SONG DUEL!: “Somebody That I Used to Know” by Gotye vs. “Somebody That I Used to Know” by Elliott Smith

Two songs enter. One song leaves. Well, OK, both leave. It’s not like we erase all traces of the losing song from the Internet, but we determine once and for all which tune has the right to their strikingly similar titles. This is SONG DUEL!

Man, this Gotye song is everywhere. I was at the KFC on Lake Park Avenue the other day; they had the radio tuned to a local “urban”-I-believe-is-the-polite-term-nowadays station, and it was playing some sort of remixed version with a hip-hop beat. It is seriously approaching “Rolling in the Deep” territory in terms of overexposure. But can its across-the-board acceptance compete with the deep respect that the late Elliott Smith‘s songwriting inspires? Let’s find out, shall we?

Elliott Smith vs. GoyteIn this corner: “Somebody That I Used to Know,” a two-minute kiss-off ballad from Smith’s 2000 album Figure 8, the last full-length recording released before his death. Never a particularly cheerful fellow, Smith supposedly stabbed himself twice in the heart on Oct. 21, 2003, in his Los Angeles home, although the conspiracy-friendly soil of the Internet has continued to sprout questions about whether he may have been murdered.

And in this corner: The strikingly similarly titled “Somebody That I Used to Know” by multi-instrumentalist Wouter (Wouter?) “Wally” de Backer, better known by the stage name Gotye. You know this song—and its skin-happy video. Don’t pretend that you don’t.


Precedence: Smith. Clearly Smith. It’s one thing for songs to share a title, but it’s another matter when they express the exact same sentiment. Did this Gotye fellow realize there was already a song out there called “Somebody That I Used to Know” about dismissively telling off a former lover? Maybe he should have Googled his idea first. He can think about that when he’s diving into his swimming pool filled with all the royalty money he’s making. Point: Smith.

Chart performance: Gotye. Clearly Gotye. The song quickly, surprisingly zoomed to the top of the charts in his native Australia and stayed there for eight weeks, a feat not managed by anyone since Savage Garden in 1996. It has subsequently gone to No. 1 in at least 15 other countries, including the U.K. It’s currently at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and seems poised to take the top spot any second now. The video has been viewed more than 158 million times on YouTube. Smith, on the other hand, never charted in his too-short life. Point: Gotye.

Critical mass: Critics have been fairly kind to Gotye (his album got a 7.7 from Pitchfork, whatever that tells you), but that’s nothing like the canonization that Smith has achieved. Even before his tragic death, Smith was considered one of the top songwriters in indie music, so he still would likely have turned up on a lot of “Best of the 2000s” lists. And let’s not forget, the man was nominated for an Oscar. Point: Smith.

Technique: Smith isn’t doing anything flashy, just strumming an acoustic guitar and singing a low, sad melody. Gotye, on the other hand, is all flash, mixing quirky samples with xylophone and belting out anguished vocals—and doing it well. Point: Gotye.

Bad-assity: As a rule, acoustic ballads aren’t terribly badass, but at least Smith isn’t pulling any punches in the lyrics. He is straight-up unapologetic, accusatory and bitter: “I had tender feelings that you made hard, but it’s your heart, not mine, that’s scarred.” Gotye, on the other hand, is a bit whiny, especially on the chorus: “You didn’t have to cut me off!” Suck it up and take a lesson from Elliott, dude—you should be writing her off. Point: Smith.

Sexitude: I guess that nudy video is kinda hot, if you’re into happy trails. Point: Gotye.

Redeeming social value: Like all his music, Smith’s song is a reminder that he should still be around, performing it live and writing more great tunes. The moral: No relationship is worth stabbing yourself over. Point: Smith.

The victor, by a score of 4-3 … ELLIOTT SMITH!


9 Replies to “SONG DUEL!: “Somebody That I Used to Know” by Gotye vs. “Somebody That I Used to Know” by Elliott Smith”

  1. Elliott Smith, one of the best ever..also, i’m glad that his music never was mainstream.. so just a bit of us can enjoy his art

  2. I take exception to the point of technique awarded to gotye. Elliot smith crafted and blended his lyrics and chord structure beautifully in somebody that i used to know. He actually plays his instrument while singing, and the melody is a haunting, fluid expression that perfectly matches the sentiment of the song. As far as i can tell this goaty piece of shit was recorded bit by bit, and in order to perform the song all this douche needs to do is press play on protools. The rhythm is detatched mechanical and jarring, he melody is kindergarten level bullshit, and anyone who likes this song for any reason is either trying to give their brain a break or is an idiot.

    1. I agree with KP. Elliott Smith’s technique heavily outweighs Goatee’s overdubs and bland parts. Smith’s song is 2 minutes of art, purpose, ingenuity, and sincerity, and it brings you somewhere else from start to finish; Goat Cheese’s song is a 2 second riff repeated 90 times, and a 4 second riff repeated 16 times, which leave you off right where you started, wishing you just bought a glockenspiel and a Police album instead!

      All of the above has a negligible amount of relevance to the song duel at hand, however. Good review, Bill!

        1. Woah there, have you even listened to any of the 9 years worth of music that Gotye has produced PRIOR to getting international fame with the song in question? Gotye has been making music just as long and just as beautifully has Smith.

          1. Cody, I have to admit my complete ignorance to anything else Gotye has done. You have inspired me to look into his older stuff. Congratulations.

  3. I disagree about technique too. Every song Elliott made was a crafted masterpiece that took years to make. He went through every chord, note and strum with a fine-toothed comb to make it perfect. Also, his mastery as a wordsmith is evident compared to Gotye’s clumsy, almost teen-speak, lyrics.
    Has it been mentioned anywhere that Gotye also has a song called “Easy Way Out” on the same album? Elliott had a song with that name on Figure 8 too

  4. I’m so glad I found this, I was going crazy since no one I know anymore actually listened to Elliott Smith unless I introduced them, so it felt like a big issue everyone overlooked.

    I don’t mind the song I just wish there was a call back to Smith’s song or some sort of post somewhere where he acknowledged it.

    Also I love the comments and agree with Smith’s song writing ability being rarely matched, let alone surpassed in this instance.

  5. I’m a big fan of both. An interesting thing here is that there is another song on Gotye’s “Making Mirrors” album that shares a title with an Elliott Smith song: “Easy Way Out.” In some way, I think both songs are Gotye’s tribute to Smith. And to the people calling Gotye a no-talent hack: This is a musician who refused to allow YouTube to place an ad on the video to his biggest hit (“Somebody That I Used to Know”), which now has over 2 billion views. Billboard estimated that he lost more than $10 million because of this. And since his last album came out in 2011, Gotye has been living quietly in Brooklyn, devoting himself to the preservation of an obscure antique electronic instrument, the Ondioline. Like Smith, he was conflicted about mainstream success. Just because he had a monster hit does not mean he was not in Smith’s league.

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