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How Have One-Hit Wonders Changed Over Time?
Are fewer musicians only succeeding a single time?
Intro: 867-5309, The Cursed Phone Number.
In 1981, rock band Tommy Tutone released a song called "867-5309/Jenny," an infectious power pop tune about a man who finds a woman's phone number written on a bathroom wall and considers calling her, wondering if she might be the girl of his dreams. The song's chorus proved infectious, and the single became an instant hit, reaching No. 4 on the Billboard "Hot 100" chart in 1982.
After the song's success, people began dialing the tune's titular digits out of curiosity, much to the annoyance of those who owned the number. The call volumes grew so great that many phone companies stopped assigning 867-5309 altogether. In a few cases, opportunistic businesses scooped up the phone number for promotional purposes, capitalizing on its widespread recognition.
As for Tommy Tutone, the band struggled to recapture the success of "867-5309/Jenny." Their subsequent albums and singles failed to match the popularity of their mega-hit, and the band disbanded in the mid-1980s. After some unsuccessful solo projects, the band's lead singer Tommy Heath ended his music career and moved to Oregon, where he began his second life as a computer programmer.
One-hit wonders like Tommy Tutone loom large in our collective consciousness, providing us with a catchy tune, a fun trivia tidbit (i.e. "what group sang '867-5309?'"), and a dash of schadenfreude. But how prevalent are one-hit wonders, and how have they evolved with the music industry? What makes these songs so distinctive (and memorable), and why do we mock musicians who "succeeded" but a single time?
Methodology: Tracking One-Hit Wonders Over Time.
Our goal is to track one-hit wonders over time and identify their distinctive characteristics.
How has the frequency of one-hit wonders changed over time? Are one-hit wonders growing in cultural impact?
What are the most memorable one-hit wonders of a given era? And what similarities do these songs share?
How does song composition differ between one-hit wonders and multi-hit songs?
Defining a One-Hit Wonder:
In his 1990 book The Billboard Book of One-Hit Wonders, music journalist Wayne Jancik defined a one-hit wonder as "an act that has won a position on [the] national, pop, Top 40 record chart just once." Jancik's standard is the most widely accepted marker of one-hit wonder status. Thus, we'll utilize this definition in our analysis.
How Have One-Hit Wonders Changed Over Time?
James Hennegan founded Billboard magazine in 1894. Initially, the magazine covered a wide variety of entertainment events, including circuses, carnivals, fairs, and amusement parks. The publication's founding premise was to provide information about event-based entertainment and serve as a platform for advertisers (hence the name "Billboard").
By the 1920s, the magazine shifted its focus from live events to film and radio. In 1936, Billboard launched the "Music Popularity Chart," a catalog of the country's most popular printed sheet music. With the introduction of vinyl records in the 1940s, Billboard adapted its ranking system to account for music recordings. And on August 4, 1958, Billboard introduced its seminal "Hot 100" chart, which ranked (and still ranks) the most popular songs based on sales and radio airplay. Since then, Billboard's "Hot 100" has been the premier mechanism for tracking music's ever-changing zeitgeist.
The "Hot 100" provides a full quantitative accounting of the one-hit wonder phenomenon. Using Billboard data, we can explore fluctuations in one-hit wonder frequency and chart tenure over time.
For frequency, we can track the percentage of Billboard top-40 songs meeting Jancik's criteria since the "Hot 100's" inception:
From 1958 to 1990, one-hit wonders make up 12% to 17% of all top-40 songs, with minor fluctuations in this range. However, in the 90s, we see a pronounced spike in one-hit songs, followed by a slow-moving decline beginning in the mid-2000s.
Similarly, when we look at chart duration, we observe a noticeable shift in chart tenure accompanying the post-2005 decrease in one-hit song frequency:
For the first 50 years of the "Hot 100," one-hit and muli-hit chart tenure moved in lock-step. However, in the early 2010s, we observe a schism, with one-hit songs improving their chart duration relative to multi-hit music.
Overall, the number of one-hit wonders is decreasing while the chart tenure of these one-hit songs is increasing (relative to multi-hit pieces). Such findings raise numerous questions. What happened in the 90s to cause such a significant increase in one-hit wonders? Why has the frequency of one-hit artists been declining since the mid-2000s? And why are the remaining one-hit songs staying on the charts longer than their multi-hit counterparts?
