One-Hit Wonders: A Philosophical Exploration
We should all love one-hit wonders. As the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclites once said: “Potamoi gar out estin eubenai dis toi autoi skidensi kai palin suvagei… kai prosesie kai apeisi.” Or, put another way: “You cannot step in the same river twice, for other waters and yet other waters ever go flowing on.”
Put more simply, we should love one-hit wonders because everything is a one-hit wonder. Not only can you not step in the same river twice (…for other waters ever go flowing on), but you also won’t even be the same person 0.2 seconds from now, when you oh-so-cautiously dip your toe in that water again.
Life is the ultimate one-hit wonder, no do-overs, mulligans, or backsies allowed. Stupidly yell at your girlfriend? That’s on your record forever, baby. You can’t take it back. Call your parents jerks? Ditto. Crash your car into a tree? Yep.
The river is time and time is life and life is flux and ever goes flowing on.
Which brings me to the topic of the Fine Young Cannibals.
As a young person — much like Al Gore — I invented the Internet.
As a thirteen year-old, I hated buying albums, because albums suck. If I pause to think about it for 0.2 seconds, I can only come up with four albums that don’t suck — i.e., that have good songs all the way through: “Achtung Baby” by U2, “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got” by Sinead O’Connor, “Different Class” by Pulp, and “Hot Fuss” by the Killers.
ANY-way, buying albums sucks, because even most “good” ones only have three good songs… and then ten lousy songs. But when I was thirteen years old, while having a conversation with my friend Colin, I came up with the idea of a “mix-tape store,” where you could buy a blank tape, and then record only the individual songs that you wanted, so that you wouldn’t have to buy Hole’s entire album when all you wanted to do was hear “Miss World” and “Violet.” I suggested a reasonable price for each song that you “bought” — say, a dollar a song.
I had invented the Internet!
Flash-forward to 2009, and we have iTunes, Napster, Limewire, et al. All of which are just electronified variations of my “mix-tape store.” Naturally I didn’t see a single cent of profit from my idea. Wasn’t it Jesus who said that prophets are always unfairly ignored by assholes? If he didn’t, he should have.
Aside from porn, neurotically checking your email every fifteen seconds, and — oh yes, blogging — downloading songs from albums that you don’t want to buy is the only actual function of the internet that I can see.
One-hit wonders were designed for the Internet, but one-hit wonders were also designed for our lives. Verily, our entire lives are one-hit wonders. …Which is a point that I’ve already made, but I needed to close out this section of the essay. It’s cool how that works, right?
One-hit wonders exist in every art form. There are novel one-hit wonders (The Secret History, A Confederacy of Dunces). There are poetry one-hit wonders. (Quick! Name a poem by Robert Frost that doesn’t start with “…Whose woods these are I think I know.”) There are movie one-hit wonders (“Fletch” — the only funny Chevy Chase movie ever!). There are probably painting and sculpture one-hit wonders, although I can’t be bothered to think of any right now.
But the area where the art form of the one-hit wonder most excels is, of course… music.
And musical one-hit wonders can be divided into three categories…
1) THE ANNOYING ONE-HIT WONDER. The Dead or Alive song above is a pretty good example of this. It’s a catchy little tune, but clearly, we didn’t want to spend the rest of our lives hanging out with a guy with a half-shaved head, Chinese robe, and eye-patch. Fare-thee-well, Dead or Alive.
Likewise, the Fine Young Cannibals song from a little earlier is pretty goddamn annoying as well. Granted, it’s a much better song than “You Spin Me Round”; in fact, it’s almost a great song. But the reason it succeeds — the reason it got stuck in our heads, as well as the reason that it steadily moved up to number one on the charts — is the same reason that it fails: the singer’s incredibly annoying falsetto. His falsetto is what makes the song great; without it, it’d just be another blah song. Unfortunately, the falsetto also makes you want to punch the singer. In the face. This is not a recipe for long-term career success. So much for you, Fine Young Cannibals.
But the ne plus ultra of the Annoying One-Hit Wonder, as far as I can tell, is “The God Song” by Joan Osborne. After this song came out, everyone in America wanted to hit Joan Osborne on the head with a shovel. As far as I can tell, this was the entire point of the song, which features lyrics like “What if God was one of us/ Just a slob like one of us,” and “Nobody callin’ on the phone/ ‘Cept for the Pope maybe in Rome.” If Sarah Palin’s personality was a song, that song would be this one. But again, the awful annoying dumbness of the song and its lyrics was all part of the plan… to get this song stuck in our collective heads, and to move some records. Joan’s irritating nose ring may have been part of the plan too, but I can’t confirm that for sure.
Clearly, there was nothing to do after hearing this song other than to go out and personally kill Joan Osborne. And I’m guessing that that’s what happened, because we haven’t heard from her since.
