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


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.

Read more:
Carly Rae Jepsen: Crush Patrol
100 & Single: "Call Me Maybe," Justin Bieber, And Teenpop Idols' Ongoing Love-Hate Relationship With Radio
How The Internet Is Going To Kill "Call Me Maybe"
100 & Single: fun., Gotye, Carly Rae Jepsen, And The Era Of The Snowball Smash
More by Chris Molanphy

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27 comments
ryanjstall
ryanjstall

According to your rules PSY isn't a one-hit-wonder. I wonder what the people on here have to say about that.

couchbaron
couchbaron

@IAmBlankenship The part about The Sun Always Shines On TV makes me sad. :(

countthispenny
countthispenny

@IAmBlankenship I find you using 'prissy' as a conditional descriptor to be weirdly hot. Welcome home, by the way!

lacunae
lacunae

Personally I think rule 1 is a bit too strict -- especially if you are allowing that it only takes a top40 song to become a OHW.  Perhaps make it so the a follow-up Top-20 negates OHW status?  

 

Actually should probably be Top-20 or exceeds previous hit (if the previous hit charted in the 21-40 range)

 

Arguably 6 months is a pretty big window, tho since you seemed to be specifically trying to write the rule to include a-ha on your OHW list, I guess it had to be that long.

 

I do often laugh at some of the OHW lists people come up with tho.  Have seen a few that included artists with multiple top10 hits (and even multiple #1's)

woodshedshooter
woodshedshooter

@Soundcheck @cmolanphy Yes! @thefratellis2 are so talented and have so many great songs that never made it on an album.Check them out !

Facebones
Facebones

I always hate Bobby McFerrin being referred to as a OHW. He's been an internationally renowned jazz artist for over 3 decades and "Don't Worry Be Happy" was almost an accidental hit. I'm sure he's not complaining about the royalties, but it's not at all typical of his music.

gynnady
gynnady

for some of us it's the lack of popchart action that makes an artist attractive even if he or she can be classified a OHW:  besides Jimi and the Dead, Janis Joplin, Lou Reed, the Mekons, the Sex Pistols, Laurie Anderson, Patti Smith and dozens of others have legions of loyalists for whom the OHW status is not only senseless but kind of a badge of honor.

Adam
Adam

Mostly, "one-hit wonder" refers to an artist or band who is defined exclusively by a single song. Vanilla Ice may have had another massive hit, but "Ice, Ice Baby" is the one and only thing the culture associates with him. I'm assuming that's what Powers was thinking re Springfield. Whether or not he had other strong selling singles, to the culture at large he's simply the guy who sang "Jesse's Girl."

Harry_Knutz
Harry_Knutz

1 and only Top 40 hit on the Top 100 constitutes a One Hit Wonder. Period.

VH1 is trying to re-write history to sell more advertising and skinny jeans..

mrsheperd
mrsheperd

We need a new designation. 'Top 100 Here Today, Gone Tomorrow's of (Fill In The Blank).'

It's less mocking than flash in the pan but... These artists were like comets. By the time some noticed them they were nearly burned out. 

CesarPelli
CesarPelli

"<i>Defend her honor?</i>" You social media drones sure do take ephemera seriously.

Paul_Cantor
Paul_Cantor

too much chart analysis when it comes to declaring acts one hit wonders. That sort of thing fails to take into account the inner workings of the record business and how it pertains to chart positioning, radio and things of that nature.

 

Yea sure, acts have second and third records that break into the top 10. Does anyone remember them though? Are they culturally significant in any way (good or bad)? There are plenty of acts who have their record driven up the charts in the lead-up to their album drop, then their records fall from the chart. 

 

Also, if you're going to use Hot 100 charts as your only barometer of a hit, you're sorely limiting things. Think of how much R&B and hip-hop, for example doesn't make it onto Top 40 radio. There are one hit wonders everywhere, not just in pop music.

 

Ultimately, one hit wonder status is a combination of looking at where an artist's record charted and how an artist is remembered. Sure, fans of a specific artist will argue with you until they're blue in the face about every random song an act had, but if the mass of music fans outside of that acts specific fan base only remember said artist for one record or another-- and it was a big hit-- they're bordering on one hit wonder status.

kicking222
kicking222

Why is it that an act needs only one other top-40 hit more than six months after the first, but THREE platinum albums? Isn't a second platinum album considerably harder to achieve than a second top-40 hit (especially considering almost nobody puts out two albums within six months of each other)? I think- unless somebody can point out examples of acts with two platinum albums who are still almost indisputably one-hit wonders- two is a sufficiently difficult proposition that it should denote sustained popularity and remove the artist from OHW consideration.

 

With that said, this was an excellent read and a thorough breakdown of both what makes a one-hit wonder and what people perceive as making one. My minor gripe in no way detracts from the strength of the article.

klynbaker
klynbaker

@ryanjstall Three top forty hits does not a one-hit wonder make.
 Please note that I didn't see your comment until July 4.

IAmBlankenship
IAmBlankenship

@countthispenny I love you because I spent several minutes choosing that adjective.

