Breakup Anthems: How Does Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” Stack Up?

Gotye's breakout hit, "Somebody That I Used to Know," is dominating music charts. As it joins the annals of biggest breakup anthems of all time, how does it measure up to its contemporaries?

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Musician Wouter "Wally" De Backer aka Gotye performs during a secret concert at The Sayers Club on April 23, 2012 in Hollywood, California.

For many, it seemed like Gotye came out of nowhere. The folksy, Australian indie-rock artist (né Wally de Backer) has captivated U.S. listeners with his irresistible, nuanced breakup song, “Somebody That I Used to Know,” featuring New Zealand singer Kimbra. Last week, the song (which came out almost a year ago) set a Billboard chart record, becoming the first to top the Hot 100 (leading for a fourth week), Alternative Songs, Dance/Club Play Songs, and Dance/Mix Show Airplay charts.

Its success and staying power is puzzling; how did an alternative song from a relatively unknown artist blow up and become the unofficial anthem for hipsters, little children, TV brothers, ravers, and rock purists alike?

Ashton Kutcher and Katy Perry’s admiring tweets and millions of followers may have helped, but most of all it plucked, plucked, plucked at our heartstrings. The music video has garnered more than 208 million views on YouTube, a truly viral video that doesn’t depend so much on kitsch or any shock factor as it does its near-perfect construction of a song about love lost. The Village Voice’s Chris Molanphy called it a signal of the return of “monoculture,” a “Michael Jackson-style media-blanketing hit, something my fellow cultural critics thought we’d lost forever in a world of hundreds of niches.”

It’s safe to say Gotye has entered the annals of legendary, inescapable crossover breakup hits. But how does it hold up against some of music’s other recent breakup gems?

While 2010’s “F*ck You,” by Cee-Lo Green was inescapable and a cathartic, much-needed gem for what many called “the worst summer ever,” the lyrics were a little too specific (Cee-Lo’s gold-digging crush goes off with another dude) and wasn’t technically a breakup song. Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”—while similarly ubiquitous, is too removed and detached; it’s fun, but it doesn’t tug at your insides the way a proper breakup anthem should.

But there are two breakup megahits from the last 10years that do just that: Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” and Adele’s “Someone Like You.”

(SEE: 2012 TIME 100 Most Influential People: Adele)

Let’s compare Gotye’s new classic against our rubric of successful breakup song elements, to see how it holds up against these two hits. This isn’t to say that these two songs are the only standards against which to measure Gotye: No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak,” Alanis Morrisette’s “You Oughta Know,” Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” and, hell, even Usher’s “Burn” are all worthy counterpoints. But Clarkson’s and Adele’s songs have both soared to levels of immense commercial success, and offer a more recent comparison to Gotye’s hit.

Further, all three songs demonstrate fairly different stages of the breakup process. “Somebody That I Used to Know” reflects the initial relief, confusion and anger that accompanies a split; “Since U Been Gone” is triumphant, accepting and empowering in its “screw you” phase; “Someone Like You” is melancholy, still, but feels more mature in its acceptance of the end.

Here, we rate how the three songs carry out each pillar of the perfect breakup anthem:

Lyrics that speak to the universality of heartbreak, while steering clear of the cliche

“Somebody That I Used to Know”: In an interview with NME last month, Gotye said that the immense success of the song has grown beyond him—that he no longer feels like he has ownership of the song. “It had an energy that wasn’t like anything I’ve put out before. I don’t really feel like it belongs to me anymore.” It resonated, and with good reason.

Gotye isn’t singing of betrayal or looking for revenge; in fact, he isn’t even really the victim in his own breakup song. He isn’t looking for forgiveness, either.

Looking back on a relationship that’s run its course, he reflects “now and then” of how he had convinced himself to stay. “Told myself that you were right for me/ But felt so lonely in your company,” he unfurls. And while he finds himself “addicted” to this sadness, he reveals: “But I’ll admit that I was glad it was over.” This admission of relief, so simply phrased, is refreshing and acute in its description of relationships that go on longer than they should.

