The Death of the One Hit Wonder

Dave Iannacone

Throughout the history of pop music, the one hit wonder has been one of its defining qualities. There have been countless songs that have grown to be so big that the performing artist or group was never able to match its success. It’s a pretty safe bet that most people know the “Macarena;” yet it’s pretty unlikely that anyone would be able to identify another song by Los Del Rio. Debbie Boone’s “You Light Up My Life” went on to become one of the absolute biggest hits of the 1970s, whether or not that was a good thing is an entirely different argument. Yet she famously failed to even come close to scoring another chart-topper.

Most one hit wonders follow a similar “loved today, laughed at tomorrow” cycle, (see “Disco Duck” and “Who Let The Dogs Out”) where for a period in time the song is so big that it becomes imbedded in pop culture so quickly that the artist or group never has a chance to keep their success going (see Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Relax” and the famous “Frankie Says Relax” t-shirt fad it sparked in the 1980s). These singular hits were such a common trend, in fact, that countless lists have been made attempting to compile the 100 Greatest One Hit Wonders of all-time. VH1 even had an entire series dedicated to them in addition to their own list.

However, when digital downloads emerged as the most popular way of obtaining music, the decline in one hit wonders has been staggering. A coincidence? I think not. It’s not even really a question that many artists owe their success to digital downloads. Of course no-one can really say one way or the other whether or not an artist would have been successful if it weren’t for downloads, but the evidence is there to say that on the whole, the one hit wonder is slowly being eliminated. Let’s just take Ke$ha, for example. For a long period of time (much too long, in fact,) “TiK ToK” was the biggest song in the country. The song was catchy, danceable, and had just enough one-liners to make the song an absolutely unmatchable smash. While Ke$ha hasn’t exactly released a song quite as big, three top-10 hits later no-one can call her a one hit wonder. The single’s follow up, “Blah, Blah, Blah” (a duet with 3OH!3) became an instant download hit when the album came out. In fact, the song was selling way before becoming a radio hit. I think it’s safe to say that it became one, because it was a download hit first. This is the trend that’s happening all over. Enough interest is created in one song that people are more than willing to spend about a dollar to check out its follow-up, and thus a second-hit born.

However, the definition of “one hit wonder” is so loose that it may not be all that dead after all. Widely considered one of the biggest O.H.W’s of all time, Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby,” was hardly one at all considering he had another top-5 single shortly after. The song was so big that regardless of any other hit Vanilla Ice released, nothing could top or match it, though. In addition, artists such as a-ha, famous for “Take On Me,” and Soft Cell, known for “Tainted Love,” only managed one hit in the US, but had many over-seas. So maybe these exceptions still apply. Maybe, despite Ke$ha’s recent run of hits, the only one that will be even remotely remembered 10 years from now will be “TiK ToK.” Maybe the same will apply to all of these artists who are granted a second (or third, etc.) hit thanks to digital downloads. This is truly one of those things where only time can tell!