Victor_W
Victor_W

 @Facebones That's also true for a lot of non-American acts who had one U.S. pop hit but had multiple hits elsewhere. It's funny to see artists like, say, A-ha or Spandau Ballet described as one hit wonders, when both acts had a lot of Top 10 hits in the U.K. or Europe. Or I suppose Kylie Minogue is a two hit wonder in the U.S., but on a global scale she's been a Madonna-level superstar for more than two decades. And then you have jazz artists (like McFerrin), soul artists (Freddie Jackson, Stephanie Mills), Christian Contemporary artists (Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith), country artists, metal artists and on and on, who lucked into one or just a few Hot 100 hits, but are major players in their own genre. They are a totally different type of OHW than a one-off fad like "Disco Duck" or Macarena.

cmolanphy
cmolanphy

 @Facebones McFerrin in a way is a perfect OHW, because he's not that big a seller (huge in jazz, but that bar is so low) and his one hit is the very definition of a fluke. Even McFerrin himself thinks so; he's fairly embarrassed by it. I once saw a Charlie Rose interview with McFerring wherein Rose BEGGED McFerrin to sing just a line of "DWBH" and Bobby kept refusing. Good for him.

cmolanphy
cmolanphy

 @Adam Please see Harry's comment, below. You are too loose and non-data-driven, he is too strict. The whole point of the column is finding a middle ground between these two prevailing attitudes regarding OHWs. Chart fans will never be satisfied by a definition of OHW like yours (or Ann's) that is based entirely on subjective cultural attitudes, as I explain (in painstaking detail) above.

cmolanphy
cmolanphy

 @Harry_Knutz Please see Adam's comment, above. You are too strict, he is too loose. The whole point of the column is finding a middle ground between these two prevailing attitudes. If you are unmoved by the X,000 words I wrote, that's fine, but you might reread the breakdown and understand why the "single Top 40 hit" rule is reductive and unsatisfying.

cmolanphy
cmolanphy

 @CesarPelli Hyperbole: Definition: A hyperbole is a literary device wherein the author uses specific words and phrases that exaggerate and overemphasize the basic crux of the statement in order to produce a grander, more noticeable effect. The purpose of hyperbole is to create a larger-than-life effect and overly stress a specific point. Such sentences usually convey an action or sentiment that is generally not practically/ realistically possible or plausible.

cmolanphy
cmolanphy

 @Paul_Cantor 

I appreciate the thoughtful comment. For the record, I considered and rejected including a rule regarding Top 10 hits on other major song charts (R&B, country, alternative, A/C) but there's no good way to draw the line: Billboard has so many niche charts now (i.e., what is "major"?). However, I would argue that my album rule (Rule 3) basically covers this eventuality. For example, any country act with a single Top 10 hit on the Hot 100 (e.g., Garth Brooks/Chris Gaines) will be covered by Rule 3.

 

I appreciate, Paul, that no OHW rule/set of rules is going to be perfect. But the end of your comment reveals the problem with coming up with any definition—one that takes into account a loose definition of "remembered" isn't much of a definition at all. I was attempting, however imperfectly, to come up with a rule that, by relying on data, simultaneously came closer to getting at that elusive public-perception factor. If we're going to base OHW status on something as subjective as what you're proposing, then you don't need an exercise like the one I offer above at all—except I can assure you that this sort of thing has been sought by thousands of chart geeks for years. I'm not the only one trying to come up with an objective measure for this.

cmolanphy
cmolanphy

 @kicking222 The key in the rule is "*Top 10* or platinum." I threw in Top 10s because platinum albums are, in the modern era of low album sales, much harder to achieve, so I threw in Top 10 as a handicap for modern acts. But if I then allowed only two Top 10 albums, that'd be too easy, because the sales bar an act has to clear to score a Top 10 album is so low these days (as little as 20K). Hence I went with three, not two. Admittedly, I could have written the rule as "two platinum or three Top 10 albums."

 

You are correct that unquestioned OHW artists with only two platinum albums are rare; most acts who come close have one platinum and one gold (e.g., Sinead O'Connor, Devo, Twisted SIster). However, Sir Mix-a-Lot qualifies: two platinum albums ('Swass' and 'Mack Daddy') and just the one Top 40 hit, "Baby Got Back."

Facebones
Facebones

 @cmolanphy Oh, I agree that he is the definition of a pop OHW. It's just that the term seems reductive for McFerrin when you compare his library of music to that of Los Del Rio.

Paul_Cantor
Paul_Cantor

 @cmolanphy I understand. I think it's just really difficult to come up with a way to define OHW using quantitative analysis. Because numbers are incredibly easy to manipulate and history has a way of obscuring the truth.

 

Think of the NBA and some of the great scorers who have had amazing seasons scoring the ball. You can look back on their stat line one year and say wow, on paper this guy is amazing. But that's on paper. In real life the guy could have been an albatross to his team and been a horrible player. He just happened to shoot a lot or something to that effect. Maybe his team that season was horrible.

 

Not a perfect analogy but you see what I'm getting at here? There has to be a qualitative aspect to determining these things. That's what I meant by "how an artist is remembered." Indeed, it's shaky doing that, but it's shaky with numbers too. So it's got to be a bit of a mix. Numbers alone really just leave too much to chance. If we were going by numbers, a bunch of cat videos are bigger hits on Youtube than 80% of the music industry. But we know that's not true. Because a person engages with a cat video different than a music video. So that "view" must be looked at through a different lens, and weighed differently.

 

I like what you propose in number 2 and 3, actually. Thing is, I think that second hit is usually too closely related to the success of the first one. It's almost breaking simply because of the buzz of the smash that is preceding. If you were a radio programmer and Carly Rae Jepsen just had this big monstrous first single, how could you not automatically throw the next one in rotation? That sort of thing affects chart positioning tremendously. And then we wind up with these conversations, in hindsight, where we're like, "Wow, so and so actually did have another hit. When the hell did that happen?" And with the albums, how many records are going platinum nowadays? Not that many. So that's a little tricky too.

 

Ultimately I think it's just really tough determining OHW status. I wrote a list a few months ago, here-- http://www.complex.com/music/2012/05/the-100-best-hip-hop-one-hit-wonders/ -- and it was pretty difficult even coming up with the criteria for determining these songs. It wound up just coming down to a mix of chart success and whether or not the act was really ever heard from again on a large scale.

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