If you want to make it big in the music biz, having your song played on a popular reality TV competition is a good place to start. And if Christina Aguilera happens to hear it and wants to re-record a new version, well, that's even better.
Indie singer-songwriter Ian Axel released the first version of "Say Something" in February 2011. Then, after teaming up with Chad Vaccarino to form A Great Big World in 2012, the duo re-released Axel's somber, emotionally brutal piano ballad in September 2013. A week later, it was featured on Fox's So You Think You Can Dance. And that exposure led to an even bigger break. Some of Christina Aguilera's handlers heard the song, played it for her and, boom, another version was born—this time with one of the world's most famous pop divas singing harmony. Add in a high-profile performance of the tune on NBC's The Voice and, voilà, a group most people had never heard of before Thanksgiving is suddenly taking aim at the upper echelons of Billboard's Hot 100 singles charts.
The track features Axel on the main vocal and Aguilera adding a Simon & Garfunkel-esque harmony line. They plumb the depths of romantic and relational heartache: "Say something," Axel begins, begging his beloved to give him any sort of sign, any reason at all to not give up. Because he does already feel like "I'm giving up on you."
And so we're introduced to a man who admits he's finally forced to let go of a cherished relationship even as he simultaneously hints that he'd still do anything to make it work. "I'll be the one, if you want me to," he says. "Anywhere, I would've followed you."
Joined by Aguilera in the second verse, the pair unpacks more conflicting feelings and hard-learned love lessons: "And I am feeling so small/It was over my head/I know nothing at all." Then come admissions tinged again with both sadness and hope for a better outcome: "And I will stumble and fall/I'm still learning to love/Just starting to crawl."
In the end, however, there will be no reconciliation, no second chance in this relationship: "I'm sorry that I couldn't get to you/ … And I will swallow my pride/You're the one that I love/And I'm saying good-bye." The result is a mournful, melancholy tune that, thanks to Axel and Aguilera's hypnotically intertwined vocals, delivers an emotional wallop.
The video for the song is similarly understated … and walloping. Axel and Aguilera perform as the camera revolves through three stories illustrating the song's themes of separation and saying farewell. One is a romance between a young couple, both of whom, I should note, are partially unclothed and lying on a bed together … before she gets up and leaves. The second finds a young girl climbing alone off the top of her bed and hiding underneath it. The third pictures an elderly man kissing and cuddling with his unconscious wife in a hospital bed. Tears fill his eyes as he says good-bye for the very last time and walks into the shadows.
These spare narratives suggest a depth of abandonment and aloneness that plods perhaps even further into soul-rending loneliness than this achingly sad and quietly beautiful song already does on its own.