Somebody’s Song I Used to Know

The stellar success of Gotye’s Somebody that I Used to Know somehow irks me. I know I should be getting behind it. As an Aussie. As a supporter of independent music. As a hipster. (Well that one may be harder for me to pull off than the first two.)

I see its reverential treatment by the critics, its celebrated arrival at Number 1 on the US Billboard charts, the first Australian single to achieve that in a decade. I see the remixes, the remixes of remixes, and the YouTube cover versions.

Most of the YouTube covers, like the one from the band Walk Off the Earth, played by five people on one guitar and now at 100 million views on Youtube, are hits in their own right. You’d think these remixes and covers would soak up some of the public’s hunger for the song, yet the original clip still continues to grow in popularity, now verging on 200 million views.

Yep, it’s a phenomenon alright. So don’t I feel like a killjoy.

Sure I like it. Sure I admire it, but I can’t help thinking I’ve heard it before.

Indulge me. Take a listen to the Gotye song, particularly the intro. Now listen to XTC’s Senses Working Overtime from the Eighties, again from the beginning.

Do you hear it? Sure you do. Have another listen. I swear it’s similar.

I’ve wanted to point this out many times but I know nobody will listen. Meanwhile, the song has been picked up by the Glee franchise and given the auto-tune treatment, introducing Gotye’s plaintiff cry for an ex-lover’s recognition to another hundred million sets of adoring ears.

What about XTC’s cry for recognition, though? What about the Eighties?

This is not the first time I’ve been a pop hit pariah.

I once worked in an office with the coolest of Gen-Y hipsters. The fashion was terrifyingly competitive. High pressure hip.

I’m pretty sure I developed a back problem working there by sitting all day, uncomfortable in skinny-legged jeans. My chiropractor just shook his head when I told him I’d been wearing them to blend in. Then he shook my spine. Birds three streets over took flight at the sound of my middle aged vertebrae re-aligning.

The music that the hipsters played in that office was a daily death-match of discovery. It had to be new, preferably independent and of course original.

So when a hipster asked me one day if I’d heard the song Steady as She Goes by indie-darling Jack White’s side project The Raconteurs, I unfortunately answered, “Yes. It’s like Joe Jackson’s Is She Really Going Out with Him from the Eighties.”

Problem was, by the time I’d found the song on YouTube and played it to the hipsters, their eyes were as glazed over as the tray of Krispy Kreme donuts they were dining on.

I surmised too late that if you’re old enough to have heard something before, you’re probably also too old to comment about it.

They really didn’t want to hear about my vast knowledge of the Eighties. I had, inadvertently challenged the hipsters’ hold on the edge.

Being young is all about being on the cusp. The joy of discovering new stuff, shocking your parents with it, telling the outmoded generation they should move with the times and let go of their heyday.

So, what happens when the past is ahead of the future? Do you point it out?

You’ll learn that it can’t be done safely.

Even if someone in music gets hauled over some legal coals for infringing the copyright of someone else’s song, you should look surprised. (Although I still don’t think Men At Worked ripped off Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree.)

A friend sent me a link to a recent clip for Stonefield’s song Bad Reality. I didn’t send him Peaches and Iggy Pop’s song, Kick It, although I felt Iggy’s indie indignation.

This generation don’t want to hear that they’re not the latest and greatest. Like every generation, they want to feel original. They want to feel they’ve discovered new stuff. I was boring them with my knowledge.

I didn’t mean to. I felt like I was helping them avoid the embarrassment of not knowing. Knowledge is power, right? Well, only if you’re young enough to wield it.

What we’re talking about here is the martyr-like responsibility of every generation to fade graciously into the background.

I’m Gen-X. I can’t remember the Free Love generation protesting when I played my Violent Femmes albums with so much enthusiasm in 1984, even though The Easybeats had plundered that same primal garage guitar sound two decades before. How did they resist the urge?

Did my generational forebears have a bit more maturity than me? Did they care less that they were no longer on the edge? Maybe all the drugs really did mellow them. Maybe all that 60’s sexual revolutionizing wore them out and it was a relief to see us shoulder-pad the burden through the Eighties.

Or maybe like this generation, I listened but I didn’t hear.

In defense of Gotye I have read many an interview where he credits very clearly his own retro influences and describes in depth his process of fusing ideas.

So I’m not all that down on Gotye.

It’s not that the new generation of music artists are shamelessly selling their sound as new. I just wish the new generation of listeners wasn’t cluelessly buying it as new.

I know we probably did it too, but why does history repeat itself but also rewrite itself?

If somebody down at hipster central playing Gotye on high rotation could just once mention XTC and mean the band, not the drug, I’d be happy.

I’m not doing it though. Somebody who can still pull off that whole skinny-legged jeans look can tell them.

2 thoughts

  1. Yepp. Got presented with xtcs “senses working overtime” (on qobuz discovery weekly) which I obviously knew from the 80s and thought hmm that sounds familiar. Took half an hour of intense brain pain and finally placed it with “Somebody I used to know”. I love these kind of conundrums. Gotye did something different with it which also sounds good.

  2. The thing is, that very little of anything is truly original. Everything has been born of, or influenced by, something else before it. The funniest musical examples are of people trying to copy other songs, failing and coming up with something completely different and when they explain the influence, you think: really? I would never have guessed. As for the ignorance of the ‘new generation’ of listeners? Well, does it really matter? We can be safe in the knowledge that it ain’t like it used to was. : )

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