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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