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?
In 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!