It started out like any other single release. Gotye, who had been having success as a singer-songwriter in Australia for at least five years, explains that he posted the video for “Somebody That I Used to Know” (featuring vocals by Kimbra), the second single off his album “Making Mirrors,” on YouTube in July 2011. “It had been a while since I’d done new material and there was anticipation from my fans, especially in Australia.”
Gotye knew that the more melancholy and introspective of his previous records were the ones that seemed to connect most with fans, so he thought this song might resonate with them. “This is kind of in that mold,” he says of the breakup song. Still he was down on the state of the music business in general. “Most of the stuff I respond to is so far away from ‘pop success’ and ‘pop radio,’” says Gotye, aka Wally De Backer. “I wouldn’t say it’s demoralizing, but the chances that a song has, (I thought it was) worlds away from commercial pop these days. What is pop and what isn’t is so stratified, at least in America, that some of the most interesting work today doesn’t find audiences.” He cites Sufjan Stevens as an example. “He is very uninterested in self-promotion.”
But then he started getting a sense that the song was generating a strong reaction. “People responded to it and to the video. That was the starting point.” Licensing deals for the album started popping up around the world as the song picked up word-of-mouth. “At some stage the different mechanisms of music industry kicked into gear,” he says. As radio and TV airplay took it to the next level the covers started to pop up. It was released in the States in January of 2012 and Universal Music pushed it hard on the radio. That’s when it started climbing the U.S. charts.
The haunting melody, coupled with yearning vocals, added up to some kind of alchemy that inspired people to make their own versions and post them online. But not all of them are, well…while the singer is grateful for all the love, he admits he has had to control himself when it comes to the covers that, let’s say, don’t meet his exacting standards. “I thought, Can I–even if I wanted to–can I curate [the collection of covers] so it matches my taste, so it represents where I come from? But that wasn’t realistic,” says Gotye. “It felt imperialistic. Anyway, what to me might be cheesy and bad might be terrific to someone else. I guess I keep a tight hold of the reins on the things I can, and that’s all I can do.”
It had been a slow build at first but in April 2012 “Somebody That I Used to Know” reached No. 1, buoyed no doubt by versions of it on Glee, and American Idol in the same week, and Gotye’s performance on Saturday Night Live. By then the covers were exploding. Fans’ love-hate relationship with the song is perhaps best captured by this version:
The song went on to top the charts in six countries, made the top 20 in 14 others and jockeyed to be song of the summer with Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.” Now Gotye is nominated for three Grammys, including Record of the Year. The song is also one of the best-selling digital singles of all time.
Despite all that, Gotye’s perfectionism continues. “The success I’ve had doesn’t change things. I’m going to be even more of a perfectionist. I will not put something out until I’m happy.”
And he’s trying to gain perspective from the phenomenon of “Somebody.” “I’m trying to learn from those experiences but the commercial success–no matter how successful this song has been, and how outlandish it has been, and people have told me really beautiful stories of how the song resonates with them–despite all that, it doesn’t change my fundamental relationship with the work.”
[Image: Universal Republic]