How ‘Somebody I Used To Know’ Accidentally Became The First Viral Hit
A decade on from its release, Gotye and Kimbra's success is still unique.
“This is kinda fantastic. Reminds me of early music vids,” tweeted Ashton Kutcher 10 years ago, linking to a video of Gotye and Kimbra’s ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’.
With 154 retweets, it hardly set the internet alight, but it was the beginning of a snowball effect that took Gotye, born Wally De Backer, from an Australian secret to a worldwide sensation.
A decade later, the song has been etched into pop music history. It’s got 1.7 billion YouTube views, earned De Backer and Kimbra two Grammys, and topped the charts in 23 countries. Still, its rise remains somewhat bewildering.
‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ was the first to convert from a viral internet sensation into a bonafide global smash — now, virality is part of most pop songs’ marketing strategies. And it did so accidentally. The viral hits that immediately followed were more ingrained in mainstream iconography whether it be Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez’s lip-sync to Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Call Me Maybe’ or the internet-conquering challenge that gave Bauuer his sole Number One with ‘Harlem Shake’.
‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ was, in many ways, the antithesis to what was going on in the charts at that time. It was sparse and alluring, completely counteracting the EDM sounds that were infiltrating the charts. The chorus doesn’t hit until 90 seconds into the song while Kimbra’s show-stopping performance comes in at two minutes and 30 seconds — a point at which some pop songs have already finished. If you don’t make the distance, you don’t get the ultimate payoff — that glorious climax where the two voices battle each other in a heartbreaking finale.
Somebody We Don’t Know
“Perhaps it’s connecting with a large number of people who aren’t interesting in that whole swathe of club/dance-oriented, heavily compressed style of music,” De Backer hypothesised to The Daily Beast at the peak of the song’s reign. Kimbra felt that it would resonate because of its “brutal honesty.” Both were right but there’s a lot more than goes into a mainstream behemoth like ‘Somebody I Used To Know’, particularly when the lead artists are virtually unknown.
When ‘Somebody I Used To Know’ was released in September 2011, De Backer wasn’t even used to large-scale success in his own country. His last album Like Drawing Blood had alerted critics, garnering him an ARIA Award for Best Male Artist — but it only peaked at Number 13 on the ARIA Charts. The lead-single ‘Eyes Wide Open’ of the follow-up album Making Mirrors peaked outside of the Top 50, albeit making a splash with triple j listeners — it ended up coming in at Number 25 on the Hottest 100 countdown of 2010.
“Every car was cranking it over their speakers all day, every day… and the question on everyone’s lips was whether or not Kimbra would join him on the track.”
“[The first single] hadn’t changed the game for me, and based upon that, I didn’t have any expectations,” De Backer told Billboard, reflecting on that time. He was gearing up to release the album independently and admitted that he hadn’t even considered how the music would be received outside of Australia.
When ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ was released in early July 2011, there were strong signs that it was going to raise his status. When De Backer performed at Splendour In The Grass that same month, the song was one of the most hyped moments of the festival. A review for the now-defunct Take 40 captured it best calling it “the unofficial anthem of the festival.”
“Every car was cranking it over their speakers all day, every day… and the question on everyone’s lips was whether or not Kimbra would join him on the track,” the review continued. Kimbra did join De Backer for the song and the applause was deafening. They played the festival on the Friday and the video dropped the following day.
If the song wasn’t already ripe and ready to spread, the video added the fuel. Directed by Australian artist Natasha Pincus, the stop-motion clip saw a naked De Backer painted into the backdrop before being joined by Kimbra. “The budget was small because Wally was funding it himself,” Pincus told Stereogum — but if anything that aided its charm. It drew 200,000 views in its first two weeks as it spread at home in Australia. “With a weaker video, the song wouldn’t have been shared as widely online,” De Backer acknowledged to Diffuser.
‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ had already been released digitally in the US, mostly to crickets, but the video began the spread. The Kutcher tweet arrived and was followed by Katy Perry who gushed, “The Lyrics are so true!”
From Australia To The World
In August, ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ claimed the top spot on the ARIA Charts beating out a Top 10 that included LMFAO, Maroon 5, and Nicki Minaj. Europe followed and by year’s end, he had topped the British charts too. The US was last, but arguably spread it the furthest.