What Are the Most Notable One-Hit Wonders? And What Can We Learn From Them?
In The Culture Industry, German sociologist Theodor Adorno argues that music, as a cultural product, is influenced by its era's socioeconomic and technological conditions. According to Adorno, modern music production and distribution standardizes and homogenizes musical styles. At face value, this is a common critique of capitalism — commodifying art rids it of its purity and originality. Boo, capitalism! But you can also interpret Adorno's commentary as an explanation of musical trends and genres.
Why did straitlaced doo-wop music dominate the 1950s? What spurred the rise and fall of disco in the 1970s? And why was I enamored with pop-punk music (Blink-182, My Chemical Romance, etc.) in the early 2000s? Addressing any of these questions could warrant a lengthy essay, but the short answer is that these fads reflect their time. So what can we learn from a given era's one-hit wonders?
Our list of longest-tenured one-hit wonders, pre-1990, lacks any overwhelming trend — especially compared to later decades. So, as silly as it sounds, our takeaway is the lack of meaningful takeaways. Sure, a handful of songs are a bit gimmicky, like "Mickey" and "Play that Funky Music [White Boy]," and some pieces were popularized via television and film, like "Chariot of Fire" and "Believe It or Not (I'm Walking on Air)." Still, this assortment reads more like a list of traditional artists unable to replicate their one-off success.
The 90s were a golden age for one-hit wonders — though I'm not sure if that's a good thing. The spike in one-time successes stems from a variety of factors, both technological and cultural:
Music industry scale and globalization: The 1990s saw the rise of CDs, digital music formats, and the internet. These developments allowed more artists to record and distribute their music, which led to a more crowded and diverse market. The growing scale of the music industry may explain the influx of niche artists and genres flooding the Top 40, like "[The] Macarena," "Who Let the Dogs Out?," or "Mambo No. 5."
MTV and music videos: The popularity of MTV and music videos peaked in the 90s, leading to a greater focus on visual presentation. Many one-hit wonders rose to popularity via memorable music videos, like "Whoomp! (There It Is)" or "Jump Around."
Novelty songs and dance crazes: The 1990s were rife with novelty songs and dance crazes, music of highly unique commercial appeal that was difficult to replicate, like "Baby Got Back," "[The] Macarena," and "Achy Breaky Heart." More than half the pieces on this list could be considered novelty songs.
And yet many of the forces that gave way to an uptick in one-hit wonders evolved to reduce their prevalence at the turn of the century.
The 2010s saw a decrease in the frequency of one-hit wonders and an increase in chart tenure for this shrinking cohort of one-off successes. Several paradigmatic shifts in music distribution (many of which are ongoing) are likely driving these trends:
Internet virality: Unsurprisingly, many modern one-hit wonders rise to prominence through internet virality, driven by memes, dance challenges, or user-generated content. The "Harlem Shake," "Watch Me (Whip / Nae Nae)," and "Sexy And I Know It" exploded into the mainstream due to catchy hooks ideally suited for social media content.
A direct relationship between artists and fans: Many one-hit wonders from the 2010s were commercially successful before their lone mega-hit. Indie and alternative rock acts like Portugal The Man, Walk the Moon, and Foster the People had an existing body of work before a one-off song enjoyed widespread commercial success. These artists can support themselves without a Billboard hit, as streaming platforms like Spotify allow musicians to engage directly with fans and generate revenue from a dedicated following.
Machine drift and algorithmic winners: In his book "Futureproof," tech columnist Kevin Roose introduced the concept of "machine drift," a gradual process by which humans increasingly rely on algorithms to make decisions and lose the ability to think critically about these systems. Music recommendations and social media challenges are prime examples of machine drift, with algorithmic recommendations playing a significant role in music discovery. Machine drift likely contributes to the decline in one-off hits and our observed growth in one-hit wonder chart duration. Algorithms heavily promote existing winners, boosting music and artists that may already enjoy widespread popularity. At the same time, when a highly unique song from an unknown artist breaks into the mainstream, like "The Harlem Shake" or "Rude," that song is heavily amplified through the prism of social media and Spotify playlists, leading to ample exposure and longer chart tenure.
