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

Apr 13th, 2009 // 29 Comments

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]

  1. How do I say this ... THROWDINI!

    novelty songs or covers as a way of starting lucrative careers, as Weezer and Limp Bizkit both did.

    I’d add Beck and Radiohead to this list. Both are (obviously) very talented and well-respected, but I really believe that they would have entirely different careers if they weren’t jump started by their annoyingly self-loathing first singles.

  2. Mike Barthel

    @How do I say this … THROWDINI!: ha, I was going to mention Radiohead but figured that would just be comment bait. Definitely true about Beck, too.

  3. Anonymous

    i like soulja boy a lot as an artist, and on one hand i’m happy that the people who see him as a joke/novelty artist can’t call him a one hit wonder anymore but on the other it’s kind of disappointing that his second hit was churned directly out of the jim jonsin ringtone factory

  4. Anonymous

    which is why i really hope that “turn my swag on” sneaks into the top 30 or 20 somehow

  5. Michaelangelo Matos

    Weezer has non-novelty songs?

  6. dyfl

    I also think there’s a certain amount of the airbrushing of collective memory at work here. Many 80s “one-hit wonders,” for example, had reasonably solid follow-up hits, but as a culture we’ve only decided to really “remember” (through the medium of listicles and clips shows) one of them.

    I’m thinking Soulja Boy is going to be a prime example of that phenomenon; the chart performance of his later singles is irrelevant, he’ll always be the “Crank That” guy in the way that, say, OMD are always the “If You Leave” guys to everybody except rock critics who love DAZZLE SHIPS or whatevs.

  7. Kurt's Krap

    @dyfl:

    Absolutely correct…back in the 80s many acts now considered one hit wonders had a half-dozen or more top 40 hits. Naked Eyes, Glass Tiger and many of the hair metal bands all charted well many times, yet all are remembered for that one big hit.

  8. Kurt's Krap

    @dyfl:

    Absolutely correct…back in the 80s many acts now considered one hit wonders had a half-dozen or more top 40 hits. Naked Eyes, Glass Tiger and many of the hair metal bands all charted well many times, yet all are remembered for that one big hit.

  9. Kurt's Krap

    @dyfl:

    Absolutely correct…back in the 80s many acts now considered one hit wonders had a half-dozen or more top 40 hits. Naked Eyes, Glass Tiger and many of the hair metal bands all charted well many times, yet all are remembered for that one big hit.

  10. Kurt's Krap

    @dyfl:

    Absolutely correct…back in the 80s many acts now considered one hit wonders had a half-dozen or more top 40 hits. Naked Eyes, Glass Tiger and many of the hair metal bands all charted well many times, yet all are remembered for that one big hit.

  11. Kurt's Krap

    @dyfl:

    Absolutely correct…back in the 80s many acts now considered one hit wonders had a half-dozen or more top 40 hits. Naked Eyes, Glass Tiger and many of the hair metal bands all charted well many times, yet all are remembered for that one big hit.

  12. Anonymous

    @Michaelangelo Matos:

    Only for a very brief period, unfortunately.

  13. Lucas Jensen

    @How do I say this … THROWDINI!: Throw the Flaming Lips in there, too.

    @dyfl: I absolutely agree about this. I see bands like Modern English (who were on 4AD!) lumped in with one-hit wonders and it burns me up because the suggestion is that “one-hit wonder” means “one good song,” and that’s just not the case. And many bands had follow-up singles that charted in the 20s or something and are now forgotten, but still qualify as hits. Plus, plenty of UK bands have tons of hits over there and only one or two here (and vice versa). Hell, ABBA only had two top ten hits in the US.

  14. The Illiterate

    @dyfl: There’s definitely airbrushing. I remember reading an article that referred to Pet Shop Boys as one hit wonders, even though they’ve had four or five top ten records (in the US, that is; they had a lot more than that in the UK). But in the mainstream, “West End Girls” is all anybody remembers.

  15. Al Shipley

    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.

    This is also true of Rihanna and “S.O.S.” right down to the gaudy ’80s sample. Def Jam wanted Christina Milian to record it and she wouldn’t, so Rihanna got the song and it made her a two hit wonder and got her on her way to superstardom, while Milian flopped with another song and got dropped.

  16. Anonymous

    I don’t like one-hit-wonders because I will only listen to a record if it is an unrehearsed and uncalculated outpouring of visceral emotion and energy. Also, it must be made by a person with a proven track record of quality work. :P

  17. ReverendDrGladhands

    So many of VH1′s “one hit wonders” actually have graet careers. De La Soul have had more longevity, and a more committed fanbase than almost any other hip-hop act, yet Me, Myself and I remains their lone hit. Hell, DEVO only has one hit.

  18. Anonymous

    A question for the chart enthusiasts here: the VH1 countdown got me to thinking about how some of the groups that I enjoy, like Soft Cell and OMD, are one hit wonders in America despite having relative success in the UK. What I want to know is are there any telling examples of the opposite– American acts that are well known Stateside but only known for one track across the pond?

  19. Lucas Jensen

    @jetfan: You are totally right! Apparently I don’t know how to read a chart.

  20. Lucas Jensen

    @PlunderingDesire: I was thinking the same thing! I feel like it would have to be someone really American like Seger or some country star, but I’m probably way off.

  21. bcapirigi

    Dead Or Alive most certainly had two big hits in the US. And Modern English didn’t really have any. (I Melt With You missed the top 40 altogether when it was new.)

    There have been lots this decade, though the R&B divas have more than most. (Sunshine Anderson, Nivea, Tweet, Shareefa and Lumidee being maybe my favorites. I actually remember–and love–Blu Cantrell’s second hit but I’m not sure if that’s just because she’s local.)

  22. dyfl

    Sorry, just have to chime in to say how much I like the idea of Katy Perry, with two big hits, as being the new Dead Or Alive. I hope she grows up to look exactly like Pete Burns.

  23. KikoJones

    I dunno but I think there will be more “one-hit wonders”–as in artists that have one popular song and disappear, never to be heard from again–than ever before. Some novelty nonsense that goes viral, becomes the next “Macarena” and then poof…it’s gone.

  24. heyzeus

    The VH1 special at least noted (sometimes) the fact that bands like Madness only had one charting hit in the U.S. but many hits in the UK.

  25. jetfan

    @Lucas Jensen:

    Actually ABBA had 4 Top Ten Hits In The US.
    Waterloo, Dancing Queen, Take A Chance On Me and Winner Takes It All.

  26. anumberofnames

    I want to mention consumers’ collective embarrassment, brought on by constant shaming from VH1′s and list magazines’ perennial obsession with one-hit wonders, in which music writers seem to ask consumers, “What in god’s name were you thinking when you swooned over [insert one-hit wonder here]???!!!”

    I think the listening public has adopted an attitude to the effect of, “Well, fool me can’t get fooled again! Maybe Vanilla Ice and Milli Vanilli were able to pull the wool over people’s eyes 20 years ago, but we are much smarter now and we buy things that we actually like.”

    Also, I think because people have come to view iPods as extensions of their egos, they see the iPod as something they don’t want to sully with modern one-hit-wonder trash (old one-hit wonders are fine), so there’s an emotional/economic incentive for the listener to ensure that performers have at least two hits.

  27. DocStrange

    @heyzeus: Yeah, at least they mentioned Madness’ gigantic success in every country in the world except for the US. However, they forgot to mention that “It Must Be Love” also hit the US Top 40.

    And WTF was XTC doing in this list? “Dear God” was never a top

  28. DocStrange

    @heyzeus: Yeah, at least they mentioned Madness’ gigantic success in every country in the world except for the US. However, they forgot to mention that “It Must Be Love” also hit the US Top 40.

    And WTF was XTC doing in that list? “Dear God” was never a top 40 hit the US. The only Billboard Hot 100 single the band ever had was “The Mayor of Simpleton”, a #72 hit in 1989. “Dear God” was one of the band’s pre-Modern Rock Tracks charting songs on what was then called the Album Rock Tracks chart (now Mainstream Rock Tracks), where “Generals and Majors” and “Senses Working Overtime” also charted before “King for a Day”, “Mayor of Simpleton” and “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead” became early Modern Rock Tracks hits.

    They also made The Church sound like one of the most influential bands of the 80′s on that show (yes, “Under the Milky Way” was an excellent song, but its not like it singlehandedly created alternative rock)

    @How do I say this … THROWDINI!: Didn’t you remember last year when Radiohead hit the Top 40 with “Nude”? they’re not a one-hit wonder (in the loosest sense of that term) anymore.

  29. DocStrange

    @DocStrange: Oops. Double post caused by stupid Firefox.

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