breakup aspire to. You were horrible to me, but unlike you, I’ve grown. This parallels the sentiment of other mega-popular breakup songs like Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” a song that some critics have ranked among best of the past decade, and Adele’s recent “Someone Like You.”
Gotye says he knew the song would connect with people but had no idea it would become so popular. He told Billboard why he thought the song worked: “It has a very soft, understated way of building toward the payoff with the chorus,” he said. “I get a sense that people lose themselves in it.”
See covers and parodies of “Somebody That I Used to Know” below: