HAPPY NATIONAL ONE-HIT WONDER DAY! Join us as we celebrate the artists that made a single thing people loved and then disappeared into the night. Today we’re partying with Cody Skinner and Norm Quarrinton (@NormanQ on Twitter)!! LET’S PARTY!!

Show Notes

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Definition, history of the topic

  • According to Wikipedia, a one-hit wonder is “any entity that achieves mainstream popularity, often for only one piece of work, and becomes known among the general public solely for that momentary success.”
    • The label is most commonly used in reference to musicians with only one hit single, while the rest of their work goes largely unknown or ignored, though it is possible for a performer to be a “one-hit wonder” in one country, while having broader success in another
    • Following the popularity of the single, one-hit wonders typically fade out of the sphere of mainstream attention, and often don’t experience hit listings with any of the rest of their work
      • Interestingly, 47.5% of all music performers that charted a hit between 1955 and 2005 never went on to do so again.
      • In an article by Aleks Eror for highsnobiety.com, this could be sometimes attributed primarily to the human desire for novelty, in conjunction with just how difficult the creative process tends to be, as well as “the curse of the second album.” 
        • A second album is often compromised by touring, record label pressure, and a drive to maintain the hype and fame from the first, while the first album was typically the product of intensive focus and time. 
    • “In The Billboard Book of One-Hit Wonders, music journalist Wayne Jancik defines a one-hit wonder as ‘an act that has won a position on [the] national, pop, Top 40 record chart just once.’”
      • However, this definition would then classify artists such as Blink-182, Janis Joplin, The White Stripes, Devo, and Jimi Hendrix as one-hit wonders despite the fact that they have been immensely successful artists. 
        • It would also attribute one-hit wonders to artists who are certainly not, such as “Ebony and Ivory” by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder
      • These examples, according to an article from entertainment.howstuffworks.com, show that being a one-hit wonder is more about striking a chord (lol) with a generation of music fans with a lone song than it is about the chart position of that song
      • In an article from towardsdatascience.com attempting to clarify which decade had the most one-hit wonders, they modified the definition to a music artist that “has at least one song in the top 25, but no other songs in the top 75, and any duet or song ‘featuring’ somebody else is attributed to the artist listed first”
        • Using this definition, they compiled the following results:
          • 1980s: 91
          • 2000s: 96
          • 1990s: 133
          • 1970s: 153
          • 1960s: 187
    • In a 2015 survey by Ask Your Target Market.com, 25% of respondents said they really enjoy a lot of one-hit wonder songs, while 49% said they at least somewhat enjoy most one-hit wonders. 
      • The top one-hit wonders mentioned are Ice Ice Baby, Mickey, Whip It, Come On Eileen, and Love Shack
      • The 1980s appears to be the favorite decade for one-hit wonders. 
        • 37% of respondents named the 80s as their favorite, 19% preferred the 90s, 18% liked the 70s, 13% the 60s, 9% the 2000s, 8% the 2010s, and just 4% like the 50s
        • 16% had no preference
      • Pop was the favorite genre by a slim margin, with 42%. Rock came in second at 41%. Rap, country, and R&B rounded out the top five, with 15%, 11%, and 10% respectively
        • 11% had no preference
    • Of course, depending on the country you poll and when, a top ten list of one-hit wonders can vary greatly. For example, when polled by VH1 in 2002, Americans had the following top ten:
      • 10. 99 Luftballons by Nena
      • 9. Rico Suave by Gerardo
      • 8. Take On Me by Aha
      • 7. Ice Ice Baby by Vanilla Ice
      • 6. Who Let the Dogs Out? By Baha Men
      • 5. Mickey by Toni Basil
      • 4. I’m Too Sexy by Right Said Fred
      • 3. Come on Eileen by Dexys Midnight Runners
      • 2. Tainted Love by Soft Cell
      • 1. Macarena by Los del Rio
    • Whereas, a 2006 poll in the UK turned up the following top ten:
      • 10. Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps Please by Splodgenessabounds
      • 9. Take On Me by Aha
      • 8. The Safety Dance by Men Without Hats
      • 7. Who Let the Dogs Out? By Baha Men
      • 6. Spirit in the Sky by Norman Greenbaum
      • 5. Always Look on the Bright Side of Life by Monty Python
      • 4. Can You Dig It? by The Mock Turtles
      • 3. Sugar, Sugar by the Archies
      • 2. 99 Red Balloons by Nena
      • 1. Kung Fu Fighting by Carl Douglas
