On Defining One Hit Wonders

Those who read my blog are likely at least somewhat aware of my fondness for one-hit wonders [1].  What is it that makes a group a one-hit wonder, though?  As is often the case when it comes to defining group identities, the boundaries are a bit indistinct.  Michael Buble has, to date, only one Top 40 hit, but he is such a known presence on the Adult Contemporary charts that it doesn’t feel really right considering him to be a one-hit wonder.  Some artists, like Martika, are considered to be one-hit wonders despite having multiple top 40 hits, because their signature song so outweighs any other song they ever released to more modest success.  Other acts may be one-hit wonders in the United States, but were quite popular in other countries–like the Corrs or even Living In A Box.  Figuring out definitions is a vexing and unpleasant task, made all the more vexing by the fact that there is a certain cachet in being a one hit wonder that encourages those with two or three hits to be considered as one-hit wonders under the Martika rule.

Various people have been able to make a living as commentators on those musical acts that only had one hit.  I listen to a Spotify podcast from time to time that looks at the albums that the sole hits of one-hit wonders came on and often has snarky things to say about the quality of the music, but they admit that sometimes they deal with bands or musicians that technically have more than one hit.  Todd In The Shadows is perhaps the most amusing of the people I have ever seen that deals with one-hit wonders, and he is pretty honest about the tensions and borderline cases that make it hard to demarcate who was a one-hit wonder and who was not.  Men Without Hats is considered to be a one-hit wonder for “The Safety Dance,” but “Pop Goes The World” was a top 20 hit.  Hanson is best known for “MMMBop,” but “I Will Come To You” was a top 20 hit and “This Time Around” was not far off of that.  Even Snow, most famous for “Informer” and Jim Carrey’s spoof “Imposter” had another song off of his debut album that hit close to the top 20 with “Girl I’ve Been Hurt.”

When faced with this sort of demarcation problem, one has a few questions to ask when it comes to the definition of one-hit wonder.  Do we only count the charts in the United States?  Do we only count the Billboard Hot 100 chart, or do we count component charts that might demonstrate an act has staying power if not crossover appeal like the Rock, Country, Rap, Adult Contemporary, or Alternative charts?  If we only count the pop charts, does an act need to have more than one top 40, more than one top 20, more than one top 10, or more than one song on a year-end top 100 chart?  In all of these matters there are judgment calls.  For example, the Grateful Dead only had one top 10 hit with “A Touch Of Gray,” but the band is legendary for its live concerts.  Can such an act be a one-hit wonder?  By its definition, a one-hit wonder has the air of the transitory about it, a fleeting moment in the popular consciousness before fading away into obscurity.  Bands that have massive fan bases and perform hundreds of a times a year to widespread acclaim are not the sort of material of one hit wonderdom.

It is perhaps unsurprising that I have participated in friendly online debates over the definition of a one hit wonder.  There are some people who look askance at anyone who says that an act avoids one hit wonder status by having multiple top 40 hits, to which I chimed in that it is important not to consider anyone with a signature song as being a one-hit wonder.  In today’s age of streaming, it is rare for someone to be popular enough to have one hit without being popular enough to have more than one, especially if their album has enough streaming to get most or all of its tracks on the Billboard charts.  The singer Dua Lipa clearly has a signature song with “New Rules,” and likely will present an interesting challenge with the question of multiple hits.  It is possible that both “IDGAF” and “One Kiss,” neither of which broke the top 20, and one of which did not even hit the top 40, will be on the year end charts for 2018, in which case it is unlikely that Dua Lipa should be considered as a one-hit wonder even if she never has a hit nearly as big as her debut single, simply because her follow up singles had enough staying power that it doesn’t matter.  Likewise, Garth Brooks shouldn’t be considered a one-hit wonder because “Lost In You” from the Chris Gaines Project has been the only one of his top 40 hits.  As is the case in so much of life, judgment is required, as there are no easy lines that separate an act that had staying power in a genre but only fleeting pop success from a true flash in the pan, or from an act that had several flashes in the pan even if one shined the brightest.  Judgments must be made on a case by case basis, with room for reasonable disagreement on all sides.

[1] See, for example:







About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in History, Music History, Musings and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to On Defining One Hit Wonders

  1. Pingback: Half-Life | Edge Induced Cohesion

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