Changing business model: Music producers used to make money by selling consumers variety. Music fans owned vinyls or CDs, and record companies marketed new acts to extract revenue from listeners. With streaming, music producers and streaming platforms would rather you avoid changing the channel, as they’re optimizing for overall listening time. This leads to the repetition of the same catchy songs and reliance on already-popular name brands (Dua Lipa, Bruno Mars, etc.). This makes it harder to crack the Billboard charts in the first place, and it ensures that winning acts continue winning.
How Does Song Composition Differ Between One-Hit Wonders and Multi-Hit Songs?
Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back," is a remarkably unique piece of music. The song (and its music video) begins with a 30-second conversation between two white valley girls commenting on an African American woman's curvaceous body. Sir-Mix-a-Lot then jumps in with his famous and oft-quoted, "I like big butts and I cannot lie." From here on out, Mr. Mix-a-Lot leads a 4-minute masterclass on buttocks, challenging beauty norms and promoting an inclusive definition of attractiveness (though some argue the song objectifies women).
There are so many things that make "Baby Got Back" distinctive: it's music-less intro, Mix-a-Lot's humorous celebration of the human body, the funky bassline, and the fact that it's a four and half minute song about butts (without swear words). No wonder "Baby Got Back," brought Mix-a-Lot overnight success. But is Mix-a-Lot's ode to behinds, and its uniqueness, the exception or the rule for one-hit wonders? Do one-hit wonders demonstrate significant differences in song composition?
We can investigate one-hit wonder music characteristics utilizing Spotify's song attribute dataset. Spotify parses audio feature information for every track on its platform and uses the resulting datasets for training algorithms.
Comparing one-hit wonder songs to other Billboard top 40 hits, we find a few significant differences in song makeup:
According to Spotify's song attribute data, one-hit wonders have higher levels of instrumentalness and speechiness. At first pass, these characteristics should contradict one another — more words should come at the expense of instrumentals. However, there is a second interpretation, one that speaks to the novelty of one-off hits.
For example, consider "Baby Got Back," a song with a 30-second intro devoid of instrumentals as well as sections of funky bassline and DJ record scratches. Both attributes (instrumental and speechy) add to the song's originality. In some cases, unique instrumentals or vocals may not co-exist in a single piece of music. Still, an extreme value for either characteristic (perhaps a catchy chorus or infectious guitar rift) could propel a song onto the Billboard charts.
The remaining composition differences are relatively small, with one-hit wonders demonstrating slightly higher levels of danceability and energy. Perhaps one-hit singles are more likely to service clubs, parties, social gatherings, and internet dance trends.
Final Thoughts: Availability Bias and One-Hit Wonder Bashing.
Why do we mock one-hit wonders? Sure, one-hit wonders often produce gimmicky songs, but what pop music isn’t gimmicky? For some reason, those who succeed a single time are made into cultural punchlines.
Consider the following artists:
Just Epic Randomness (26 monthly listeners on Spotify):
Tommy Tutone (685,212 monthly listeners on Spotify):
Red Hot Chili Peppers (28M monthly listeners on Spotify):
If I told you to rank these artists by career success, how would you organize your list? I assume you'd place Just Epic Randomness at the bottom of your rankings — no offense to Just Epic Random (I found him by searching "random" on Spotify). And yet we typically ignore Epic Randomness, deride Tommy Tutone, and praise Red Hot Chili Peppers. But why?
The answer likely has something to do with availability bias. Coined by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in the early 1970s, availability bias occurs when people make judgments or decisions based on the information that is most readily available. For instance, after hearing about a plane crash, an individual might become more fearful of flying, even though air travel is much safer than driving.
One-hit wonders have the unfortunate pleasure of being well-known failures (though they did achieve once). We can't mock artists who achieve no commercial success — because it's too mean or because we don't remember unsuccessful music acts. So instead, we've custom-designed a pejorative term to knock highly memorable artists who've cleared a specific threshold of accomplishment.
Celebrity culture encourages everyday people to critique the lives and achievements of well-known individuals. Mocking a famous person is acceptable because their famousness deserves (and somehow invites) ridicule. But the next time you dunk on Sir-Mix-a-Lot, Tommy Tutone, or The Macarena, remember that many people never succeed at all. For every Lou Bega ("Mambo No. 5”), there are hundreds (if not thousands) of Just Epic Randomness-es. It's better to have tried, succeeded once, and then failed than to have never succeeded at all.
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