One-hit wonders defined my childhood. Watching Top of the Pops on a Friday night, I was certain that Deep Blue Something’s “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” was the greatest rock anthem of all time. Instead of Jimi Hendrix or Bob Dylan, it was Eagle Eye Cherry’s “Save Tonight” that made me pick up a guitar for the first time. And though mid-Wales is about as far away from west LA as you can get, I became obsessed with TQ’s “Westside” after I heard it on CD:UK. Essentially, every new song I liked ended up being made by a band or artist whose career ebbed away soon after.
The era in which these songs were released, the 90s, was the golden age of the one-hit wonder. At the time, schlocky Europop like Whigfield’s “Saturday Night” and American collegiate soft-rock such as Semisonic’s “Secret Smile” became clustered in our collective consiousness. Unlike the Brit-pop scene, these one-time songs didn’t fit in with the zeitgeist; they were their own genreless genre. In an age where CDs sold more than ever, the cut and thrust of the music industry meant that new acts were being pushed all the time – and often were unable to sustain themselves beyond their one radio single.
Flash forward to 2018 and the musical landscape is different. We curate our own experiences, algorithms lead us by the hand from one new song to the next, and songs are no longer fleeting ephemera. Instead, they are tangible pieces of information we can track down with a couple of clicks. The upside of this is that if someone has a hit, they can run with it – able to build and sustain a fanbase, largely online, in a way Las Ketchup couldn’t. As a result, the one-hit wonder – which existed long through the 2000s and 2010s (remember Rebecca Black? Gotye? That really sleazy song about being “so rude”?) – has fallen to the wayside. Is it possible that we’ve heard the last one?
Before we get into it, let’s define our terms. In the Billboard Book of One Hit Wonders, journalist Wayne Jancik says a one-hit wonder is an artist who has only entered the top 40 once, regardless of the career they went on to have. By that definition, Jimi Hendrix (“All Along The Watchtower” and Public Enemy (“Give It Up”) are one-hit wonders. Really though, they only satisfy the formal definition. A true one-hit wonder is a nebulous thing – a collective fugue state experienced by the whole country at once, and one that includes acts as far removed from each other as Bob the Builder, those kids that sung “Babycakes”, and that song about the “Three Lions”. To be a true one-hit wonder, you need to have one catchy-as-hell success, and one catchy-as-hell success only.
However today’s could-be one-hit wonders have built careers for themselves. Take Carly Rae Jepsen. Her 2011 track “Call Me Maybe” was her biggest and pretty much only hit for four years, then she reinvented herself as the queen of Emotion and became the connoisseur's popstar. Meghan Trainor followed up her moment of “All That Bass” virality with a number 1 album and became only the fifth woman of all time to follow up a number 1 debut with another top 5 hit, when “Lips Are Movin’” went in at number 4. Compare that to one-hit wonders from the past. The New Radicals’ follow up to “You Get What You Give” didn’t break the top 40; Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch” spent ten weeks in the charts, peaking at number 6, but her follow-up charted at 28 in the UK, and didn’t make the Billboard Hot 100 at all; and DJ Pied Piper didn’t even get the chance to release a follow-up to “Do You Really Like It?”, despite the tune being huge.
Perhaps one of the most crucial changes to the music industry is that success is no longer determined just by sales. In Carly Rae’s case, for instance, sales would indicate that she has never eclipsed “Call Me Maybe”, but critical acclaim, online fandom, virality and cultural influence paint a broader picture. The other thing is, maybe one-hit wonders just come at the wrong time, or are filtered down a path they were never suited for, and find it hard to to wrestle back that control. Take Nizlopi, who were a week off being the UK's Christmas number 1 in 2005 with “JCB Song”, which sold 600,000 copies.
Speaking to the band’s lead singer Luke Concannon, currently on tour as a solo artist, he says that people put Nizlopi in the same bracket as Bob the Builder, and the huge success the band had at that moment was hard to take: “I remember we sold out the Shepherds Bush Empire, which should be such a celebration, and it was just a bit odd. People were throwing plastic diggers onto the stage. And like… both of us [Luke and band-mate John Parker] love good art, and want to make good art, so it was a little more worrying. We wanted to have more longevity, and do something more meaningful.”
At that time, Nizlopi sounded different. Banjos, melodeons, Luke singing in his own accent, a cute animated video to accompany the song. It felt novelty, even though it wasn’t. Had they come out three years later, when the musical climate had broadened, and bands like Mumford and Sons, Ben Howard, Noah and the Whale, and Laura Marling were scoring big hits and critical acclaim, then perhaps they’d have been planted into more hospitable pastures. That’s before you even consider the fact that Nizlopi were, by his own admittance, the biggest influence on the career of Ed Sheeran, who at 14 begged to be their roadie, who last year put their song “Flooded Quarry” as his top pick on Desert Island Discs, and whose effusive patronage led to the band reforming, touring again, and now running songwriting workshops and retreats.
One-hit wonders stand out. They don’t fit in, and that’s why we like them. Of course, there will always be the odd song that climbs to the outer reaches of a Spotify playlist, then the artist fades into obscurity. More often than not, though, today’s acts can build themselves a career, even off one hit – just look at Big Shaq, and his numerous festival appearances, deals, live performances and follow-up singles. That of itself is evident of a musical landscape that is far more fluid, diverse, and maybe better than it has been in the past. Still, though: I wouldn’t say no to a new novelty song or Europop hit. Give me "Blue (Da Ba Dee)", let me taste 2018's version of "All Star". I'll even take a new "Teenage Dirtbag".
You can find Harry on Twitter.