The Dark Evolutionary Secrets of 'Somebody That I Used to Know'

What thrilled me is that since I heard that song, I've felt it embodied a rare quality often sought but seldom truly achieved in art, a quality with roots that are embedded firmly in our evolutionary soil.
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I'm thrilled to see that Somebody That I Used to Know has hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100. It's been more than a decade since any Australian act has hit the top in the U.S.A., so Aussie newspapers are all excited again about Gotye's duet with the Kiwi Kimbra.

It's no surprise, really, that they topped the Hot 100. It's a great song that has peaked in 17 countries over the last year or so. But a cover version on Glee -- now the standard vehicle for chart success -- finally pushed Somebody over the top in America.

What thrilled me is that since I heard that song, I've felt it embodied a rare quality often sought but seldom truly achieved in art, a quality with roots that are embedded firmly in our evolutionary soil.

Forget everything you've heard about "survival of the fittest." In the game of evolution it's reproduction that really counts. Every person alive today can trace their descent through a massive branching tree of evolutionary success stories: people who managed to survive to adulthood and find at least one other person with whom they had sex and reared a child. In every generation your successful ancestors lived and worked alongside individuals who never managed to leave any descendants.

With that in mind, it becomes almost obvious that any traits that disposed our ancestors to catching the attention of the opposite sex, fathoming the mind of potential mates, and persuading them to hop in the sack would have been passed on, at the expense of the attributes shared by those contemporaries too unlucky or too lackluster to attract a mate.

Which is where music comes in. In my recent book, Sex, Genes & Rock 'n' Roll: How Evolution Has Shaped the Modern World (University of New Hampshire Press), I make the argument that music is "one of the living world's greatest sexual displays." This controversial idea goes all the way back to Charles Darwin, and it was recently debated by Gary Marcus and Geoffrey Miller in the pages of The Atlantic.

Great musicians have enjoyed prolific sex lives ever since the first hominids found they could sing and bang sticks together. It was certainly true in Mozart's day, and it probably reached its peak in the rock-'n'-roll era. Just read Keith Richards' or Gene Simmons' biography if you need it explained to you.

But we mere mortals who can't make music to save ourselves also depend on the music made by others when we court, fall in love, and have sex. Try to name a couple whose relationship wasn't kindled by a DJ, a band, a special song, or a mixed tape (Google "mixed tape," youngsters). In music we discover ourselves, how to negotiate sex, how to recognise love, and how to stay sane when that love isn't requited.

So much music, even great music, navigates this complex, sex-soaked maelstrom from only a masculine or a feminine point of view. That's why folks who love Mariah Carey and folks who rock out to AC/DC find that they have absolutely noting in common. Nothing wrong with that.

But the very best music explores sex and love in ways that appeal to both men and women. In my book I argue that they often do so by revealing to "both men and women thrilling insights into the convoluted minds of the other sex." Musicians who accomplish this often do so by articulating complicated emotions or interesting sexual politics.

The greatest songs about love are much more insightful than the saccharine-coated warbles of the diva du jour or the one-dimensional power ballads of the lastest rockers. Think, instead, about The Police's "Every Breath You Take," REM's "The One I Love" or U2's "One." The bands that can conjure the dark tension behind desire and rejection achieve something truly special.

And that's what makes Somebody That I Used to Know so delectably powerful. The tale of love lost and power roles subverted resonates with anyone who has ever been rejected. That Glee made such a compelling cover with two male voices makes the sexual politics ever more intriguing.

Which songs or pieces of music best capture the tension between love and rejection for you?

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