Okay, first thing’s first. Have you heard the song “Somebody That I Used to Know” by Gotye, and have you seen the music video? If not, go check it out over here. It’s the first video on the page (we’re going to talk about some of the others a little later), and it will take up four minutes and four seconds of your time. [ETA: If that Mashable link is acting wonky, you can always find the videos through Google instead.] Don’t worry; I’ll wait ………………
Okay, are we all on the same page now? So let’s think about that song and that video and why they’re so popular.
First off, that song is damned catchy, and it demonstrates a good amount of vocal range. The hooks are effective at snagging the right parts of your brain in such a way that you might find yourself at random hours of the day singing under your breath about how you had your friends collect your records and then changed your number. The rhythm of the music and the vocals overlap in simple yet enticing ways. The harmonies are soulful and sweet.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, my appreciation for the musical foundations of this song actually increased after the morning I spent going through all of the cover videos on that page. Listening to how other bands chose to interpret (and reimagine) the rhythm and balance of that song made me appreciate the original even more. I’m going to tell you about some of my favorite covers in a minute, but let me share some more thoughts about the original song first.
“Somebody That I Used to Know” is a he said / she said song. I grew up with the 80’s classic “Don’t You Want Me Baby” by The Human League, and one of the main reasons we loved that song was because it told a story of a broken relationship from two different points of view. Now, I’m not going to defend “Don’t You Want Me Baby” as one of the best songs ever written, but we connected to it because the tune was catchy, because it told a timeless yet simple story, and because it was easy to sing along with it by yourself or with your friends.
Let’s also talk about the music video for “Somebody That I Used To Know.” There’s nudity that’s more implied than explicit. The singer stares directly at us, challenging the camera with his gaze while he pours his heart out. The painting that envelops the characters entices our eyes as we’re listening to the music, weaving its way into the listening experience and thus helping to cement the song into our minds. I believe that the visual power of the music video is a large part of that song’s success. It’s kind of like how the music video for “Mickey” by Toni Basil helped that song skyrocket so far up the charts that even I (who knew next to nothing about popular music) owned a copy of it on 45. And if you don’t know what a 45 is, then kindly get off of my lawn, you damned whippersnappers.
Okay, so now let’s talk about the covers of “Somebody That I Used to Know” that have helped the song spread into the different corners of popular culture and made us think about the song in new ways. Most of the covers I’m going to discuss are on that Mashable post I mentioned earlier [ETA: or again, through Google], but I’m going to conclude with yet another video that inspired me to write this post in the first place. Here are some of my favorite covers of “Somebody That I Used to Know:”
The Glee version is noteworthy because it takes a “he said / she said” song and turns it into a “he said / he said” song. It also uses a much darker color palette, which brings the anger of the song up to the surface.
I loved the American Idol cover because I’m a fan of that show and because it was sung by Elise and Phillip, who were two of my favorite singers this season. Elise’s smoky/husky voice and Phillip’s growl worked for me. Also, this was one of several versions that redistributed the lines of the song more equitably between the singers. That works for me thematically, and also avoids the problem of one singer twiddling his or her thumbs for most of the song.
Now go check out the Walk Off the Earth version of this song. This version is visually hypnotic in a different way than the original music video, and breaks up the vocals among a larger group. I never imagined that a video of five people playing one guitar could be so amazing. Of course, I never imagined five people playing one guitar in the first place.
And watch the version by the PS 22 Chorus. Then go browsing around on YouTube and check out more of their covers of popular songs. I love watching the soloists sing their hearts out and enjoy their moments in the spotlight, and I also love watching the rest of the chorus sing in harmony from their seats as they sway along with the music. I can’t explain why this is so powerful. I just know that it is.
Then there are many more acoustic versions, a capella versions, duets, solos, and more. Explore them at your leisure, and afterwards just TRY to get that damned tune out of your head.
Then there are the parodies. There are parodies of the original music video, and parodies of the covers, and round and round it goes. But I wanted to conclude by bringing your attention to an especially geeky parody that I discovered today, and the one that got me thinking about “Somebody That I Used to Know” so deeply that I decided to write a blog post about it. That parody is called “This is Not the ‘Star Wars’ That You Used to Know.” Does George Lucas make an appearance? You bet he does!
And in anticipation of you singing this song to yourself for days and weeks to come, I’ll just have to say … YOU’RE WELCOME!!!