I’d like to make a bold statement.
Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know,” featuring Kimbra, is going to be remembered as one of the classic songs of this decade.
And it’s not just because the song is ridiculously popular, though it is. It’s currently number one in the United States after topping the charts in a billion other countries, and two weeks ago, it sold over 542,000 digital copies in America. Only three other songs in history have ever sold more digital copies in a single week.
Popularity, of course, doesn’t always make you a classic. A squillion people bought “Sexy and I Know It,” but I’m guessing even LMFAO don’t think it’s a timeless tune.
It helps the “classic” argument that Gotye’s song is also awesome.The structure is spooky and striking, the melody (especially in the chorus) is fantastic, the lyrics are sophisticated, and Kimbra’s verse adds depth to the entire affair.
But plenty of awesome songs aren’t “classics.” What’s especially striking about “Somebody That I Used to Know”—and what makes me think it will be remembered for decades to come—is that so many versions of it are popular at once.
First, of course, there’s the original, with its sparse and haunting beauty. I’ll call it the “naked” version because it’s a fairly acoustic record, “stripped” of instrumentation, and because both Gotye and Kimbra appear naked in the video.
That version is #2 on iTunes right now, and at #10 there’s another version of the song: A trance-y remix by the Dutch DJ Tiësto.
And sure: Plenty of songs have been remixed, and plenty of remixes have been hits. But it’s rare for an original and a remix to be hits at the same time. People love Gotye naked and dancing.
On top of that, the Glee cast’s version has sold tens of thousands of copies. Their cover, performed as a duet between brothers, sounds like the original, but the male-on-male conflict creates a brand new context. And still, the song works. (Gotye himself apparently doesn’t care for the show’s version, but hey… you can’t please everyone.)
And then there’s this version by Walk Off The Earth, where five people simultaneously play the same guitar—one person plucks the top strings, one person plays percussion on the wood, etc. In case you haven’t seen the video, it’s a pretty great gimmick:
Like the Gotye, Glee, and Tiësto versions, this cover is also in the iTunes top 100. People obviously like Walk Off the Earth’s dreamy performance. (I certainly do.)
And that’s why I think “Somebody That I Used to Know” is going to be a classic. Artists love putting their spin on this song, and audiences loving hearing all sorts of variations. That’s the hallmark of a tune that’s going to outlast the present moment and linger in our brains for a long, long time.
Mark Blankenship has written about pop music for The New York Times and NPR. He tweets as @IAmBlankenship. He hopes RuPaul covers this song with Michelle Visage.