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MUSIC 100 & Single: Three Rules To Define The Term “One-Hit Wonder” In 2012

You could hear the sigh of relief among pop fans a couple of weeks ago, when Carly Rae Jepsen’s single with Owl City, “Good Time,” broke into the Top 10 on Billboard‘s Hot 100.

In his weekly chart roundup, veteran columnist Paul Grein remarked, “‘Good Time’ is an appropriately positive title for a song that guarantees that neither act can (fairly) be referred to as a one-hit wonder.” (Emphasis mine.)

Hang on a sec: The week before it leapt to No. 9 on the big chart, “Good Time” was sitting at No. 13. What if it had gone no higher than that? Would it have been fair to call Jepsen, famed for the 2012 Song Of The Summer “Call Me Maybe,” or Adam “Owl City” Young, owner of the 2009 bedroom-pop megahit “Fireflies,” one-hit wonders? Didn’t the rise of “Good Time” into the Top 20 already preclude that ignominy for both of them? Heck, didn’t the one-hit wonder tag go away the minute the song appeared on the Hot 100 two months ago?

I know what some of you are thinking, though: C’mon… of course she’s a one-hit wonder. She’s always gonna be Ms. “Call Me Maybe.”

I get it: Jepsen could score three more Top 10 hits, but that nine-week No. 1 megasmash so overshadows anything else she’s likely to record that, culturally, it will define her. A decade from now, if you’re in a bar doing pub trivia, they play a snippet of “Call Me Maybe” and ask you to name the “one-hit wonder” behind it, you’re probably going to just scribble the answer, not stand up to defend Jepsen’s honor. (As for Adam Young, any bets on whether Owl City makes the cut for 2022 pub trivia at all?)

Only a handful of pop-chart-related phrases have entered the universal lexicon. “Number one with a bullet” has infiltrated the brains of people who don’t even know who Casey Kasem is, or what “bullets” in Billboard are (briefly: little circles around numbers on the chart that show a record is gaining points). And of course, “Top 40” is universally understood, not just as a list of hit songs, but also a radio format and an entire strain of hegemonic pop.

But no chart-related phrase seems to have struck the general public’s fancy like “one-hit wonder.” It’s catchy—not unlike the songs it denotes—and it’s adaptable. We’ve seen it applied to politics and business.

But when “one-hit wonder” is meant to describe, y’know, music, it gets a little tooadaptable. Sure, there are undeniable, undisputed OHWs like Los Del Rio, the suited, middle-aged Spaniards behind “Macarena” who dominated the Hot 100 in 1996 and never graced an American chart again after 1997. But the term has also been used to describe a slew of acts who generated at least a pair of hits—or more.

Redoubtable pop critic Ann Powers recently got herself in about an hour’s worth of hot (well… lukewarm) water with Rick Springfield fans. She used the phrase “one-hit wonder” to describe Springfield in a passing reference at the start of an edition of her NPR Music column “The Record.” His fans—they are nothing if not devoted—descended upon Powers in the comment section, pointing out Rick’s career list of hits: 21 Hot 100 hits, including 17 that made the Top 40. Five of those hits made the Top 10, including “Don’t Talk to Strangers” (No. 2), “Love Somebody” (No. 5), “I’ve Done Everything for You” (No. 8) and “Affair of the Heart” (No. 9). These songs are all more than decent (I particularly like “I’ve Done Everything for You”).

But the song that undoubtedly stood out in Ann’s mind, the one that will make the opening paragraph of Springfield’s obituary someday, is his only No. 1 hit: 1981’s immortal “Jessie’s Girl.”

Rick Springfield, “Jessie’s Girl”

Her mistake was an honest one, and within minutes she had issued a mea culpa to Rick’s fans in the comments of the column and removed the offending phrase. But she can’t be the only person in America who associates Springfield with his culture-dominating smash—it was his only gold single, and his only hit to ride the charts more than half a year—and thinks “one-hit wonder,” in an affectionate sense, when she recalls his name.

This nomenclature issue isn’t going away. I would like to achieve détente between the general public’s definition of “one-hit wonder” and the chart geek’s. Can we come up with a workable definition that is fair to the artists in question, adheres to cultural perceptions, and doesn’t set Billboard-watchers’ teeth on edge?

I speak from personal experience: my molars take to grinding every time VH1, that list-loving TV channel, compiles a countdown of “Greatest One-Hit Wonders.” They’ve done it several times—most recently, offering countdowns of OHWs of the ’80s and ’90s. You’d expect lists compiled by a major media outlet possessed of at least a few researchers to have a solid definition of OHWdom. You’d be wrong.

