Gotye is resigned. Not in "Somebody That I Used to Know," precisely--in the five stages of breakup grief, he's somewhere between anger, bargaining and sour grapes (a sixth stage, perpendicular to the other five.) No, he's resigned in the press, press that's exponentially increased now that his single is No. 1 on Billboard. "I don't really feel like it belongs to me anymore," he said. "Everybody else kind of owns it now."
Everybody owns it now, that is, but they got it not by deluge but trickle-down. "Somebody That I Used to Know" took months--since July--to top the charts, like "Super Bass" before it and probably "Call Me Maybe" by summer. It wasn't completely unfamiliar; the video'd already gone viral thanks to Gotye's pre-existing Australian clout, the Klout clout of people like Ashton Kutcher, and the baited blog trap of a video (stop motion! nakedness, right there at the start, panning up from feet to shock!)
Viral doesn't mean hit, though, as everyone who can't hum that OK Go song can attest. "Somebody That I Used to Know" scaled the charts like people scale mountains: slowly, in stages. The track charted early locally, on Australia radio (similar to how CanCon radio regulations helped "Call Me Maybe"), but it took until 2012 for the track to chart, in waves: one crest after Walk Off The Earth's viral cover (yes, a viral cover of an already-viral song) and subsequent Ellen-and-elsewhere press tour; another crest, the final one, after a Glee cover. It crested off the charts, too; he'd sold out U.S. gigs even before hitting No. 1. There's a huge benefit to having a sleeper hit like this; even as Australians felt more like shredding the Internet than reading another Gotye article, thousands after thousands saw it as a charming novelty.
But novelty alone isn't enough to charm. For every sleeper hit are dozens more that stayed sleeping. "Somebody That I Used to Know," though, had a few things going for it, even discounting the YouTube rounds. The song's more spare, timid even, than the 4/4 bloat of the clubs and the charts. (It sounds a bit like a Phil Collins track left out on the windowsill for a week.) And, like "Rolling in the Deep" before it, it's a breakup track, the sort of thing listeners love to take to heart. Song complements subject; Adele belted her words emphatic enough for you to rage along, and so does Gotye, but only on the chorus; everything else is hesitant, mumbled, as if trying to pick through what went wrong and extract just the right words, the right defenses, to justify yourself. No word is wasted, which is particularly impressive considering how many personalities and swerves in thought Gotye's got to cover. Lots of artists cram dozens of ideas into one track, whether lyrical or musical; the great thing about "Somebody That I Used to Know" is how crafted they all are.
Now and then I think of when we were together Like when you said you felt so happy you could die
Told myself that you were right for me
But felt so lonely in your company
But that was love and it's an ache I still remember
Take the first phrase, even. Gotye starts out with "now and then" to imply that these are only passing thoughts, honest, certainly nothing troubling his sleep or dominating his thoughts. But something obviously has; he presents "like when you said you were so happy you could die" as immediately as a lawyer presenting evidence. To have such a clear memory ready so quickly requires having thought over the relationship, then thought it over again, searching for clues, for moments that don't make sense in retrospect. If she felt so happy she could die, he's arguing, then why didn't he, and what changed with her? "Told myself that you were right for me / but felt so lonely in your company," after this, is something more than just uncertainty drummed up in the brain. It's just short of accusing her, albeit in the I-statement way people use when cushioning their blame. But he doesn't elaborate; at the last second, he backs off: "well, that was love, it was what it was, and I could've dealt with it."
You can get addicted to a certain kind of sadness Like resignation to the end, always the end
So when we found that we could not make sense
Well you said that we would still be friends
But I'll admit that I was glad it was over.
After hearing the song, someone I (used to?) know said this: "Gotye must've been so proud of himself for coming up with that line about being addicted to sadness." It's true; it's at once accurate--when you expect something to happen, even if it's bad, it's a little relieving once it does--measured, full of hedges like "a certain kind of..." and so compelling that he can't resist indulging in an extra lament: "always the end," with dozens of sullen thoughts left implied. What's also implied are the details of the breakup; there has never, in the history of dating, been a breakup that "we found that we could not make sense" completely summarizes. It's a euphemism; it's designed to brush aside unpleasant details, like whichever detail tanked their future friendship, or whatever he did to make her do this:
But you didn't have to cut me off Make out like it never happened and that we were nothing
And I don't even need your love
But you treat me like a stranger and I feel so rough
No you didn't have to stoop so low
Have your friends collect your records and then change your number
I guess that I don't need that though
Now you're just somebody that I used to know
This is where Gotye's voice gets loud, accusatory; it's the payoff from that first verse, where he says everything he's been tiptoeing around. Nothing in this stanza qualifies as "stooping so low." It's as common to go no-contact with exes as it is to remain cordial, especially right away. It's even more common to want your own stuff back out of his apartment--so common even cheap jokes like 2Gether can reference it. And nobody changes their number, ever, unless it's being called or texted incessantly. In other words, you suspect he's not the most reliable of narrators here, even before the petulant "well, I don't even need the friendship I've been stewing about this whole song" asides.
This is deliberate, no matter what certain columnists might imply. Gotye doesn't actually want us to take this guy at his word. You know it's deliberate because Gotye's provided us with a built-in answer song, complete with introductory zinger:
I remember all the times you screwed me over Part of me believing it was always something that I'd done
But I don't wanna live that way
Reading into every word you say
You said that you could let it go
And I wouldn't catch you hung up on somebody that you used to know.
Kimbra's rebuttal's not like a slap so much as a puncture wound, delivered by needle: soft, barely even enunciated, but decisive. "Screwed me over" is the exact sort of talk Gotye's guy tiptoes around with his "certain kind of"s and "we could not make sense"s. It's so colloquial it's blunt, the equivalent of "quit the fucking philosophizing, dude." It's almost harsher than everything else in the verse, which is plenty harsh: the accusation of gaslighting; the uptick in melody, as if Kimbra's cutting through all Gotye's melodic hemming and hawing to get to the point; her calling out his lie, that of course he could let it go and be friends and not wail about her in a Sting chorus. (Kimbra delivers "used to know" like she's physically shoving him out of the song; Gotye counters by literally cutting her off just as he accuses her of the same) It's enough to make the final chorus almost irrelevant; by the end, where both of them end the track on a faint "somebody," it's as if both people have given up arguing.
In other words, "Somebody That I Used to Know" is more generous, more omniscient, than your standard split track. It's got two ways to relate--or, for those lucky unicorn people who can maintain perspective while mired in breakups, three. In a way, this makes it the perfect breakup song for 2012, where every musician's a multi-hyphenate multitasking with multiple personalities. Gotye doesn't just have his side of the story, but an entire story arc: breakup song and rebuttal and reconciliation all in one. That's the sort of thing that makes the public so happy they could buy.