That song. It is an auditory virus. A sonic(k) sickness. It keeps playing in the mind even when the mind goes into a soundproof chamber and shoves the mind's fingers into the mind's ears and climbs under the mind's covers and tries, tries, to replace it with any other melody that ever existed. This year's viral song is "Somebody That I Used to Know," written and recorded in 2011 in Australia by Belgian Australian singer-songwriter Gotye* (and featuring New Zealand female vocalist Kimbra) and unleashed upon the United States at the dawn of 2012.
To get to the bottom of why this song is so damnably catchy, we contacted an expert in 20th-century music and American music: Larry Starr has been teaching musicology at the University of Washington since 1977. We asked him to listen and dissect. We began our conversation by e-mail, then switched to phone.
Larry Starr: Dear Jen, I am going to disappoint you severely, I fear. If there is anything at all noteworthy about this song from a musical point of view, it certainly escapes me. I found it completely predictable from the first few seconds, and not at all memorable. It's "cute" and "unobjectionable." The melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and formal aspects are all negligible, and not at all original. The singing is impersonal and utterly undistinguished.
Jen Graves: Dear Larry, no, this is great. Maybe what makes it boring is what makes it interesting for our purposes. Why is it predictable to you?
LS (now by phone): I had a very, very smart student who once said, "If you look at anything long enough, it can become interesting." [Laughs] But I also do not want to be one of these people who just sets myself up as someone who rejects all pop music. Still... okay. It's based on a rhythmic ostinato that repeats over and over.
JG: Ostinato [like the word "obstinate" and in fact taken from the Italian word for "stubborn"] being a repeated pattern underpinning a piece of music, as in Ravel's Bolero.
LS: Right. This one is a flat 7-1, which is the form of blues-related ostinatos all the way back in the history of blues. So it's a cliché. It's the same one as in "Green Onions" by Booker T. & the M.G.s, and the opening of Ray Charles's "What'd I Say," but they use it much more interestingly.
JG: The sample is taken from Luiz Bonfá's 1967 song "Seville" on his record Luiz Bonfá Plays Great Songs. Can you explain what "flat 7-1" means?
LS: It's a flat seventh scale degree, and 1 is the tonic, or the keynote. So if the piece were in C—and I don't have perfect pitch, so I don't know what key it's in [later research reveals D minor]—the emphasis would be from C to B-flat and back up to C.
It's really important to note that there is no connection between what is aesthetically good or critically good and popular, and I mean that literally: If a song is popular, that does not mean it's good, and it does not mean it's bad. I think people who try to make a connection are doing wishful thinking.
JG: So you didn't fall victim to "Somebody That I Used to Know." What are songs you do think are insanely catchy?
LS: "Good Vibrations" by the Beach Boys and "Eleanor Rigby" by the Beatles are two extraordinarily sophisticated songs that happen to be catchy. When I heard the first 10 seconds of this [Gotye] song, I essentially knew what was going to happen and there were no surprises. These other songs have surprises, but the songs stick. In "Eleanor Rigby," it begins in a chord that's not the tonic: E minor is the central chord of the piece, but it starts on C major. There's an intro, then the verses/choruses, then the intro comes back. The most amazing thing is that the intro is sung in counterpoint as a concluding gesture, making the end a culmination rather than just a repetition.
JG: It's true that I can't remember how that Gotye song ends. I have no memory of its ending. In my mind, it goes on and on in the same way forever. You also said Gotye's singing was affectless.
LS: Yes. The singer sings very much the same all the way through except for it gets louder. Affectless singing is very popular these days, and I don't know why.
JG: To me it sounds like Sting. He's kind of throwing his voice but not in a way that's emotional or that suggests he's losing control at all; it's stone-faced. What is that tinkling instrument? Is it just a xylophone?
LS: Yes. Or it has the feeling of a high mallet instrument, like a xylophone. But it could be synthesized.
JG: What about the lyrics? At first, you think, "This poor guy. He's so sad. She just left him. She was so cold." But then when she starts singing, you realize he was a jerk. He was hung up on somebody that he used to know. Whiner!
LS: If you want to hear what somebody else can do with the same material, look at Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right."
JG: Thanks for enduring this song, Larry.
LS: I listened to it twice!
JG: You are the best.
*The man's real name is Wouter De Backer. Wikipedia says, "The name 'Gotye'—goatee-yay (!)—is derived from 'Gauthier,' the French equivalent of 'Walter' or 'Wouter.'" All right, then.