    • Deutsche Grammophon and Vox Records, two record labels dedicated to classical music, separately compiled albums of classical one-hit wonders. Though the exact track listings differ slightly, they did have quite a few in common. Here are the 3,, because going through the top 10 would be a linguistic nightmare for me:
      • 3. Adagio in G minor, which is attributed to Tomaso Albinoni but was apparently written by Remo Giazotto and contains no Albinoni material
      • 2. Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber
      • 1. Canon in D by Johann Pachelbel
    • Some examples of literary one-hit wonders include “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, “Gone With the Wind” by Margaret Mitchell, “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Bronte, “The Bell Jar”by Sylvia Plath, and “A Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole
    • In the film world, two examples of one-hit wonder directors are 1971s “The Deer Hunter” by Michael Cimino, and 1981s “Arthur” by Steve Gordon
    • The experience of a one-hit wonder is explored in the 1996 film, “That Thing You Do!”. The film was Tom Hanks directorial debut, and tells the story of the rise and fall of a fictional 1960s pop band, The Oneders. The titular song actually did go on to become a billboard hit and was nominated for an Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Original Song.
      • The song was written by Adam Schlesinger (RIP), who also wrote another “one-hit wonder” song as the bassist and founding member of Fountains of Wayne with the 2003 single, “Stacy’s Mom”
      • Schlesinger, who tragically passed away on April 1st of this year after a battle with COVID-19 at only 52 years old, was actually quite the prolific song-writer and producer, and the world is a brighter place because he was here
    • An infamous example of a one-hit wonder in the art world is the yellow smiley face. Harvey Bell, a graphic artist in Massachusetts, created the smiley face in 1963 as part of a company employee morale boosting campaign for State Mutual Life Assurance Company. It quickly became a symbol of the 1960s with more than 50 million smiley face buttons selling during that decade alone. Bell was paid just $240 for the original design, as sadly no other profit was attached
    • “One-hit wonder” is also used to refer to athletes known to casual sports fans for one event in their careers. I am not a casual sports fan, so none of these names mean anything to me, but some examples include:
    • There are apparently also examples of this in darts, but I didn’t bother to look into any of them
    • The term “cup of coffee” is used to describe a baseball or ice hockey player who has only a short stint in Major League Baseball or the National Hockey League, and then go on to spend the rest of their careers in the minor leagues
      • E.g. long enough to drink a cup of coffee and not much else
    • The term is also used to refer to drug companies, most of which will apparently only have one successful drug during their lifetimes
      • Between 1950 and 2011, just over half the drug companies that got an FDA approval got only the one
    • Yet another example of a one-hit wonder has emerged in recent years with the advent of technology. As we all have experienced, plugging a word or phrase into a search engine generally yields thousands of hits, if not millions. A search term that yields just one hit at Google is known as a Googlewhack. 
    • The origin of the term “one-hit wonder” is hard to pin down, but some attribute a first stated usage to a Venezuelan major league pitcher named Ramon Monzant. In 1956, he pitched the best game of his life when he played a complete game victory. His team, the San Francisco Giants, beat the Philadelphia Phillies by 8-1. 
      • The game would have been a no-hitter, but a first inning single made it a one-hit game instead
      • This game proved to be a “one-hit wonder” in several ways for Monzant, as he never achieved that level of performance again
    • Phrases.org.uk informs us that the term didn’t appear in print until 1977, in a piece discussing Abba. The article from the Winnipeg Free Press states, “Instead of becoming what everyone expected [after winning the Eurovision Song Contest with Waterloo], a one-hit wonder, they soon had a string of hits behind them.”
      • Phrases.org.uk goes on to state that the term was used long before that in context to baseball when a pitcher restricts the opposing team to a single base-hit by virtue of outstanding pitching. In July, 1914, The Middletown Daily Times-Press published a piece stating, “The Middies trimmed Newburgh by a score of 6 to 1, although Newburgh were aided and abetted by ‘Let-er-go’ Gallagher, their one hit pitcher.”