But his sense of peace is so quickly upstaged by an even more universal emotion: he wants to be wanted. “But you treat me like a stranger and I feel so rough,” Gotye wails. When a relationship ends, it’s staggering and unsettling to see a former partner and confidante literally disappear. Who hasn’t felt jarred when a life built together suddenly seems like a dream? Is it too much to ask, Gotye wonders, to acknowledge that it mattered, that it existed? (9/10)

“Since U Been Gone”: On his blog in 2006, the New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones wrote ,“’Since U Been Gone’ is its own genre now.” It’s true; the song became the new standard for the breakup anthem, and countless critics named it in their “Best Of” lists. Kelly Clarkson may have been an American Idol winner seemingly destined to churn out cheesy pop tunes, but the grit of her voice coupled with writer/producer duo Max Martin and Dr. Luke’s three minutes of cathartic nirvana turned out a song that could be appreciated across genres. It’s lyrics are simple, but it’s filled with hindsight (“I guess you never felt that way”), as well as a mantra that’s simple, but revelatory: “I can breathe for the first time/ I’m so moving on.” The song is the guilty pleasure that you actually didn’t feel that guilty about. (6/10)

“Someone Like You”: “When I was writing it, I was feeling pretty miserable, pretty lonely; which I guess kind of contradicts ‘Rolling in the Deep,’ where I was like ‘I’m going to be fine without you,’” Adele says of her heartwrenching hit. “This one was me kind of on my knees.” In writing the song, Adele has said she imagined seeing her former lover in the future with a wife and children, wanting to be truly happy for him. It’s still filled with some bitterness, but mostly sad, straightforward truths that hit where it hurts: “Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead.” (10/10)

Production that conveys what words can’t

“Somebody That I Used to Know”: Built around a sample from Brazilian guitarist Luiz Bonfá, the two looped guitar strums create a sly tension with its punctuated notes, only exaggerated by the staccato of its xylophone line. Gotye’s arrangement is understated and coy—mirroring the lyrics’ own unremarkable but arresting realization and climax. It’s really Gotye and Kimbra’s vocals that drive the song; the production is intricate and fresh, but the power of the anthem is derived from the instruments as much as it is from the singers themselves. (7/10)

“Since U Been Gone”: All bombastic and angry guitars, the song immediately makes you feel like you’re plowing, charging forward, throwing chairs or tables or people to the side as you make your way forward. The opening guitar line has the same staccato tension that the other two songs do, but feels more straightforward. Its eruption at the chorus practically demands you to jump, mosh or nod your head in agreement and celebration.  (8/10)

(WATCH: Child Cancer Patients Sing Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger”)

“Someone Like You”: The piano notes are simple, alternating and steady, sound troubled and uneasy during the verses, and then get brighter, stronger into the chorus before settling back down into the verse. There’s a quiet resignation and flicker of hope, heavier chords break in when Kelly pleads her case before the chorus. It’s, once again, a stark contract from “Rolling in the Deep,” which starts off with the pluck of guitar strings—hesitant for just a second, before charging forward, ushering in the heavy drums, the tambourine, piano, and building into an intense crescendo. There’s even hand claps during the breakdown. “Someone Like You” is subtler, but conveys just as much emotion with so much less. (8/10)

An epic chorus of catharsis and vindication

“Somebody That I Used to Know”: In the case of “Somebody,” the entire chorus is an indignant reveal after the more removed, calculated verse. It’s our narrator’s confession that while he knew he wasn’t happy, he’s still upset. “But you didn’t have to cut me off/ Make out like it never happened and that we were nothing,” he accuses his ex, jumping up an octave. It’s a declaration of one’s consequence; of confusion and frustration over how we can so quickly lose a part of ourselves. “And I don’t even need your love,” Gotye insists. “Now you’re just somebody that I used to know.” Gotye punches into the word “now,” the line a swift dismissal of someone who he really wants to know he still exists. The chorus of voices that envelopes his own vocals are otherworldly and dreamy, helping Gotye simultaneously sound like he’s pleading and exasperated. (8/10)