Among the acts VH1 calls one-hit wonders are Norwegian pop kings a-ha, famed in America for the 1985 No. 1 “Take on Me” but also behind the No. 20 followup “The Sun Always Shines on TV”; reversible-pants aficionados Kris Kross, huge for 1992’s No. 1 “Jump” but with three (three!) followup Top 20 hits in later years; Men Without Hats, those Teutonic Canucks, beloved for 1983’s No. 3 “Safety Dance” but also beloved for 1987’s No. 20 “Pop Goes the World”; and shirt-challenged Gerardo, who took “Rico Suave” to No. 7 in 1990 but then, three months later, wound up just nine spots lower with “We Want the Funk.” Are any of these dudes’ followup hits memorable? Hardly. (I do kind of love “Sun” and “Pop”; and if you don’t know what to yell after the phrase Warm it up, Kris!… well, you weren’t alive in 1992.) But they were all legitimate radio hits.

And then there’s Robert van Winkle. Whatever you think of the erstwhile Vanilla Ice, the inclusion of “Ice Ice Baby” on VH1’s one-hit wonders list is perhaps the most egregious offense. In late 1990, just weeks after his Queen-and-Bowie-sampling smash topped the Hot 100, Ice was back with his brand-new invention: a cover of Wild Cherry’s 1976 hit “Play That Funky Music” that peaked at No. 4 and went gold. True, it was a godawful remake. (Who could forget its “Go, white boy, go, white boy, go” chant?) It’s legit to call Vanilla Ice a flash in the pan. But a one-hit wonder, after a No. 1 hit and a Top Five followup? Robbie deserves better than that.

If I’m going to take issue with VH1’s slippery OHW definition, we must define where the line is drawn. Excepting Vanilla Ice, none of the above acts broke into the Top 10 with a followup hit—only the Top 20. Does that count? How strict should we be?

Faith No More, “Falling To Pieces”

Take a look at this transcription of VH1’s first edition of its Greatest One-Hit Wonders list. VH1 compiled this list in 2002, and unlike their later ’80s and ’90s lists, this one wasn’t limited by decade—the oldest hit is ? and the Mysterians’ proto-garage 1966 classic “96 Tears,” and the newest is Baha Men’s 2000 brain fungus “Who Let the Dogs Out?”

I’m going to use this VH1 list as a reference-cum-strawman, because it’s fairly comprehensive (too comprehensive) and was promoted like mad; I’m pretty sure you can still catch it on the tube occasionally. It’s also a good argument-starter, because the producers clearly went with a loose, Potter Stewart-on-pornography definition: They think they know a one-hit wonder when they see it.

Out of these 100 records, if we go by the strictest definition of “one-hit wonder”—an artist who had one hit on Billboard‘s Hot 100 and then never appeared on the chart again—we’d have to eliminate 75% of the artists VH1 tapped. Seriously, only one-fourth of the list would qualify under this rule.

Even the most fleeting of novelty acts can usually manage a low-charting followup. Carl “Kung Fu Fighting” Douglas followed his deathless 1974 No. 1 smash with a No. 48 single called “Dance the Kung Fu.” Norm Greenbaum of “Spirit in the Sky” fame followed up his 1970 No. 3 hit with the No. 46 “Canned Ham.” Faith No More never came close to the Top 40 again after the No. 9 “Epic” in 1990, but their excellent followup single “Falling to Pieces” crept to No. 92, and their cover of the Commodores ballad “Easy” managed No. 58. Even those infernal Baha Man followed up “Who Let the Dogs Out?” (only a No. 40 hit, oddly) with 2001’s “You All Dat” at… woof! No. 94.

In case you’re curious, the 25 artists from the VH1 list who qualify as Pure One-Hit Wonders—one hit, then never seeing the inside of Hot 100 again—are: Biz Markie, Blind Melon, the Cardigans, Edwyn Collins, 4 Non-Blondes, the Heights, Los Del Rio, M, Bobby McFerrin, David Naughton, Nena, New Radicals, Gary Numan, OMC, Buster Poindexter, the Proclaimers, Soft Cell, Taco, Timbuk3, Tom Tom Club, T’Pau, the Vapors, the Verve, the Waitresses and the Weather Girls.

All right… so, clearly, allowing any measly Hot 100 hit to count against OHW status is way too low a bar. How about the Top 40—what if we require all artists looking to avoid the OHW fate to score a second hit that could have been counted down by Casey Kasem?

This rule makes VH1’s list look a lot less egregious: 74 of the 100 acts would qualify as one-hit wonders. All of the acts I mentioned above—the 25 “Pure” acts, plus Carl Douglas, Greenbaum, Faith No More and the Baha Men—would count as OHWs, as would another 45 artists.

