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The Death of the One-Hit Wonder

Stashed in: Music, Music Videos!, @katyperry, Charts!, Beatles!, 1980s, 1990s, Freakonomics, @samsmithworld

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For better or worse, the one-hit wonder seems to be going the way of roller skating rinks and marquee boxing matches: once common, they’re now increasingly rare.  

In their 1997 hit song “Tubthumping”, the band Chumbawamba triumphantly sings: “I get knocked down, but I get up again. You’re never gonna keep me down.” Unfortunately for Chumbawamba, after finding success with this ballad, they did not get up. Instead, the band fell into the pantheon of one-hit wonders, alongside the likes of Soft Cell (“Tainted Love”), Nena (“99 Luftballons”), Biz Markie (“Just A Friend”), and Joan Osborne (“One of Us”). These artists are all especially loveable because they produced one massive, mainstream hit, then seemed to fall off the face of the Earth.

I would not call Tubthumping a ballad.

Clearly, one-hit wonders are an endangered species. But why?

A primary culprit for this decline is a general decrease in the number of distinct songs that appear in the Hot 100 each year. Simply put, songs now stay on the chart longer, which does not allow for as many hits. Prior to 1985, no song had ever stayed on the charts for more than 50 weeks; this now happens regularly. Sam Smith’s Stay With Me is on week 54 and is likely to stick around for a while. In contrast, The Temptation’s 1965 number one hit “My Girl” was only in the hot 100 for 13 weeks. Since the average Katy Perry song stays in the Hot 100 nearly three times longer than the average song by The Beatles, there isn’t too much room for one-hit wonders these days:

chart average weeks hit songs stay on billboard hot 100 by decade Imgur

It’s tough to say, but we would lean towards the latter. In a recent articleThe Atlantic argues that while record labels used to be able to determine which songs would become radio hits, stations now rely more heavily on consumer preferences. In short, iHeartMedia, the conglomerate that owns 850 radio stations, doesn’t care about the desire of the music industry for a quicker hit cycle so they can sell more units. They just don’t want you to change the channel -- and the best way to keep you tuned in is to keep playing the same songs.

It feels like our culture is losing a particularly pleasurable phenomenon. 

By their very nature, one-hit wonders are bound to the time period in which they experience success: Dexys Midnight Runners (“Come on Eileen”) will forever be linked to the 80s, just as Chumbawamba ("Tubthumping") is a quintessential part of 90s lore. They are highly nostalgic ballads of our past, and are universally beloved. When VH1 aired a special on the “100 Greatest One-Hit Wonders”, it was so popular that they went on to produce decade-specific versions like “100 Greatest One-Hit Wonders of the ‘80s”.

So let us never forget the greats -- The Proclaimers (“I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles”), Deep Blue Something (“Breakfast At Tiffany’s”), and Los del Rio (“Macarena”) included -- because soon, there may not be new one-hit wonders to replace them.

These charts are telling:

chart One Hit Wonders per year Imgur

chart Proportion of Hot 100 songs by One Hit Wonders Imgur

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