One-Hit Wonders in the New Decade

As long as era-defining superstars have been consistently pumping out the pop songs that have become eponymous with the decades they represent, artists slapped with the stigma “one-hit wonders” have been attempting to disrupt that dominance.

Fortunately for these one-hit wonders, their realm of infamy is more direct than their pop star counterparts. For a notable example, let’s take a look at the mid-1980s. Between 1984 and 1989, Madonna racked up 17 consecutive Top 10 singles, as well as seven chart-toppers. While this is an astounding achievement , it makes it difficult to pinpoint her hits with specific years. It is far more easy to associate a-ha’s legendary “Take On Me” with 1985 than Madonna’s “Crazy For You,” isn’t it?

Such is the benefit of being a one-hit wonder. For every Mariah Carey, there are three “Macarena”s, “I’m Too Sexy”s, and “Baby Got Back”s. Looking at this still-youthful new decade, it is easy to address this notion with a fair amount of skepticism. Thus far, the 2010s have seemed to be dominated by familiar faces more so than its predecessors. Of the 56 songs that have topped the Billboard Hot 100 this decade, only 11 of those were by unique artists scoring their first (and thus far only) #1 single. Two of those “unique artists” are superstars Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift, making this sparse statistic even more poignant.

The other nine artists are Taio Cruz, B.o.B., Far East Movement, Wiz Khalifa, Fun., Gotye, Carly Rae Jepsen, Baauer and Robin Thicke. With the exception of Gotye and Baauer, all of the others have at least one other Top 20 hit to their credit, elevating them to greater status in the pop history annals. While these stats suggest a decline in contemporary one-hit wonders, there is no doubt that plenty of artists will be remembered in future decades for their memorable, if brief, contributions to popular culture. Here are a few early candidates who have the dual distinctions of earning one massive hit and lacking the potential to follow up that success.

Gotye in his famous music video.
Gotye in his famous music video.

Artist: Gotye
Breakout Hit: Somebody That I Used To Know (2012, 8 weeks at #1)
Other Chart Appearances: Eyes Wide Open (2012, #96)
Why Will They Be A One-Hit Wonder? If the Belgian-Australian singer (née Wally De Backer) goes down in history as a one-hit wonder, he will undoubtedly be one of the most famous. No song was bigger in 2012 than “Somebody That I Used To Know,” reigning for two months atop the Hot 100, and spending over a full calendar year on the chart. However, two years after his global smash hit, Gotye has been unable to approach a similar level of success. His only other charting effort, “Eyes Wide Open” was an earlier single re-released in 2012. He still hasn’t begun work on a follow-up album to Making Mirrors, so he is in danger of losing his window of opportunity to garner another hit.

One of many videos in the Harlem Shake tradition.

Artist: Baauer
Breakout Hit: Harlem Shake (2013, 5 weeks at #1)
Other Chart Appearances: None
Why Will They Be A One-Hit Wonder? 2013’s first huge internet craze was brought to us by a literal firestorm of YouTube videos featuring the Philadelphia DJ’s repetitive song. The timing of this viral trend synced perfectly with Billboard’s 2013 change in chart data collection. Starting last February, YouTube views began to count towards a song’s popularity in the eyes of the Hot 100. Boosted entirely by this facet, “Harlem Shake” debuted at #1 and remained there for five consecutive weeks. It’s not impossible for an artist like this to replicate success (after all, PSY has two Top 5 singles to his credit), but viral songs can rarely be synthetically created. I feel it’s safe to say that “Harlem Shake” will go down as a reminder of life in the YouTube era.

Foster The People circa 2011.

Artist: Foster The People
Breakout Hit: Pumped Up Kicks (2011, #3 peak, 40 weeks on Hot 100)
Other Chart Appearances: Don’t Stop (Color On The Wall) (2011, #86)
Why Will They Be A One-Hit Wonder? As you may guess, the Los Angeles band is a bit over-qualified for the title. Both 2011’s Torches and their recently-released Supermodel have been received well in the rock community, and albums appear to be their primary focus. The surprise radio success of “Pumped Up Kicks” brought them mainstream popularity, but failed to change their creative philosophy. Thus, the “one-hit wonder” distinction is perhaps a bit unfair, but in the pure sense of the term, it is fitting for a band more concerned with creating a full worthwhile album.

Elly Jackson, vocalist of La Roux.

Artist: La Roux
Breakout Hit: Bulletproof (2010, #8 peak, 29 weeks on Hot 100)
Other Chart Appearances: None
Why Will They Be A One-Hit Wonder? For the British synthpop duo, success in their homeland came much quicker than popularity stateside. They registered two Top 2 singles on the UK chart in 2009 (“In For The Kill” and “Bulletproof”), but only the latter made its way over to America. Taking nearly a year to gain its foothold, “Bulletproof” became the biggest sleeper hit of 2010 on the Hot 100, finally eclipsing the Top 10 in June of that year. Like Gotye, the group has not released an album since their breakout, so it’s safe to say that their memorable moment in the sun is bound to be their only.

