Anatomy of a hit: Just why is Gotye’s Somebody I Used to Know every-f-ing-where right now?

Somebody That I Used to Know has sold more than ten million copies worldwide, topping the charts in 23 countries; it’s one of the most successful pop songs of recent years. But why? Rob Garratt dissects the track to take a closer look.

The music

The childlike simplicity of the hook – eerily recalling nursery rhyme ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’) make it instantly recognisable to audiences on a second listen – the rule of any hit. But the recording’s true permanence lies in its inventive arrangement; the repeating two note pattern that drives the verses is a sample from Brazilian jazz guitarist Luiz Bonfá’s 1967 instrumental ‘Seville’, lending ‘Somebody…’ a warm, pastoral feel that stands out against most electronically produced pop music. Interestingly, there’s no drum kit or prominent percussive track, although it’s worth noting the huge slew of house remixes by the likes of Tiësto.

 

The voice

In contrast to the omnipresence of Auto-Tune, Gotye’s vocal performance is highly emotive and immediate, switching between a moody, conversational baritone in the verses, and a desperate, anguished falsetto in the verse. The effect is to create a confessional intimacy with the listener, which heightens the catharsis when the chorus hits. Meanwhile, guest vocalist Kimbra provides the female voice in the song’s narrative, showing there are two sides to every break-up.

 

The lyrics

The universal nature of the theme is a key component of the song’s success: nearly all mature listeners will have experienced some kind of relationship breakdown in their lives. However Gotye’s work excels beyond your average break-up song with a careful balance of the general and the particular: while anyone can relate to the chorus, this declaration only carries such weight when it follows seemingly specific (but far from uncommon) personal details, such as ‘have your friends collect your records and then change your number’. Significantly, Gotye says it was never about one person (see interview, left), which suggests the song was a carefully constructed hit, rather than the heartfelt confession it appears to be.

Originally published in Time Out Dubai.

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