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


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?



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