    • It’s just as likely that the term was actually coined by some sports writer who was never accredited properly, so was in their own right, a “one-hit wonder”
    • A similar colloquialism is “15 minutes of fame” which is defined by short-lived media publicity or celebrity of an individual or phenomenon. This term was inspired by Andy Warhol, who said, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes,” a phrase which appeared in the program for a 1968 exhibition of his work at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. However, photographer Nat Finkelstein claimed credit for the expression, stating that he was photographing Warhol in 1966 when a crowd gathered trying to get into the pictures and Warhol supposedly remarked that everyone wants to be famous. Finkelstein allegedly replied, “Yeah, for about fifteen minutes, Andy.”
    • An older version of the same concept in English is the expression “nine days wonder,” which dates back at least to the Eizabethan era (1558-1602).
    • More recently and significantly, a new version of the one-hit wonder has emerged with the advent of the internet and the ability to easily and widely share media, when an incident or entity “goes viral”. According to Wikipedia, “viral phenomena are objects or patterns that are able to replicate themselves or convert other objects into copies of themselves when these objects are exposed to them.”
      • Inspired by the way viruses propagate, this has become a common way to describe how thoughts, information, and trends move into and through a human population
      • “Viral media” uses viral metaphors of “infection” and “contamination”, which means that audiences play as passive carriers rather than an active role to “spread contents.”
      • Viral songs do differ from the more notorious definitions of “one-hit wonders” that we’ve discussed, in that they don’t necessarily make or top Billboard charts, but they do gain widespread notoriety, sometimes for years 
        • The threshold for “going viral” is relative, since it’s argued that the virality of a piece could either be the number of views or shares it receives, or the rate at which the content is consumed.
      • Some infamous examples of viral/pseudo-one-hit wonder songs are “Friday” by Rebecca Black, “Baby Shark Dance” which was from a children’s educational video made by South Korean education brand Pinkfong, “The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?)” by Ylvis, and “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen
    • Because of the internet, the way we interact with one-hit wonders has changed irrevocably. When an artist would have previously faded from the limelight and into obscurity, they now go on to spawn endless memes and jokes for years. Some artists, like Jepsen, also go on to enjoy an underground following and continued success. Others, like Black, never really get the chance to fully move on from what they feel is a silly and embarrassing moment from their youth, as the songs are now embedded in a generation’s collective memory and continue to reemerge year after year 
      • As Kish Lal, in an article for coolaccidents.com, states, “…the zeitgeist has allowed for one-hit wonders to live eternally through streaming services and YouTube but most of all, because of our unprecedented access to  music…As sales become less relevant as a metric of success, notoriety reigns supreme.”
      • Artists may still experience one-hit wonder events, but they also now have the opportunity for rediscovery, and a second chance at success. They can continue to interact with fans through Twitter, thirst traps, “edgy” political takes, or Reddit AMAs
      • As Lal says, “These days, if an artist wants to be famous forever, all it takes is one hit.”

History/Fun facts about the holiday

  • National One-Hit Wonder Day was established by music journalist Steve Rosen in 1990 to pay tribute to those music artists who have had their fifteen minutes of fame, and then promptly faded into obscurity. 
    • According to a short bio I found on Huffpost, Rosen is a Cincinnati-based freelance arts/lifestyle writer who has contributed not only to Cincinnati newspapers, but also the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Denver Post, Variety, IndieWire, American Songwriter, Blurt, Rock’s Backpages, as well as other “publications and websites.”

Activities to celebrate

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  • Use #OneHitWonderDay on social media
  • Make a drinking game out of naming one-hit wonders and their artists? Like, take a drink if you get the artist wrong?
  • Watch “That Thing You Do!” on repeat, just to be ironic
  • Visit and memorize the complete list of US one-hit wonders at wikipedia, starting with The Silhouettes 1957 jam “Get a Job” and ending with Portugal. The Man’s 2017 smash, “Feel It Still”


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