“Since U Been Gone”: While following a pretty standard lyrical construction for a Top 40 pop song, what makes this one resonate is Clarkson’s own conviction. She slips into some confession when she says “I even fell for that stupid love song.” But the majority of her song sticks to the self-empowering: “But since you been gone/ I can breathe for the first time/ I’m so moving on.” (10/10)

“Someone Like You”:  Adele builds the momentum of her verse (“I had hoped you’d see my face and that you’d be reminded/ That for me it isn’t over), until she’s soaring into the chorus: “Never mind, I’ll find someone like you/ I wish nothing but the best for you, too” (which also can be read as “you two,” if you’re feeling especially mature). This song doesn’t feel as delicious to belt out if what you’re looking for is to feel vindicated—it’s a more mature, sophisticated type of victory, steeped in sadness. So, while it doesn’t necessarily have the same piss-off gratification that “Somebody” has (though maybe “Rolling in the Deep” channels that), that’s probably to its benefit.  (8/10)

Hindsight

“Somebody That I Used to Know”:  What’s unique to “Somebody” is that Gotye invites the other party into the song to essentially berate him. “I remember all the times you screwed me over/ Part of me believing that it was always something that I’d done,” Kimbra almost whispers. Suddenly, she’s practically snarling: “But I don’t wanna live that way.” She’s only given one verse, but she swiftly renders Gotye weak. Here’s a woman standing up for her own happiness, realizing she wants and needs more than her empty, detached (and possibly unfaithful) partner can offer. Gotye, though, is left confused. (9/10)

“Since U Been Gone”: “Since U Been Gone” is the song of someone who’s already grieved; we’re greeted by someone who has already figured her situation out, and realizes she’s better off for it. Clarkson’s anthem is the achievement of clarity that any heartbroken person can hope to achieve. “Now I get/ What I want,” she affirms. And after all the wallowing, the tears, and bargaining, isn’t that we’re all hoping for? (9/10)

“Someone Like You”:  Both “Someone Like You” and “Somebody That I Used to Know” share a sense of dismissal, a sonic brushing-off of the shoulder; but this new perspective isn’t so much the product of self-awareness than it is of defeat. “Never mind,” Adele bursts; “Now you’re just someone that I used to know,” Gotye cries. Adele concedes, but she’s still hoping to find someone like the man who did her wrong. She’s not so much moving past him, as she’s forced to step out of the way and hoping to recreate what she had. “Regrets and mistakes/they’re memories made,” she reasons. But in working through her new reality, she repeats to herself: “Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead.” That may be the cruelest lesson of all life’s lessons to learn, but she does. (10/10)

Who wins?

Adele comes out on top with 36 points, thanks to her stellar vocals, sophisticated lyrics, and gained perspective and insight. Gotye and Kelly end up tied with 33 points each. The strength of “Since U Been Gone” is largely derived from Clarkson’s tonality, and the sheer power and gusto of the song’s arrangement. Clarkson sounds outside of herself, which makes the song the ultimate release, whether you’re singing it alone in the shower, in your car, at karaoke, or in a club. The lyrics aren’t the most revelatory, but they’re empowering and easy to rally behind.

“Somebody That I Used to Know” succeeds in large part due to its delicate lyrical construction—in giving both parties of the relationship a platform from which to plead their case, and in its treatment of the complexities and contradictions that accompany even our own decisions to move on. Gotye’s vocals are dripping with hurt and disbelief—it’s satisfying to sing along to, no matter whose side you’re on. Ultimately, it’s not as gut-wrenching and vocally impressive as “Someone Like You,” but, then again, who can touch Adele?

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