As I write this, the YouTube view count sits at 45,405,285. By the time you check out Gotye’s video Somebody That I Used to Know today, another millon will probably have been added to that giddy figure.
TheMelbournemusician’s single only sits at number 36 in our official top 40 this week, but by any standard it’s already a gigantic hit. For YouTube comparisons, the currentUKnumber one, Jessie J’s Domino, has been seen 16 million times, while Lady Gaga’s most recent epic production, Marry the Night, has 30 million hits. Far more people want to watch this skinny unknown with his top off, slowly being covered in paint in shaky stop-motion animation.
In contrast to the high-gloss, budget-busting productions of so many MTV favourites, Gotye’s video is an intimate, intense, lo-fi affair about the end of an affair. Mostly in close-up, his face and body and the wall behind him slowly fill up with geometric patterns in pastel shades while he sings quietly about a finished relationship, growing more passionate when the chorus finally arrives: “I don’t even need your love, but you treat me like a stranger and that feels so rough”. At two-and-a-half minutes comes the twist, a verse from the woman’s perspective sung by Kiwi up-and-comer Kimbra Johnson.
At this point she also appears in the video, naked with her back turned, slowly losing her own paint job in a symbol of the pair’s separation (though in real life Gotye is in a steady relationship with another musician). They sing right in each other’s faces with such emotion that it feels like awkwardly witnessing a real-life public bust-up.
First released in Australia last July, where it became the longest running number one by a homegrown artist since 1997, Somebody That I Used to Know has gone on to become such a runaway success that his biggest problem is reaching other countries with the tune quickly enough – the internet is much faster than his tour schedule.
InCanadaan unknown indie band called Walk off the Earth have started selling their cover of the song first. A video of the quintet performing it while all playing the same acoustic guitar – one drumming on it, four others plucking the strings and strumming at the frets – has become a YouTube phenomenon of its own, picking up over 28 million views in just the past fortnight. “I sit back with a curious smile over that,” says Gotye. “It’s like a throwback to the Sixties where a local act could pip the original artist to the post in their market. I wish them all the best with the song – it’s a clever, novelty cover. But I won’t deny there’s a part of my ego that really doesn’t want their version to eclipse mine.”
The song itself has an unusal quality for a pop smash – it’s a grower. Starting with a simple bass and acoustic guitar sample, it then features a xylophone part which some have pointed out resembles Baa Baa Black Sheep. It’s the slow-building angst of the vocal, followed by the arrival of the woman’s voice as it suddenly becomes a duet, that really makes it unique. “I spent six months considering giving the song away, it was so frustrating trying to find the right vocalist for that part. When Kimbra finally stepped in I felt right away that she was going to have the special darkness that would make it work.”
This “compact piece of drama wrapped in a pop song”, as Gotye describes it, has now lost much of its negativity as its popularity has grown. “In concerts it’s become a huge celebration experience. The audience has really taken it on, especially when Kimbra isn’t there to sing her part. It’s quite a reflective song so to have a large crowd screaming it back at you is quite weird.” We’ll get our chance next month at twoLondonconcerts, by which time it should have become the chart hit it deserves to be here too.
It’s not often the UK music scene is playing catch-up with Germany, but in this instance the David Hasselhoff fans have been on the money first. Just before Christmas Gotye’s song had to be rushed out inGermanybecause radio stations there had put it on their playlists before they had even been given it by his record label. It went to number one, as it has inAustria, theNetherlands,BelgiumandNew Zealandso far. “The extent of its success has constantly surprised me,” he tells me.
Born in Belgium as Wouter De Backer but an Australian resident from the age of two, the 31-year-old known as Wally has been releasing records with rock ‘n’ roll trio The Basics, and as sample-based electronic solo act Gotye (pronounced like the designer Jean-Paul Gaultier) for around a decade. He was a fairly minor, leftfield musician with a couple of small hits at home until the release of this song.
If there are any aspiring musicians hoping that Gotye has stumbled upon a secret formula for hitmaking, he assures me that during this tune’s gestation period he had no idea how special it really was. He worried that its downbeat mood was too similar to his 2006 song Heart’s a Mess, the single that first brought him some lesser crossover success inAustralia. “I thought existing fans would view the new one unfavourably in comparison to that.”
And he certainly didn’t write it as an attempt to storm the charts. “My last record [Like Drawing Blood from 2006] was self-released with zero marketing. All I thought was: ‘If I can sell 1,500 copies of this inAustraliaI’ll just make back the 15,000 dollars I spent mixing it.’ Maybe I can buy a new computer. But it sold pretty well, I found an audience and was able to start playing live. That felt like success to me.
“I’m proud that this song has weasled its way through the more plastic pop tunes to the top of the charts on its own terms,” he continues. “I look up to people like Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel who always did their own thing and created their own sound world but still made music that appealed to lots of people.”
There is odder stuff on Somebody That I Used to Know’s parent album, Making Mirrors, that will surprise and intrigue those who become fans on the basis of a lone single. State of the Art is a song about the retro organ the Lowrey Cotillion sung in a deep, distorted robot voice. Eyes Wide Open samples the Winton Musical Fence, a giant art installation in the Queensland Outback. In concert you’ll see him play the theramin and a MalletKAT, a kind of electronic marimba. It doesn’t look like he’ll phase out his more outre experiments now that the masses are looking in his direction.
“I’d like to make more pop music that can take on peculiar subjects but I realise that probably won’t appeal as much as this song about a breakup. But that’s fine – I’ll follow my own whimsical direction and see what happens.”