A few other candidates who could be remembered in similar veins include Capital Cities (2013’s “Safe And Sound”) and Alex Clare (2012’s “Too Close”). The combination of Capital Cities’ extremely recent brush with fame and Clare’s youth make me cautious to slap the one-hit wonder label on them just yet. Time will tell how their greater reputations take shape.

As mentioned earlier, less than five years is definitely not enough time to close the book on any of these artists. After all, Rick Astley had two #1 singles and had Top 40 hits as late as 1993. Nonetheless, the four acts above display all the early signs necessary for lasting reputations as one-hit wonders. Although this might sound like a demeaning appellation for these artists, remember that it is they who give us reprieve from the continued domination of pop music’s royalty. Instead of fading into ignominy like their contemporaries who produced strings of middling hits (as I’m sure will be the fate of acts like New Boyz, Trey Songz, et al.), the one-hit wonders are assured of their respective legacies.

Is that not an admirable and even envious fate?

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Gnarls Barkley could be here, but I like his first album a lot.

  2. Mary Awad

    I wish this was longer but good list. Looking back on one-hit wonders is just as fun as listening to them for the first time.

  3. CriticalOtaku

    Wow, this was pretty nostalgiac. I feel like even if people do become “one-hit wonders” it’s not necessarily a good thing; I personally have greater respect for artists who manage to consistently create fantastic albums. A lot of the times when certain songs are overplayed on the radio, people tend to get sick of the thing they used to love hearing–at least, I definitely feel that way about Gotye.

  4. Bea Eddy

    Blu Cantrell.

  5. 2 Things:

    I was thinking “Gangnam Style” the whole time. Even though it was not on here you mentioned Psy having 2 hits so I’m contented. He is probably considered much less of a “one-hit wonder” in his country than in the U.S. as well.

    Also, I was wondering if I would see Rebecca Black’s “Friday” on the list. I’ve concluded that “Friday” meets the “one-hit” requirement, but certainly not the “wonder” requirement, at least not in a good way.

    I enjoyed the article overall and was very happy that you made an effort to be fair to all the artists.

  6. I agree with the other commenter about Gangnam Style. I kept expecting it to pop up! Nice article- I wonder if because of our expanded industry, we will have more one hit wonders remembered in the future, or less (as the field is over saturated)

  7. This is a subject that I’ve been forced to acknowledge every time I tune my car’s radio in to a top hits station. It seems artists with single hits often get over-played, or worse yet, remixed. This article reminds me of the 90’s movie “The Wonders” with Tom Hanks. It explores a band’s brush with fame after releasing their hit “That Thing You Do.” The movie is an interesting take on what turns a top-charting band into a one-hit wonder.

    This is a nice take on the current state of our favorite song’s artists. I’m interested in how they view their moment in the sun and how it might have influenced their current situations.

  8. Katrina Swenson

    I was definitely thinking about Gotye the other day being a one-hit wonder. Nice to see my thought was justified.

  9. Carly Rae Jepsen is on the verge of tears right now. How about best one-hit wonders who teamed up as duets (Carly Rae/Owl City).

  10. As you mention, it’s hard to tackle the idea of contemporary one-hit wonders; at the same time, there are some songs that I hear and just know that this will be that artist’s high point (“Call Me Maybe,” notwithstanding her later teaming up with Owl City). Interesting and, I’d say, accurate list. It raises other questions about one-hit wonders, such as: how did their songs get to the top anyway? What is it about that particular hit made it so popular, and why is it so hard to recreate the success? Is it the industry climate? The audience? The artist? So many things I haven’t considered before, excellent!

  11. I think about this all the time. Everytime I watch a late night show and see a band perform who I don’t know or has one hit song the radio now makes me wonder where they will be in 5 years. Still in their bands? Hoping for their next hit? It’s never impossible but the fate of most people to not have that second hit always makes my stomach sink a little over the unpredictability of that business.

  12. I think this was a great list, however I felt like there could be more added to it. I really like how I was questioning if I had known of any of these one hit wonders and then I saw what you wrote and was like, “Oh yeah, I see that.”

  13. Nicholas Devin

    For me Gotye doesn’t belong on this list. As an Australian, he is relatively big here and his songs have been on the air here before Somebody That I Used To Know and continue to be on after that. No doubt when he releases his next album they will continue to be played.
    Songs like Friday and Gangnam Style really do belong here because they define the one hit wonder.
    Think about the songs from the 80s that are truly one hit wonders. I don’t think many of these songs capture the essence of that.
    Although it was written well, you could have easily added more in there to flesh out the list.

