Does The Dearth Of One-Hit Wonders Mean We’ve Hit Rock Bottom?

Yesterday I was half-watching VH1’s countdown of ’80s one-hit wonders (because there is nothing on TV on Sunday afternoons except America’s Next Top Model marathons and you can only watch those so many weekends in a row), and it got me thinking. Are there less one-hit wonders than there used to be? Certainly they’re still around, as there always are and always will be: neither Mims nor the Shop Boyz went anywhere after their massive hits (“This Is Why I’m Hot” and “Party Like a Rockstar,” in case you forgot, like I did). But a lot of acts that seem like one-hit wonders have had successful follow-ups. Soulja Boy, seemingly the one-hittiest of wonders, is doing real well with “Kiss Me Thru The Phone,” Flo Rida managed to squeeze out a follow-up hit, and the Pussycat Dolls seem to have an actual career. All anecdotal evidence, of course, but compared to the avalanche of choreographers, celebrity siblings, soundtrack composers, and English cabaret singers who managed to get a hit in the ’80s, it seems positively healthy. But why is it happening?

Well, in no small part it’s because the biz is in a much different state. Two decades ago, blockbuster acts were the main source of revenue, and they were like giant industrial combines, slowly but steadily churning out product of reasonable quality to be consumed slowly but on a regular basis by a broad swath of America. The one-hit-wonders tended to be scrappy upstarts who had somehow or other found this one song that was undeniable, and so the industry was happy to make a mint off their 15 minutes and send them on their way. In the ’90s, acts seemed to upend this formula somewhat as the certainties started to wear away, using novelty songs or covers as a way of starting lucrative careers, as Weezer and Limp Bizkit both did.

But in the current moment, the only remaining combines are the ones that started rumbling in the ’80s and ’90s (and Coldplay). There are few enough blockbuster acts left that even these seem somewhat perilous; Coldplay pushes back their release and their label’s stock drops, because there’s nothing else if they drop the ball. And so labels are now turning to anyone that can sell a pop hit with their talent, charisma, appearance, and/or ability to market themselves, which means they’re much more willing to develop the brands of artists that might have been one-hit wonders before. Thus, surefire hits like “Right Round” are given to second-album flashes in the pan like Flo Rida because there’s really no other good option. It helps too that almost all of their acts are deliberately manufactured in one way or another now, and while this may seem inauthentic, it does allow artists to be manipulated much more easily and directly towards approaches that will move product, even if they won’t be particularly timeless.

Depressing though this may all seem, in our current climate of lowered expectations, small stakes, and fractured markets, it might actually be a good sign. Critics have long charged that majors labels try to do too much, signing small acts that they then ignore while treating legitimate artists like pop products. The fact that labels have been able to get a string of hits out of acts like these—albeit with smaller sales and less impact than they would have had 20 years ago, and while still mistreating and mismanaging a series of female R&B singers, among others—indicates that the long-predicted fracture of the system may be reaching a kind of stasis. The big indie labels have grabbed the big indie acts; the bands that don’t need label support to sustain themselves are off on their own; and genre-specific labels are doing a regular turnover to their target audience. The majors are left doing what folks have always said they do best: finding and selling big, mainstream pop music.

This certainly violates the Ahmet Ertegun kinda image major label folks have of themselves as inheritors of the tradition of Aretha, Jagger, and Bruce. But it seems to be working. Majors are now able to wait until an act builds up enough of a fanbase on their own that launching them is a relatively risk-free affair, while devoting the kind of resources that make an appealing artist ubiquitous. The system is far from perfect, there are still paroxysms of layoffs, and none of this is to say they are actually profitable necessarily. But purely in terms of selling music, things may have started to work.

100 Greatest One Hit Wonders of the 80s [VH1]