Somebody That I Used to Know

(photo: Shutterstock image)

If you have ears, you're well aware of the song Somebody That I Used to Know by the artist Gotye. (On the off chance you haven't yet heard it, just turn on the nearest radio; it's probably playing. Or you can listen to this great cover by Ingrid Michaelson here.)

I've been fascinated by this song for weeks. From the first moment it came across my minivan's sound system, it was clear that this artist captured some great truth about the human experience in his music. I couldn't download it to my iPod fast enough, and I listened to it about a dozen times the first day I bought it. Evidently I wasn't the only one. Take a look at these stats, from the Wikipedia entry about the song. After tearing through the charts in Australia and New Zealand:

In the United States, it debuted at number 91 on the Billboard Hot 100 on 14 January 2012...[it] has received nine Platinum certifications in Australia, accounting for shipments exceeding 630,000 units. In New Zealand, it was certified four times Platinum. In the United Kingdom, it has sold over one million copies and is the best-selling single of the year so far. As of April 2012, it is the most downloaded song ever in Belgium, as well as being the third best-selling digital single in Germany with sales between 500,000 and 600,000 copies, and the most successful song in the history of the Dutch charts.

In the United States, the song has the fourth highest-selling single week ever with 542,000 digital downloads sold. On 2 May 2012 the song became the first to reach digital sales of at least 400,000 for three consecutive weeks, and the following week it became the first to simultaneously top the Alternative Songs, Hot Dance Club Songs and Dance Mix Show Airplay charts. It is also the longest-reigning number-one song on the Alternative Songs chart. As of June 2012, "Somebody That I Used to Know" has sold more than 5 million copies in the United States and 7 million copies worldwide, making it the biggest selling single of 2012 and one of the best-selling digital singles of all time, reaching No. 1 in more than 23 national charts and charting inside the top ten in more than 30 countries around the world.

In many ways, it's an unlikely candidate for a hit. It doesn't feature Justin Bieber, a famous rap artist wasn't the producer, and there's nary a guitar solo in the whole thing. The main musical instrument is a xylophone, for goodness' sake! And yet, as the sales prove, people cannot get enough of this song. Clearly, Gotye has tapped into something that resonates deeply in the modern psyche. As I continue to find myself entranced by the tune, and see its popularity growing each day, I keep wondering:

What is it that makes this song so hypnotic? What is it about the human experience that Gotye has tapped into that makes this song so addictive?

I'd been concocting various theories over the past few weeks during my laundry-folding and dish-washing philosophizing sessions, but my answer didn't gel until a recent trip to Ikea. I saw a woman across the aisle who looked like a girl I once knew in high school. I moved closer to see if it was her, and realized that I just didn't remember her face well enough to know. She walked off before I had a chance to ask if her name was Sarah (which likely saved us both from a really awkward moment), and as she walked away, I felt the pang of a certain kind of loss.

The friendship that Sarah and I had did not span a very long time. We got to know one another during our junior year, and we lost touch after graduation. This was 1995, the pre-Facebook era, when few people had cell phones or email, and thus these kinds of things happened fairly frequently: You'd lose touch with friends, even good friends, simply because the hassles of keeping in touch got in the way. But the short time Sarah and I had together was intense, and we shared experiences that I doubt either of us will ever forget. Her family was going through a crisis in those years, and I recall many moments sitting on her canopy bed with her, hugging, crying, and telling her it would be okay. I always felt like there was something special about those times, and knew it had a source beyond just typical teenage drama.

I couldn't have articulated it at the time, but what I sensed was communion. We humans are made for communion, for intimacy, for connection with God and others -- and when we experience it, we know we've had a brush with the eternal. Even though I was an atheist in those years, I never would have denied that something special -- sacred, even -- transpired between us in those moments, however brief they were. I knew that the bond we felt in those moments was meant to last, that in a perfect world, it would remain forever. One afternoon when we were sitting outside during lunch at school, we were having such a great time, just chatting and laughing, that I was overwhelmed with a yearning for our friendship to last forever -- I knew that that's the way it should be. But I was enough of a realist to know that not all high school friendships last, and it broke my heart to accept the fact that there was a real chance that we would lose touch one day; that, to her, I would be somebody whom she used to know.

And so as I watched the woman walk away at Ikea the other day, I could hear Somebody That I Used to Know in my head like a movie soundtrack. Though Gotye is specifically singing about a failed romance (and Bonnie Engstrom covers that angle here), the kind of loss that drives his musical masterpiece can happen in every kind of human relationship. Other songs may do a better job of conveying the pain of rage, or sorrow, or disappointment; but through both the words and the melody of his haunting tune, Gotye nails a particular kind of pain, one that is tragically common in modern life: The pain of lost communion.