All one-hit wonders contain messages for our lives, and the Annoying One-Hit Wonder is no exception. In the case of Dead or Alive, that message is: hey, maybe tone it down a little, fella. In the case of Joan Osborne: maybe it’s better to be ignored than to become a national joke.
THE MORAL: Not all attention is good attention.
OTHER EXAMPLES: “So Happy Together” by The Turtles, “Wooly Bully” by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, “Mambo No. 5″ by Lou Bega, “Mony Mony” by Tommy James and the Shondells, almost any “bubblegum” song, and the horrendous “I’m Too Sexy” by Right Said Fred. Plus, of course, “Who Let the Dogs Out?” and the unforgivable “Macerena.” And let us not forget “Tubthumping” by Chumbawumba or however you spell it. …And let us also not forget that these categories are somewhat fluid. In a different frame of mind, “Tubthumping” might charitably be considered a Category Three, or “Inexplicable” O.H.W.
2) THE AWESOME ONE-HIT WONDER
This is the rarest of breeds, and also the most difficult to comment on. It is also easily confused with Category Three, the “Inexplicable” One-Hit Wonder, or I.O.H.W. To differentiate between the two, understand that the A.O.H.W. must be viewed, strangely enough, as a negative. Here, the question is not “Why?” — as it is for the I.O.H.W. Rather, the question is “Why not?” As in — This person is obviously talented and has had a long career, but has never made another hit song. Why not? “Fast Car” is clearly an awesome song, Tracy wrote it by him/herself, and Tracy Chapman is still out there performing somewhere. And yet he/she has never had another hit… why not?
The answer is that there is no answer.
THE MORAL: Sic transit gloria mundi.
OTHER EXAMPLES: “Hey Ya” by Outkast, “Battleflag” by Lo-Fidelity All Stars, “Spin Spin Sugar” by the Sneaker Pimps, “Common People” by Pulp, “Wonderwall” by Oasis, “Song 2″ by Blur, “If You’re Feeling Sinister” by Belle and Sebastian. It might be noted here that the A.O.H.W. trends dangerously close to fan/non-fan territory. If you’re a fan of Oasis (as I am), you could easily argue that they had other “hits.” “What about ‘Champagne Supernova’?” you might say. But unless you’re a fan, you don’t actually remember that song. “Wonderwall” is the only Oasis song that anyone remembers, and even then you’d have to jog most people’s memory, and remind them that they liked it in the first place. It might also be noted that most of these bands are English, for some reason.
3) THE INEXPLICABLE ONE-HIT WONDER
It is important to clarify these from the Awesome One-Hit Wonderses of the world. First of all, the I.O.H.W. almost invariably comes at the beginning of the artist’s career. Without the I.O.H.W., there never really would have been a band in the first place. And once the I.O.H.W. is over, the band is over. …Hence the highly existential question: “Why?” As in; “So this is all you had in the tank, huh?” Or even more simply: “What the hell went wrong?”
Inexplicable One-Hit Wonders are called Inexplicable for a reason. Hearing them is like staring at an old yearbook photo of yourself. Probably a yearbook photo from the eighties (when so many of these songs were written). …I used to wear that sweater? …I had that haircut? You still recognize and even understand the person in the photo, but really, you’ve Moved On. In the same way (sort of), “Come On Eileen” is a great song, but what’s the deal with those overalls? What’s the deal with those inexplicable lyrics? …And “Relax, don’t do it/ When you want to come” …those were the words to a hit song?
Put more simply — “Fast Car” will always be a good song. “Relax,” on the other hand — well, we’re not so sure about that one yet. It’s all a little inexplicable, in a way.
The I.O.H.W. is also a dangerous category for a young artist to fall into. However, some do manage to escape it. I would have bet a million dollars (for instance), that “My Name Is” would have been the only Eminem song that anyone ever heard. I turned out to be wrong (in a good way). On the other hand, in a bad way, would anyone have ever guessed that we’d still be talking about Britney Spears ten years after “Hit Me Baby One More Time”? But “Oops! I Did It Again” secured her place in the firmament, for better or for worse.
You just never can tell, can you?
It’s all so… inexplicable.
THE MORAL: Sing for the moment, Carpe Diem, gather ye rosebuds while you may, life moves pretty fast; you might never be this happy (or wealthy) again, so enjoy it while it lasts, bucko.
OTHER EXAMPLES: “You Get What You Give” by The New Radicals, “She Blinded Me with Science” by Thomas Dolby, “Rock n’ Roll, Part 2″ by Gary Glitter, “Steal My Sunshine” by Len, “How Bizarre” by OMC, “Lovefool” by the Cardigans, “Connected” by Stereo MCs, “Don’t Wanna Fall in Love” by Jane Child, “Unbelievable” by EMF, “Right Here Right Now” by Jesus Jones, “Black Velvet” by Alannah Myles, “Semi-Charmed Life” by Third Eye Blind, “Breathe Me” by Sia, “Spaceship” by Angie Aparo, “Circle of Friends” by Edie Brickell, “Stay” by Lisa Loeb, “Jump Around” by House of Pain, “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles, “Rock You Like a Hurricane” by The Scorpions, “Gangster’s Paradise” by Coolio, “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash, “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugar Hill Gang, “This or That,” by Black Sheep, and on and on and on… And of course, “Louie Louie,” “Land Down Under,” “Safety Dance,” and “Come On Eileen,” each of which has a good claim for being the über one-hit wonder song.
