A few weeks ago on American Idol, judge/Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler mentioned that he thinks Gotye's smash hit "Somebody That I Used to Know" is changing music. We think it's hard to argue with him.
For the last ten years or so Australian singer Wouter De Backer has mostly produced work in obscurity, both under his stage name Gotye and as part of the band The Basics. He made a name for himself in a few places around the world, but as far as US popular consciousness went, he remained mostly unknown (save a few indie connoisseurs). But then a combination of hard work, positive critical buzz and some luck saw the lead single from his latest album catch on like almost no pop record has since "Hey Ya." This is "Somebody That I Used to Know," and this is almost without a doubt going to go down as the song of 2012. (The only real other contender right now is fun.'s "We Are Young.").
Somehow, this indie artist that most of you (this writer included) couldn't have named a year ago has taken over pop culture. How did that happen?! Well, in some ways the success of Gotye's single reflects the changing nature of fame. If you aren't at the level of mega-star like Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga, being famous just doesn't mean what it used to. There aren't really mid-level bands like Madness or Tonic that can be popular and sustain major tours/record sales without being the biggest thing in the world anymore. (If those references seem foreign or dated, well, exactly.) The Internet has changed everything about how music's created, distributed and consumed, which has led to a record industry that's simultaneously more democratic (almost anyone can record an album) and even tougher to crack (but who will hear it?). The levels of fame now seem to be: the Biggest Thing Ever (artists that can fill arenas), Kinda Known (artists that can fill clubs), and Totally Obscure (artists that might not even be able to fill a garage).
Gotye is an artist who transcends these barriers. For most of the Western pop world he was Totally Obscure, but through a song that has become the Biggest Thing Ever has worked his way up to Kinda Known (if not a little higher). It's hard to imagine someone like Gotye ever rivaling, say, Katy Perry for fame, but fate worked in his favor to guarantee that one of his creations has had a far greater cultural impact than "Last Friday Night" or whatever other nonsense Perry deigns to release.
So what does Steven Tyler means when he says Gotye's changing music? Well, it seems like he'll be the first—and for awhile likely the most important—tons and tons of business. It's not exactly the same thing as a one-hit wonder, which usually is a silly song critics hate but that occupies people's attention for just a minute. Basically EVERYBODY loves Gotye. Think about it like this: when was the last time a top 40 station played an artist that can still rightfully be called indie?
Obviously something in Gotye's song speaks to people. From a songwriting standpoint, it seems perfectly constructed... it's got a really catchy melody, very relatable lyrics and a nice quiet/loud dynamic between the verse and the chorus that really makes the song's hook pop. But, as good as it is, there are plenty of other artists out there making music that's just as potent but who might never be heard. What Gotye's doing, it seems, is showing that with the right combination of musical ability, critical praise and luck, truly deserving but less-known artists can make records that rival the biggest pop stars of the day.
Or maybe not. Maybe "Somebody That I Used to Know" will just go down as another flash in the pan like "Who Let the Dogs Out?" or... ugh... "The Reason." But doesn't that just sound wrong to you? Doesn't an artist like Gotye deserve a more dignified reception than a band named Hoobastank?
Yes, he does. And if Steven Tyler's right, he and many others like him will get just that.