How One-hit Wonders Work


Thomas Dolby still blinds people with science at shows all over the world.
Thomas Dolby still blinds people with science at shows all over the world.
Andy Sheppard/Getty Images

The one-hit wonder. The very term conjures up images of red balloons, blinding science and burning beds -- images of Eileen and Mickey spinning right round like a record as they do the safety dance in Key Largo. You get the picture. Nobody is sure exactly which artist was first declared a one-hit wonder. The Web site phrases.org claims a writer from the Winnipeg Free Press first used the term in print in 1977, as a counter to the band Abba's success. But the Web site notes that it appeared to be a known phrase.

For artists who carry the burden of this sobriquet, it's a tag that sticks. You hear band names like Men Without Hats and Timbuk 3, and those three words creep into your brain. Sadly, people like Thomas Dolby, Nina Hagen and Gary Numan are part of this select club. It's probably especially tough for someone like Numan, who had a successful recording career in England, but never placed more than one song, 1980's "Cars," on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart. In fact, Numan continues to record and tour, which is more than can be said of many of his one-hit counterparts.

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Although the term is typically associated with the recording industry, the one-hit stigma isn't reserved for just singers. History is rich with famous flame-outs, from painters and authors to inventors and athletes. In fact, many baseball players' major league careers consist of just one single hit, making them literal one-hit wonders. New York Mets player Chris Jelic had only one hit, but it was a home run. Not to be outdone, a St. Louis Cardinal catcher named Keith McDonald had only three career hits, also all home runs.

In baseball, just one hit means you failed in your career. In the music business, you're lucky to get a recording contract, much less chart even one bona fide hit. So being a one-hit wonder can't be as bad as it seems, right? We'll let you decide after you take a look at the following famous one-hit wonders.

Musical One-hit Wonders

Not many people consider Janis Joplin a one-hit wonder even though she only had one hit.
Not many people consider Janis Joplin a one-hit wonder even though she only had one hit.
GAB Archive/Getty Images

Although the term "one-hit wonder" has been used in many circles, from drug culture to boxing, when most people hear it, they think of bands or singers with only one hit. What does it take to be categorized as a one-hit wonder in the music biz?

Technically, a "hit" is a song that makes the Billboard Hot 100 Chart. For one-hit wonder status, this is usually narrowed down to the top 40. However, some legendary artists with huge followings have technically only had one Billboard hit. It's doubtful that many people think of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin or Rush as one-hit wonders, even though they each charted only once. Other popular musicians with only one hit include Beck, Garth Brooks, The Grateful Dead, The White Stripes and Devo. And then there are the artists who never had a top 40 hit, but their song was somehow firmly lodged in the zeitgeist of whatever decade it was released. Neither Wall of Voodoo's "Mexican Radio" nor Modern English's "I Melt with You" charted higher than 58, but they're both generally noted as classic 1980s one-hit wonders.

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The examples above show that being a one-hit wonder is more about striking a chord with a generation of music fans with a lone song than it is about the chart position of that song. The 1980s were rife with one-hit wonders, but each decade can lay claim to its own batch of classics. The 1950s started with one-hit wonders like "Earth Angel" by The Penguins and "Sh-Boom" by The Chords, and wrapped up with "Rockin Robin" from Bobby Day. The heyday of classic rock, the late 1960s, had its share of one-hit wonders as well with songs like "Summertime Blues" from Blue Cheer and "Green Tambourine" by the Lemon Pipers. Nineteen-seventies disco was riddled with one-hit wonders, but before disco even hit, the following songs topped the charts:

  • "Spirit in the Sky" -- Norman Greenbaum
  • "Are You Ready" -- Pacific Gas & Electric
  • "Mr. Big Stuff" -- Jean Knight
  • "Hold Your Head Up" -- Argent
  • "One Toke Over the Line" -- Brewer & Shipley
  • "Seasons in the Sun" -- Terry Jacks

These are just a handful of the hundreds of one-hit-wonder examples from the music world. Entire Web sites and Internet radio stations are dedicated to keeping this music alive, ensuring that each one-hit wonder will remain a hit.

Literary and Film One-hit Wonders

Perhaps because creative industries keep track of popularity as a benchmark of success, the creative world is full of one-hit wonders. (You won't find many one-hit wonder lists for what the average blue- or white-collar worker does for a living.) Although the music world has a corner on the market, there are plenty of examples from literary circles, as well. The most often mentioned literary one-hit wonder is Harper Lee's classic book "To Kill a Mockingbird." Lee never published another book. Neither did Ralph Ellison, during his lifetime at least, after his National Book Award winning "Invisible Man" in 1953. Other notable literary one hit wonders include:

  • "Gone With the Wind" -- Margaret Mitchell
  • "Wuthering Heights" -- Emily Bronte
  • "The Bell Jar" -- Sylvia Plath
  • "A Confederacy of Dunces" -- John Kennedy Toole

Both Plath and Toole committed suicide, which is why they didn't write follow-up hits. Plath killed herself months after the release of "The Bell Jar," and Toole took his life years before his hit published. It should be noted that Plath was already on the map as a successful poet, so her one-hit wonder status only applies to her novel writing success.

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As with writing novels, making a hit movie is difficult to do, and there are quite a few film directors who've only had one hit. There's certainly no guarantee of future successes after attaining one. Just ask director Michael Cimino, who hit it big with his Vietnam Era epic "The Deer Hunter" in 1978. Though this movie scored five Academy Awards, including one for Best Picture, his follow up "Heaven's Gate" was a notorious disaster; none of his five films that followed amounted to much. And sadly, the life of writer/director Steve Gordon ended not long after he made his lone hit comedy "Arthur" in 1981.

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Sources

  • "11 Music Superstars Who are Technically One-Hit Wonders." 11points.com. May 5, 2010. http://www.11points.com/Music/11_Music_Superstars_Who_are_Technically_One-Hit_Wonders
  • "Chris Jelic." Baseball-reference.com. 2011.http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/j/jelicch01.shtml
  • "Keith McDonald." Baseball-reference.com. 2011.http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/m/mcdonke01.shtml
  • "One Hit Wonder." Phrases.org. 2010.http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/one-hit-wonder.html
  • "One Hit Wonders." Onehitwondercentral.com. 2011.http://www.onehitwondercentral.com/
  • "Smiley Face." Worcesterhistory.org. 2011.http://www.worcesterhistory.org/wo-smiley.html
  • "Steve Gordon." Imdb.com, 2011.http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0330619/
  • Cargill, C. Robert. "Modern One-Hit Wonders." Film.com. Sept. 20, 2010. http://www.film.com/features/story/modern-one-hit-wonders/40903211