ADDITIONAL BONUS FUN TIME:
4) NON-CATEGORY CATEGORY — ARTISTS AND BANDS THAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN ONE-HIT WONDERS
As with so many other things in life, taste (and internal consistency) can be your only guide here. For myself, I can say with confidence that I only need one goddamn Mariah Carey song… EVER. (And that song would be “Honey.”) And I don’t need any Pearl Jam songs, but hey; that’s a little off-topic.
Phil Collins should have clearly stopped with “Sussudio.” (Or maybe “Invisible Touch,” if we’re being charitable.) Kid Rock did not heed our clear psychic messages to go… the fuck… away… after “Badwitaba.” But even better bands might have been better off as one-hit-wonders. If Journey had only released “Don’t Stop Believing,” we’d lose “Any Way You Want It” …but would that have been such a tragedy, considering that it makes me think of Rodney Dangerfield movies?
Likewise, Elton John. What if he had done only “Tiny Dancer”? Sure, I like “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” but I would have also been spared “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.”
One word: Billy Joel. That’s two words. Two additional words: “Piano Man.” Just end it right there, please.
Soundgarden doesn’t work for this experiment, because their one “hit” would have been “Black Hole Sun,” which is the worst song that I’ve ever heard in my life.
Treading into somewhat fuzzier territory… “Sweet Child O’Mine” is one of the greatest songs ever recorded, but what if Axel Rose had died in an unexpected bus accident immediately after “Welcome to the Jungle”? Yeah, we’d lose some good stuff, but the man would be worshiped as a singular perfect legend… instead of what we’ve got now.
How about Bob Dylan? I like about five of his songs… but do we really need the other seven thousand? But this hypothetical would force me to choose between “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” which is clearly impossible. So Bob Dylan escapes this hypothetical.
The Kinks, The Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, The Animals… I’m not advising one way or another. Just think about it, is all I’m saying. The Byrds have three good songs, right? Would we be willing to keep one, ditch the other two, and forgo the 300 not-so-good songs? It’s a difficult question. Jefferson Airplane? I’m a little less conflicted about that one. And if Grace Slick dies at twenty-five via choking on a ham sandwich, then there’s never any “We Built This City.”
Think it over.
Think it over…
The Smashing Pumpkins.
The Beastie Boys.
The possibilities are endless.
One thing is clear, though. Pearl Jam is a really shitty band.
…In the end, we must learn to treasure our one-hit wonders the way that we must learn to treasure every singular moment of our time on this earth. All is flux, as Heraclites once said. …Like sand through the hourglass, these are the one-hit wonders of our lives.
 Okay, and almost all of the Beatles’ albums. And the Rolling Stones album that has “Street Fightin’ Man” on it. And “The Last Waltz” doesn’t count because it’s a concert album. Okay, and “The Joshua Tree.” Am I diminishing my point here? Okay, and “Nevermind” by Nirvana. This was not what my original point was supposed to be. …By the way, in an interesting side-note to my original point, most people consider Sinead O’Connor to be a one-hit wonder. And they’re right; she is. The only song that anyone knows is “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Of course, to me she’s not a one-hit wonder. I will be bringing this point up again, later on.
 Or maybe not.
 There is probably a better example than “Fletch.”
 …”The Thinker,” maybe?
 …It’s either this song or the “Bitch Song” by Meredith Brooks, I guess… and not necessarily for the obvious reason that you’re thinking of.
 Every single person who has seen the “God Song” video has felt obliged to comment on Joan Osborne’s quote-unquote “pig face.” This is totally rude and unfair, but also totally accurate.
 Although in the case of Tracy Chapman, the answer might be that we could never figure out if he/she was a guy/girl.
 You could also argue that Blur is the world’s only double one-hit wonder band, since “Girls and Boys” was an enormous hit for them back in the day. But “Girls and Boys” barely even sounds like a Blur song, and I’d wager real money that no one can even remember that they wrote it.
 And this isn’t even taking into account the whole “Gorillaz” issue/non-issue.
 You could also also argue that Pulp and Belle and Sebastian were never even popular enough to have a one-hit wonder, and that I just stuck them on this list because I like them. You’d have a pretty good point there.
 Specifically, “Back to School.”
 I’m not counting “Hey Joe,” as that became more of a Jimi Hendrix song.
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