One of my many odd interests when it comes to music is one-hit wonders. I have long been intrigued by the phenomenon of a band that rises high in the charts only to never be able to duplicate that feat ever again. I am intrigued as to why that sort of thing happens, and what factors lead a band to become a one-hit wonder, or to be seen as such. Sometimes a hit is something so different from anything else the band or singer performed for the success to be lasting. Sometimes success broke a band up, or a fluke hit happened years after a band broke up. Other times a singer kept trying but was never able to get a second hit. At other times, an artist did have other hits, but none of them were recognized as much as the artist’s big hit, and so the band was saddled unjustly with the label as a one-hit wonder. At other times, still more confusingly, a band that has other hits accepts such a title because it gives them continued notoriety that a two-hit wonder or a three-hit wonder (or, in some cases, more than that) would not have.
I tend to have a very strict definition of a one-hit wonder. In my judgment, if a band has a second hit either on the American or English top 100 charts, or on a genre chart (like Modern Rock or Adult Contemporary or R&B or Country), they are not a one-hit wonder. A lot of bands that are considered one-hit wonders on account of having only one top-40 hit are not included under what I would see as a one-hit wonder. Let me provide a few examples. In 1995 and 1996, two of my favorite “one-hit wonders” released songs that were very popular. Donna Lewis had a #2 hit for 9 weeks with “I Love You Always Forever,” and never again returned to the Top 40. She did, however, have a #41 hit (and a #36 Adult Rock hit) with “Without Love,” as well as a #45 (and #2 Adult Contemporary hit) with “At The Beginning,” a duet with Richard Marx from the Anastasia soundtrack. In addition to this she had a #1 hit on the Dance charts with “Love Him .” This does not sound like a one-hit wonder to me, only someone who was a few more “units” sold or spins on the radio away from a successful major label career. The other example is that of Everything But The Girl. They had runaway success with their hit “Missing” in 1996, which hit #2, and have had a very long music career in England, including 11 top 40 hits on the UK Top 100 charts, and 4 #1 hits on the US Dance chart (and 3 top 40 hits on the US Adult Contemporary Chart) . Again, this was a band with a substantial career in electronic music and sophisticated adult contemporary music, not a novelty one-off act. The career of both groups deserves to be remembered as a whole context, not just the one song of their many worthy ones that happened to top the charts.
At other times, a band is a one-hit wonder because they deserved it. Such was the case with the group Zager & Evans, who inexplicably had a #1 hit with the awful “In The Year 2525 (Exordium And Terminus).” Not surprisingly, the band never again hit the Hot 100 again, only managing a couple of very minor hits in Australia . The bigger question is why the band had a hit at all, not why didn’t they have more hits. I have a similar feeling about Owl City. Their song “Fireflies” is a catchy tune, a light dance-pop number, but the one-man project appears to have no variety in their numbers, as two albums of major label songs have produced exactly the same product without a lot of variation or growth . Unsurprisingly, there have been no other hits, only repeats of what worked once in the hope that lightning will strike again. However, even Owl City, which seems very likely to me to be pegged as a one-hit wonder [Note: This was written before the release of the hit collaboration between Owl City and Carly Rae Jepsen, “Good Time,” which was a big enough it that Owl City should not be considered a “one hit wonder” at all unless he suffers the cruel fate of a Marika.], does not meet my stringent standards because of a #72 hit with “Vanilla Twilight.” Modest as that success is, it happens to be a second hit, however minor. That’s enough to escape the label of a one-hit wonder in my book.
There are a great many reasons why a band or singer could be a one-hit wonder. Sometimes a band or singer is simply a novelty act, even deliberately. Sometimes a project is simply a one-off project or a collection of studio artists, not intended to do more than make a single release that may stand the test of time but is not built to last. At other times, for bands like Semisonic, a record label may screw up earlier releases, have a couple of hits that manage to strike a chord with a wide audience (“Closing Time” and “Secret Smile”), and then quickly drop a band when sales decline in a second album. That fate happened with Donna Lewis as well. When there is no loyalty and no patience with a band, even a slight misstep, even on the part of a label if not the band, can lead to a closed window of opportunity for future hits.
In other cases, though, a band is called a one-hit wonder even though they had other big hits. Simple Minds scored a massive hit with “Don’t You Forget About Me,” and so they are considered a one hit wonder even though they had five top 40 hits, 2 top 5 hits, and were even more successful in England . Sometimes one hit is so big it overshadows a lengthy and successful career.
In the end, a lot of what makes a “one-hit wonder” in the eyes of the public, as well as the eyes of journalists, seems very arbitrary. What is the level that a song needs to achieve before it is counted as a hit. Does a band or singer with a clear “signature song” that is far more popular than the rest of their body of work deserve to get lumped in with a band that hit lightning in a bottle once (think “Butterfly” by Crazy Town) or that deliberately made a novelty record that sold so they could cash in once without looking for future success (like Napoleon XIV’s “They’re Coming To Take Me Away”), or a band whose career was cut short by tragedy (in the case of Blind Melon, the suicide of their lead singer shortly before the release of their lone hit, “No Rain”)? These situations would appear to deserve a more nuanced treatment rather than the label of one-hit wonder and then the dismissal of their work. For often when one looks deeper at one hit wonders, far more depth comes to light than is readily apparent at first.