Gotye feat. Kimbra "Somebody That I Used to Know"
Songs That Defined the Decade

Songs That Defined the Decade: Gotye feat. Kimbra's 'Somebody That I Used to Know'

“People can’t help but say, ‘Wow, can you do anything like that again?’”

Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was -- the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period -- with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved. 

One week before Australian singer-songwriter Gotye would premiere his new song and video -- “Somebody That I Used to Know,” a duet with New Zealand art-pop artist Kimbra -- on Australia’s Triple J, both leaked online, creating a global sense of mystery and contributing to the immediate virality of the clip. 

“From that moment on, a series of surprises kept happening,” the artist born Wouter "Wally" De Backer in Belgium recalls. “It was the starting point of a few years of the song and video running around the world” -- taking Gotye with it.

At the time, in mid-2011, Gotye was already an established artist in his native Australia. He was getting ready to release his third album, Making Mirrors, on the Universal-distributed indie Eleven: A Music Company, and had already shared its lead single, the racing, uptempo “Eyes Wide Open.”

“[The first single] hadn’t changed the game for me, and based upon that, I didn’t have any expectations,” De Backer says. “I was gearing up to put Making Mirrors out independently -- I had tried different labels and people had expressed interest, but nothing had come to fruition -- and wasn’t quite sure [of anything] beyond releasing it in Australia, where I already had something of an audience.”

Before Making Mirrors’ second single, “Somebody That I Used to Know,” was even officially released, the leaked audio had appeared on iTunes; soon enough, radio stations in Australia, Belgium and Holland started playing the track. And after the official audio arrived -- followed by an eye-popping and quickly viral video, in which Gotye and co-star Kimbra appeared naked and painted against a blank wall, as if fading into the wallpaper -- “Somebody That I Used to Know” ended up climbing the Billboard Hot 100, eventually topping the chart for eight weeks. 

“iTunes, YouTube and Facebook -- at the different points they were at -- all had a pretty big impact on how this song and video were shared initially,” says Gotye. “To even have a few hundred million views, it was one of the most-watched music videos at that time.”

He also thinks the track’s abandonment of standard Top 40 structure may have led to it standing out a bit more in the mainstream, recalling a pop songwriting class a friend of his had described taking. “People were breaking down the trends in pop music over the last few years, and the melodic math that came out of the Swedish influence like Denniz Pop and Max Martin and Dr. Luke,” he explains of the class. “[Then] someone at the end of the seminar said, ‘And then there’s this one anomaly, which is ‘Somebody That I Used to Know.’” 

Within three months of the song’s release, Gotye signed a recording contract with Universal label Republic. Rob Stevenson, then vp of A&R, said at the time: “I have never seen a domino effect go this fast." Gotye and Kimbra later performed the song on Saturday Night Live (in the same episode, Andy Samberg and Taran Killam spoofed the video, painting their bodies and posing as a painting), the cast of Glee revamped it, and at the 2013 Grammys it took home three awards, including record of the year. “It became a phenomenon,” says De Backer.

Today, De Backer looks back on the two-year whirlwind as an overwhelming experience. “People can’t help but say, ‘Wow, can you do anything like that again?’” he says of feeling pressure following the breakthrough of “Somebody That I Used To Know.” In 2014, De Backer put Gotye on hiatus (he’s been in no rush to release another song or album under the name, though says he has a sense of what its next album will sound like). 

Looking back, De Backer believes one reason “Somebody That I Used to Know” took off is because he posted all the stems online for free, which allowed countless remixes to pop up online and, as he says, “probably contributed to an aspect of over-saturation.” He even remembers walking around Coachella after he had performed, “feeling really great about the set the band and I had played, and hearing unofficial remixes that people were really getting into [blasting] out of a tent.” 

Now, he muses, “The mutation aspect was maybe on the early side of the internet doing that to culture. That’s one thing that I learned with “Somebody That I Used to Know” -- it’s so out of your hands. You have to let it go.”

"If anything, that’s a legacy I would love the song to have," he says. "That in the context of pop, you can ostensibly break all the rules.”

Songs That Defined The Decade