“When I put my second album, Like Drawing Blood, out in Australia, YouTube didn’t even exist yet and MySpace had just started to gain steam,” told The Daily Beast while making sense of his sudden success in 2012. “I’ve been lucky enough to be on the receiving end of this…virus!”
Virality, both metaphorically and literally, is unfortunately everywhere in 2021 — but it was somewhat fresh to the pop charts at the time.
The success of ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ was on another scale.
“It was one of the first songs to spread globally with the audience driving it,” De Backer’s manager John Watson said in a recent oral history for Stereogum.
Not one song the previous year went to Number One in the US due to viral movements. Big, established pop names, from Rihanna to Usher, dominated as has long been the case. Viral YouTube videos were far from new but rarely did they convert into mammoth hits. OK GO’s treadmill trickery saw their track ‘Here It Goes Again’ gain some notoriety while Rebecca Black’s ‘Friday’ made headlines without denting the charts. The success of ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ was on another scale.
In December 2011, US group Walk Off The Earth uploaded a cover of the song that featured all five members playing one acoustic guitar. It took less than a month for it to spread, opening the floodgates to a never-ending flurry of covers. After being covered on American Idol and Glee, the song finally landed in the US charts, beginning its ascent.
By April, De Backer had become the first Australian artist to top the US charts in over a decade. De Backer’s performance on Saturday Night Live alongside Kimbra had helped propel the song up the charts — but it was mostly driven by a movement that grew out of control, even for the song’s creator.
Once De Backer played Coachella in April, ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ was inescapable.
He told Billboard he would through the fields of the festival and hear “unofficial remixes that people were really getting into [blasting] out of a tent.” Across the world, clubs blasted ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ nightly. This was a time when no song was beyond EDM’s golden touch. Somehow a song that once felt strange and haunting — a question mark in the pop charts — felt familiar and comfortable.
De Backer — a passionate proponent of sampling and creative freedom — had made the stems available online for free which turned out to be an accidental seed. “[It] probably contributed to an aspect of over-saturation,” De Backer noted.
“There was a feeling that it wasn’t me who was shoving the song in everyone’s face, it was the rest of the world,” De Backer told Stereogum. He was right — De Backer may have birthed it, but he wasn’t the one fuelling its never-ending spread. Whether it was a Weird Al Yankovic parody or a Tiesto remix, the song continued to create more offspring. Even a video complaining about the song’s ubiquity went viral — doing nothing to dispel the song’s popularity.
By August 2012, ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ had been knocked from Number One by ‘Call Me Maybe’ after an eight-week run at the top. De Backer, who had been reluctant to prolong the viral fame any further, relented and released his own cover of the song which interpolated all the YouTube covers. He called it ‘Somebodies: A YouTube Orchestra’.
It was a meta moment for the song and a strange celebration of what it had become. In many ways, it was De Backer passing his ownership of the song to the world, giving into a runaway train that couldn’t be stopped even if he wanted it to.
Upon release, ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ was an unlikely hit — a song that went against the pop blueprint. And yet it somehow morphed into the blueprint. By the time it won Song Of The Year at the Grammys, it had topped over nine Billboard charts in the US. Its style was so ambiguous that it fit every box and no box at the same time. Among the charts it topped were Hot Rock & Alternative, Dance Club Songs, and Mainstream Top 40. De Backer told triple j that at the time radio programmers in the US were perplexed by it telling him, “Man, we’ve never seen a song jump radio formats like this!”
It remains a once-in-a-lifetime moment. A megahit that can’t be recreated.
Despite its dominance, no hit that came after it emulated it: It didn’t change the sound of pop or influence a new generation of heartbreaking ballads, instead, it remains a once-in-a-lifetime moment. A megahit that can’t be recreated.
That said, ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ was accidentally the starting gun on an era of viral pop moments. Nowadays, it’s all part of the plan. A video like that going viral would be no accident at all. It would’ve been written into the strategy. When a mainstream pop artist releases a song today, there’s already a TikTok dance choreographed, ready to infiltrate the platform.
Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. If there was a clear plan of how to copy what happened with ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’, there may be plenty more unknown names going big today. Not even De Backer could write a manual on how to recreate it. He hasn’t tried. A decade on, he’s still yet to release new music under the De Backer moniker.
De Backer really is somebody that we used to know. And yet, did we ever truly know him at all?