  14. Emaloo

    Interesting article, though I would have enjoyed more of a discussion on why the artist would remain a one-hit wonder in relation to the type of song they produced or historical context, not just because of the statistics.

  15. This was a very interesting article. I really like that you mentioned that we shouldn’t close the book on some of the artists just yet, like Gotye, because they still have time to capitalize on the fame from their previous hits. Overall a really great article that’s especially important to our time and how youtube is shaping the music charts nowadays.

  16. It’s a shame. I love all of these songs. (Harlem Shuffle notwithstanding.)

  17. It’s really interesting as you look at these singers and bands, their hits usually become hits because they’re very different from the main stream music we’re used too but maybe too different to give the rest of their songs a chance? Almost like we’ll only accept what’s different if the mainstream radio and TV stations approve it first.

  18. One-hit wonders are fantastic, but I thought a few key ones were missed here. Someone already mentioned Gnarls Barkley, which I echo, but there was a surprising lack of rap music. Soulja Boy, Cali Swag District, etc.
    In my opinion, the best personification of the one-hit wonder in recent memory is Edward Maya. He doesn’t have a recognizable name, but as soon as you hear “Stereo Love” in the club, you know the song, sing along to the accordion hook, and think to yourself ‘hey I should find out who this is,’ but never go through with it because you don’t feel any conviction to look him up. Because he’s a one-hit wonder. And even if you did, you’d be disappointed because all of his songs could be counted using one hand. He recorded “Stereo Love” in 2009 and has kept on the low-low key ever since.

  19. Sunni Rashad

    The Trey Songz diss at the end came across as a tad petty not to mention inaccurate as he’s managed to stay relevant since he burst on the scene in the R&B genre. I’m not a big fan of his work but to disregard it does your writing a disservice. The list was smaller than I expected. It left me wanting for more but, not in a good way. Gotye isn’t an artist for the Billboard Charts. Aside from not being an American thus not really working for success on our charts, you neglect to mention his successes in his home country where he could be crushing his competition. I could see him easily becoming an underground sensation before returning to pop-relevance.

  20. I completely agree with you on how there are some bands/artists that are one-hit wonders, which I think is a bit sad because some of their other songs and material are really good. Foster The People, for example, is known for “Pumped Up Kicks” but they had so many other great songs like “Helena Beat” or “Waste” on their Torches album. I think mainstream plays a large part in it all, but it is what it is.

  21. Maybe it is a change in the music industry with songs being produced specifically to be like one-hit wonders and play constantly on the radio.

  22. Kennedy Daughenbaugh

    One-hit wonders should be extremely happy with what they’ve accomplished in their musical careers. These artists and songs that soar to the top, then seemingly disappear, never really go away. The hits become so insanely popular that they leave little room to be forgotten. In addition, the songs also implement themselves into every day conversation. Honestly, who can make it through the sentence “does this make my butt look big?” without bursting out into “Baby Got Back” as if it were an episode of Glee? To provide an example, in my eyes Aaron Carter is only truly known for his version of the song “I Want Candy.” Just last month Aaron Carter was hired to play in a “throw back thursday” event at Ohio University. You wouldn’t believe the amount of college girls who turned back into their eight year old selves when Carter took the stage. Carter appeared to have been through some rough times and of course rumors spread like wildfire about possible drug problems, but still girls swarmed the stage to have their breasts signed by the “I Want Candy” kid. Artists like Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, and Taylor Swift are probably living one level higher in life with each song they put out, but after a while everything starts to sound the same. The real treasures are those totally out of this world, crazy one-hit wonders that stay in the hearts and heads of many forever.

  23. Sabine

    I like your criteria for one-hit-wonderdom. I also wonder which artists’ larger bodies of work will eventually be pared down to a one-hitesque legacy (which looks rather likely for groups like Foster the People with a single with mass appeal and a larger body of work worthy of equal enthusiasm).

  24. Helen Parshall

    Definitely something to think about! I’ve never stopped and thought how many one-hit wonders our generation is churning out before now. Excellent piece – definitely agree with you about Somebody that I Used To Know. Perhaps Pumped Up Kicks is a bit unfair… but regardless, excellent article!

  25. Imo La Roux couldn’t be considered as a one hit wonder because ‘In for the Kill’ was always played on the radio here in the U.K when it first came out. I must have heard that song more often than ‘Bulletproof’ so to me they couldn’t be a ONE hit wonder.
    Anyways interesting article.

  26. Anna Williams

    Apologies for the double post
    Imo La Roux couldn’t be considered as a one hit wonder because ‘In for the Kill’ was always played on the radio here in the U.K when it first came out. I must have heard that song more often than ‘Bulletproof’ so to me they couldn’t be classed as a ONE hit wonder.
    Anyways this is an interesting article.

  27. Shouldn’t we wait for artists to die to call them “one-hit wonders”? I mean, they can surprise us when we least expect it.

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