Gotye has the talent, but does he have the staying power?
By THOMAS CONNER email@example.com August 22, 2012 4:40PM
MISSY HIGGINS; JONTI
♦ 7:30 p.m. Aug. 24
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Updated: August 23, 2012 6:39PM
Since the beginning of 2012, a mere three songs have dominated — and, in each case, stubbornly held onto — the No. 1 slot on Billboard’s singles chart: fun.’s “We Are Young,” Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” and Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know.”
Each has proven polarizing, courting slightly more fervent fans than hardcore haters, but only the first two really sound like Billboard hits. The omnipresent fun. song, which has saturated nearly every music platform now available, twists alt-rock rumble and twee-pop sparkle into an anthemic Twizzler of cynicism and revelry. Jepsen’s faux-innocent Debbie Gibson revival somehow managed to escape Rebecca Black’s injurious fate and even wound up knighted by the U.S. Olympic swim team.
But Gotye’s delicate, wolf-in-woolen-melody tune is different.
The string-plucked rhythm, the whisper-mumbled verses, the quirky melody and Sting-pitched outbursts — it tiptoes and wobbles more like a Danny Elfman soundtrack than a full-on, chart-topping smash. It’s akin to a lineage of quirky left-field hits, other childlike melodies with cagey singers that came out of nowhere — think “Your Woman” by White Town or “Welcome to the Boomtown” by David + David.
It remains to be seen whether this is a career starter for the Belgian-Australian singer, or a high-water mark on the one-hit wonder rolls. (“Somebody That I Used to Know” — ouch, the title is even pregnant with eventual VH1 Classic irony.)
For now, though — no offense, everyone — Gotye would just like all the excitement to blow over.
“It’s certainly exciting, but I’d also prefer it to go away,” Gotye told me during a recent interview. “It’s a peculiar thing. It’s something I can’t even manage, and if I could how would I do it? Do I say to radio, ‘OK, great, stop playing my song so much, thank you.’ I would trade 70 percent of my success for other songs of mine to have this exposure, too.”
The exposure he’s talking about goes far beyond the charts. “Somebody That I Used to Know” has become a catalyst for novice musicians and comedians across the web, thousands of whom have jammed YouTube with their own covers and — the sign of true zeitgeist — parodies.
“My favorite may be a solo guitarist called Mike Dawes,” Gotye said. “He’s got these incredible, alien-like fingers all over the acoustic guitar. There’s also a metal one that’s pretty hilarious. Full shredding — I loved it.”
Last week, after our interview, Gotye unveiled his own attempt to embrace — and possibly cap — the trend. On his website, Gotye posted a lengthy remix of dozens of his favorite “Somebody” covers and parodies.
“Reluctant as I was to add to the mountain of interpretations of ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’ out there online,” Gotye wrote on the site, “I couldn’t resist the massive remixability that such a large, varied yet connected bundle of source material offered.”
Meanwhile, fun. has managed to move on, getting concert halls and Lollapalooza singing along with its next earworm-level single, “Some Nights.” But Gotye has released three singles since “Somebody” (which was first released in July 2011), from his album “Making Mirrors,” and each of them barely charted.
Gotye, though, isn’t as worried as you might expect. He’s not new to the game, and — as is usually true of all alleged overnight successes — he possesses the wisdom of some experience.
Gotye (say GO-tee-ay), aka Wouter “Wally” De Backer, 32, has been making music for a decade. “Making Mirrors” is his third album.
“Had I not released other records, had lots of experience with my band, traveled the world and Australia — it’s helped me maybe keep my head on straighter than if I were 20 years old and had this kind of success,” he said. “There was a point there where I had a bit of a grassroots breakthrough with the song ‘Hearts a Mess’ [from the 2007 album ‘Like Drawing Blood’], but it just didn’t really take off. Not like this.”
When exactly does an artist know a song has “taken off”?
“There were different moments,” Gotye said. “The YouTube views are certain markers these days. Hitting a million was kind of unheard of for me. Then 10 million — you get into figures that large and it’s difficult to comprehend. It still sounds absurd to me that it’s the most downloaded track ever in Belgian history. Then you get over a hump where you worry, especially in the States, where the song is so overplayed.”
Besides your song becoming a genuine and copied hit, there’s another marker for crazy celebrity success: wild, tabloid-ripe rumors. Earlier this summer, Gotye was asked in an interview if he wanted to comment on a report that he’d had a sex change. “Do I have to? Maybe it’s fun keeping it open,” he responded, which only fueled the rumor further.
“I still haven’t actually seen the sex change hoax, so now I don’t even know if it’s true,” he told us.
“The hoax, that is.”
Gotye’s duet partner on “Somebody” is Kimbra, another down-under discovery (also with her own upcoming Chicago show, Oct. 17 at Metro).
“We met five years ago,” Gotye said. “She moved to Melbourne from New Zealand, and she was covering one of my songs at a club. I went to see her — she’s really astounding vocally and all over the guitar. We didn’t stay in touch for years until [my father] suggested asking her to sing on this song. She’s formidable.”
As is Gotye’s own talent — there’s so much more to “Making Mirrors” than its lead single’s infinite reflections. The album is rich and varied, a recipe of carefully measured dollops of ’60s boogie, soul grooves, New Age breaks and springy pop.
Question is, by 2013, will Gotye just be somebody that we used to sing along with?