Gotye, fun., and other recent arrivals on the charts resemble past single-smash acts in a few ways.
Rare has been the moment in musical history at which the top spots of the American pop charts have managed to sustain acts as new and strange as those of the past few weeks. There's so much fresh meat up there that it actually feels as if reliable hitmakers like Maroon 5 and Nicki Minaj called up Carly Rae Jepsen, told her she could invite Gotye, fun., and The Wanted over for a barbecue, and then cranked up the volume for all to hear. But before the party peters out, might there be a way to tell whether these newly arrived household names will stay that way, or if they will end up relegated to the bittersweet netherworld of the one-hit wonder?
"No one could honestly put their hand on their heart and say yes to that question," Professor Catherine Moore of NYU said in a recent interview with The Atlantic. Moore, who directs the university's Music Business Graduate Program, likens the idea of predicting musical success to finding the Holy Grail.
Still, she and other experts point to a few common traits that one-hit wonders through history have often shared. And judging by those traits, the long-term prospects don't look great for today's crop of new pop stars.
The definition for "one-hit wonder" is a bit fuzzy. Purists argue that to be the genuine article, a song must have landed in one of the top 40 spots of the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Others, though, say it's futile to rely on charts. Janis Joplin, for instance, only broke into the top 40 once, but no one would call her a one-hit wonder. For the purposes of practicality, let's just say that a one-hit wonder is an artist that every reasonable person in the room would say has only ever produced one "wildly popular" song.
These acts actually have to get popular, though, and it's the process by which they do so that sets them apart. Primarily, Moore said that one-hit wonders often grab fame through associations with more powerful cultural phenomena.
For instance, she said that the success of The Baha Men's "Who Let the Dogs Out" can in large part be attributed to the single's connection with baseball. Before it was embraced by Mitt Romney, "Dogs" was co-opted by a number of Major League Baseball teams for play during games in the early 2000s. Had there not been this sports linkage, Moore said she doesn't think the single would have exploded across the cultural stratosphere as it did.
This "something else," though, need not be an institution. As the music industry has changed with advancements in technology and media, many new one-time chart-toppers have connected themselves to trending products or television shows. Feist's "1234" became the singer's first (and to-date, only) Billboard top-40 track, driven largely by the attention it received in 2007's polychromatic iPod commercials. And the number of mid-level hits nudged toward ubiquity by covers on Glee could rival the number of half-baked plotlines rolled out in each episode. (Both fun. and Gotye can count themselves in these ranks.)
In fact, Moore said the appearance of so many avenues for covers—shows like Glee and The Voice, websites like YouTube—has altered the shape of the traditional one-hit wonder's trajectory. Whereas in the past, hits like these came and went with the artist's fame, now new outlets for covers have created a one-hit wonderdom she says is focused "more on the song and less the specific singer."
Indeed, "Call Me Maybe" owes its fame in large part to a tribute video made by a handful of very famous fans, and with every passing day a new spoof of the tune floats onto YouTube. "We Are Young" got stuck in Super Bowl watchers' heads this past February because of Chevy's attempt to mint a viral video. And Gotye's recent Glee tiff shows how covers have pervaded the music industry, for better or for worse.
Brent Mann, author of the book 99 Red Balloons and 100 Other All-Time Great One-Hit Wonders, said that the defining feature of one-hit wonderdom is, unsurprisingly, catchiness. In a way, he said, these songs are laden with the seeds of their own destruction: They have hooks, licks, lyrics, and riffs that latch into the collective pop consciousness and refuse to die. When a hit's songwriter is unable ever to replicate that success, the track is revealed to have been a fluke all along.
Mann pointed to OMC's "How Bizarre" as an example. "That song from the '90s: do you remember it?" he said. "It had that great hook that was so cool. Well I bought their CD and listened to some of their other stuff, and it just paled. ... Guys like Paul McCartney, Barry Gibb of the BeeGees, Paul Simon, these are exceptional songwriters who just have an ability that very few have."
Exceptionally eccentric acts also run the high risk of one-hit wonderdom. Mann pointed to Chumbawumba's 1997 "Tubthumping" (perhaps better known by the name "I Get Knocked Down") as an example. Although that tune included all the makings of a hit, Mann says the band's other tracks came with liberal political messages that "had no chance of ever getting any radio airplay."
The same goes for acts whose back catalogues are artsier than their breakout song would suggest. Aside from having written a No. 1 hit, Gotye has been known to hunt for musical inspiration in the Outback and go a little retro. Since having "Kids," MGMT veered toward radio-unfriendly psychedelia—a sign of how, for some artists, moving beyond a bygone hit can become an artistic goal in and of itself.
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Both Moore and Mann said that being foreign is another trait many one-hit-wonders share, a fact that doesn't bode well for Canada's Carly Rae Jepsen and Australia's Gotye. But perhaps the world's largest producer of one-hit wonders, Moore and Mann suggested, is the U.K. (Which, it should be noted, is also perhaps the world's top producer of enduring rock and pop icons).
"Especially with acts out of Britain, bands can just have a very—for lack of a better phrase—a very British sensibility that doesn't quite translate to the US," Mann said.
Moore attributed this phenomenon to the fact that the way in which the English incorporate music into their culture is very different from how it's done Stateside.
"Insofar as people still listen to radio—which people still do—there's national radio [in Britain], so there's a pretty straightforward way to get national exposure," she said. "And that national radio isn't format-driven, so they'll play any kind of music. That has a real influence on the spread of music."
One sure bet: One-hit wonders, be they catchy, kitschy, or British, will remain a part of the musical landscape even as the recording industry goes digital. Traditionally, Moore said, record companies have relied on longstanding, well-established acts with deep catalogues "to pay the bills," and a set of explosive, potential one-hit wonders to bring injections of cash flow and prominence on the charts. The Internet is changing how business is done, of course. But even as it does, it seems there will always be those rare melodies that go almost as quickly as they came, becoming the songs that, well, we used to know.
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