That leaves 26 acts from the VH1 list, each with a second Top 40 hit, who would be well within their rights objecting to inclusion. In addition to the five artists I mentioned earlier—a-ha, Gerardo, Kris Kross, Men Without Hats and Vanilla Ice—the 21 others who managed a second Top 40 hit are: Aqua, Brownsville Station, Billy Ray Cyrus, EMF, Falco, Gary Glitter, Eddy Grant, Thelma Houston, C.W. McCall, Billy Paul, Stacey Q, ? and the Mysterians, Quiet Riot, Ratt, Rockwell, Michael Sembello, Spandau Ballet, Jermaine Stewart, Tommy Tutone, Andrea True Connection and Young MC.

Still, even the Top 40 rule is not entirely satisfying. Sure, Gary Glitter managed to follow his stomping anthem “Rock and Roll Part 2” (No. 7, 1972—and playing at a stadium somewhere on the planet as you read this) with the soundalike “I Didn’t Know I Loved You (Till I Saw You Rock and Roll)” (No. 35, 1972). But does Glitter deserve to escape OHW status on that technicality? Should we let Michael Sembello off the OHW hook just because he managed to follow the Flashdance killer jam “Maniac” with a rushed Top 40-scraping followup, “Automatic Man” (No. 34, 1983)? Surely these guys fit every sensible description of one-hit wonder.

There’s one last sticky wicket with the VH1 list—the acts who aren’t on it.

Like Jimi Hendrix. Yes, that Hendrix—were you aware the all-time guitar god appeared within the Top 40 of the Hot 100 exactly once? That would be his 1968 cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” (No. 20, 1968). It wasn’t for lack of trying; Hendrix released five other singles from 1967 to 1971 that made the big chart, but none got higher than the No. 58-ranked “Crosstown Traffic.”

What about the Grateful Dead? The Dead weren’t about the Top 40, maaaaan! Yeah, except over the years, about a half-dozen of their songs were released as vinyl 45s that qualified for the Hot 100 (somebody thought they had hit potential). None got higher (heh) on the chart than “Truckin’” at No. 64 in 1971—until 1987, when “Touch of Grey” reached No. 9, bringing in thousands of new Dead fans and pissing off thousands of old Deadheads.

So—why aren’t Hendrix and the Dead on the VH1 Greatest One-Hit Wonders list? Because that would be received by their fans as a huge insult. Here, the VH1 producers are caving into rockist gospel—and in a way, you can’t blame them. The furious viewer calls they’d have gotten if Jimi and Jerry had appeared on their OHW list would make the brickbats Ann Powers endured over her Rick Springfield dis look like love taps. Even a committed anti-rockist like me doesn’t think Hendrix or the Dead read as one-hitters.

With all this in mind, I’d like to propose the following three rules for one-hit wonders. These provisos aren’t perfect, but they are based on hard data—yet they find a middle ground between hidebound edicts and public perception.

Owl City & Carly Rae Jepsen, “Good Time”

OHW RULE 1: A second hit that makes the Top 10 of Billboard‘s Hot 100 instantly removes an artist from one-hit wonder status.

Call this the “Vanilla Ice rule.” When his awful “Play That Funky Music” cover broke into the winner’s circle 22 years ago, it saved Ice from OHW status. So did the Top 10 hits “Something So Strong” for Crowded House, “Someday” for Glass Tiger, “Wildside” for Marky Mark & the Funky Bunch, “Hole Hearted” for Extreme, “Real Real Real” for Jesus Jones and “Girl on TV” for LFO (yes, even them).

Or, to pick a more recent example, “Some Nights” by fun.—it just broke into the Top 10 last month and ensures “We Are Young” will never appear on a one-hit wonder countdown decades hence. Sure, fun. might turn out to be a flash in the pan—but they have escaped OHW status, unequivocally.

Okay, but wasn’t I saying a little while ago that a Top 20 or Top 40 hit should be good enough to eliminate OHW status? Yes—sometimes. That’s where Rule 2 comes in.

OHW RULE 2: An act that scores a second hit that makes the Top 40 on the Hot 100 shall not be considered a OHW, unless that second hit is scored within six months of the first hit and is never followed by another Top 40 hit.

Almost all hit acts, even fleeting ones, are given a honeymoon period where a second hit will be momentarily embraced by U.S. radio and the public. That doesn’t really mean the act has escaped the shadow of its one hit.

