Behind the History and Meaning of the Song “Somebody That I Used To Know” by Gotye

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

We’ve all been there.

What do you do when you break up with someone (especially in an ugly way)? When they become somebody, yes, that you “used to know”?

Do you distance yourself? Probably. Do you ignore them? Maybe. Do you forget their very existence because they’re the worst person on Earth? Ha!

Well, Wouter André “Wally” De Backer, also known as the Belgian-Australian artist Gotye, put these feelings into words in one of the most popular songs of the century, “Somebody That I Used To Know.”

Let’s dive in.

Origins

Gotye, who has released four albums to date, has earned comparisons to Peter Gabriel and Sting in his career. But nothing he has done (or, really, can do) will match the heights he achieved over a decade ago in 2011 when “Somebody That I Used To Know” took over the world.

It hit No. 1 on Billboard and was the best-selling song of 2012. Why? Duh. We’ve all been there. It’s a universal song that became ubiquitous.

The hit track was first released on July 5, 2011, as the second single from his third studio album. It was first out in Australia and New Zealand. It then came out in December of 2011 in the U.K. and a few weeks later it hit the United States and Ireland.

In 2013, the song won two Grammy Awards for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance and Record of the Year.

The Writing

The mid-tempo ballad samples Luiz Bonfá’s instrumental song “Seville” from his 1967 album Luiz Bonfa Plays Great Songs.

Today the multi-platinum track has been performed on major television shows like The Voice, American Idol, Saturday Night Live, and more. But how it came about was slow and steady.

“Writing ‘Somebody’ was a gradual and linear process,” said Gotye about the writing process in an interview with Sound on Sound. “I started with the Luiz Bonfa sample, then I found the drums, and after that, I started working on the lyric and the melody, and added the wobbly guitar-sample melody. After that, I took a break, and a few weeks later I came back to the session and decided on the chorus chord progression, wrote the chorus melody, and combined that with sounds like the Latin loop and some of the percussion and the flute sounds that further filled the space.

“At that point, I hit a brick wall. I was thinking: ‘This is pretty good, how can I get to the end really quickly?’ and I was trying to take lazy decisions to finish the song. I considered repeating the chorus, an instrumental bridge, or a change in tempo or key, I even considered finishing the song after the first chorus. But nothing felt like it was strong enough,” he continued.

“So the third session was all about writing the female part and changing the perspective. The arrangement of ‘Somebody’ is reflective of me moving towards using sounds that provide me with inspiration for a texture or a platform for an idea, and then through sonic manipulation and coming up with original melodies and harmonic ideas to make it my own,” he adds. “I guess the balance of sounds taken from records and samples I created myself is perhaps 50–50.”

Indeed, the addition of female singer Kimbra offers the song depth, a different perspective, and a foil to the track. Who is the good person, and who is the bad person? The interplay is marvelous.

The Recording

The four-minute song was recorded between January and May of 2011. He was looking for a “high profile female vocalist” but cancelled early sessions as he was struggling to find the right artistic move.

Kimbra, Gotye says, later “lucked out as the replacement.” Gotye had also tried his girlfriend, Tash Parker, but “somehow their happiness meant that it didn’t work out.”

He followed the recommendation of the song’s mixer and used Kimbra’s vocals. Many have since compared her to Katy Perry.

Said Gotye of the song’s inspiration and meaning, it was “definitely drawn from various experiences I’ve had in relationships breaking up, and in the more reflective parts of the song, in the aftermath and the memory of those different relationships and what they were and how they broke up and what’s going on in everyone’s minds. Yeah, so it’s an amalgam of different feelings but not completely made up as such.”

The Lyrics

While the whole song is meaningful, from the first to the last word, let’s look at the opening stanza and the chorus to illustrate style, tone, and import:

The opening stanza:

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

The chorus:

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 that feels so rough
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

Sound familiar? Likely so!

The Music Video

Produced, directed, and edited by Natasha Pincus, the music video for the track was almost as ubiquitous as the song itself.

It features tasteful nudity, body painting, sonic arguing, and displays both Gotye and Kimbra for our eyes to see what our ears already had. And Gotye’s literal mouth is a sight to behold, up there in the pantheon of legendary singers’ mouths like Mick Jagger and Steven Tyler.

As of this writing, the song has nearly two billion views. Stunning stuff.

Check it out below and feel seen all over again.

(Photo by Gary Wolstenholme/Redferns via Getty Images)

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