Let’s call this the “a-ha rule.” However much I like “The Sun Always Shines on TV,” it’s safe to say it never would have made the U.S. Top 40 in early 1986 if the world-beating “Take on Me” hadn’t topped the charts three months earlier. The same goes for Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus” followup, “Vienna Calling” (1986); Young MC’s “Bust a Move” followup, “Principal’s Office” (1989); Gerardo’s “Rico Suave” followup, “We Want the Funk” (1990); and EMF’s “Unbelievable” followup, “Lies” (1991). All made the U.S. Top 40 in the weeks immediately after their one big hit—then these acts never returned to the Hot 100’s upper reaches again. I would consider them all (yes, even a-ha, as massive as they are outside of the United States) one-hit wonders.

This rule I’m proposing is my biggest concession to the culture camp—those who feel that certain acts just feel like OHWs, chart data be damned. It’s hard for us chart geeks, wearing our Simpsons Comic Book Guy contempt, to let go of the idea that a hit is a hit, and a second chart hit means you’re no longer a OHW.

But an understanding of the deeper workings of the charts makes a rule like this logical. Radio and record buyers go on autopilot with an act after they have a big hit. A middling second hit doesn’t mean they’re permanently in love with Falco.

To pick a recent example, consider One Direction: their debut single and global smash “What Makes You Beautiful” reached No. 4 in America this past spring. But they’re still waiting for a true followup hit—second U.S. single “One Thing” crawled up to No. 39 in July. Sure, that makes it technically a Top 40 hit, but are One Direction more than a one-hit wonder in America? I’d argue they aren’t yet. Pretty much anything 1D released in the wake of their explosive debut would spend at least a week in the Top 40. They’ll need another Top 40 hit before crossing the threshold into established-and-undeniable territory.

But what about acts like Jimi Hendrix or the Dead who score one solitary Top 40 hit but just don’t read as OHWs? For that, we need one last rule.

OHW RULE 3: Any act that scores at least three Top 10 or platinum albums is removed from OHW consideration entirely.

This may seem like a hopeless sop to rockists, but it just makes sense—there are some acts whose popularity is reflected on the album chart more than the Hot 100.

Besides the two classic rockers mentioned above, consider Radiohead: just two of the band’s singles have made the U.S. Top 40. One of them shouldn’t even count—”Nude” (not exactly a Radiohead classic) spent a single week at No. 37 in 2008 thanks to a short-lived special promotion at iTunes. The other, more traditional Radiohead hit was 1993’s “Creep,” which reached No. 34 the old-fashioned way. Still, even before “Nude,” would anyone have considered Radiohead a OHW—in 1997, when OK Computer was released? Maybe. In 2000, when Kid A debuted at No. 1 on the album chart? Probably not. And surely not since then.

This rule wouldn’t even always apply to rock acts—one oft-ignored fact of the charts is that big teen-pop acts like Justin Bieber often sell as many albums as singles. Consider Miley Cyrus: Thanks to her huge Disney Channel fame as the character Hannah Montana, by early 2008 she had scored four Top 10, platinum-level albums before scoring even a second Top 40 hit on the Hot 100. Her first radio single, “See You Again,” crawled to No. 10 in mid-2007, and it wasn’t until the following spring that her second hit “7 Things” reached No. 9. Was Miley a OHW prior to that moment? With that many smash albums? Not by any rational standard.

Taken together, these three rules fail to grant Ann Powers the right to call Rick Springfield a one-hit wonder (sorry, Ann). But they do provide a more fluid, more defensible definition of the OHW term. Honestly, I think “flash in the pan” should be used more often.

So where do the OHW rules leave Carly Rae Jepsen and Owl City? Rule 3, regarding album sales, doesn’t apply to either, because they’re both so new—Young has one platinum disc (2009’s Ocean Eyes), and Jepsen hasn’t dropped her debut yet.

But under my first two rules, the performance of “Good Time” on the charts has had interesting effects. The minute the song reached the Top 40 back in July, Owl City had essentially escaped the curse—according to Rule 2, “Good Time” came so long after “Fireflies” that it could hardly be said to benefit from the coattails of his first chart-topping hit. (Honestly, he’s benefiting mostly from Jepsen’s coattails, but that’s immaterial.) But because the single was only Jepsen’s second single ever, it really couldn’t be regarded as ending her OHW curse until it crossed into the Top 10 in late August. Only then did she finally escape the curse.

Go ahead and send Carly Rae your best wishes for firmly establishing herself as a hitmaker in America. But I wouldn’t do the same for Gotye yet—his “Eyes Wide Open,” the followup to his No. 1 Smash We Needn’t Mention Again, only reached No. 96 on the charts. For you chart purists out there, I suppose that means he’s no longer a one-hit wonder. For the rest of us, this chart nerd included, the jury’s still out.

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