Tuesday, August 25, 2015

What Makes a One-Hit Wonder?

We all know them, and at least love some of them. They are as memorable as they are fleeting. They're apparently also in decline, according to this recent CBC feature article. Using Canadian songstress Carly Rae Jepsen, of "Call Me Maybe" fame and more recent E·MO·TION fame, as a case study, the article discusses the recent tendency of hitmakers to return to the top of the charts. It quite aptly mentions the risk-averse nature of today's music industry, which leads to proven hitmakers receiving more financial backing than first-timers, along with the paucity of different songs on the charts these days. If songs stay on longer than before, there are less of them, and thus less one-hit wonders, and so on.

This post isn't simply a discussion of the article, though. I've linked to the article for that. Rather, it's about the metric the interviewed data journalist uses for determining whether an artist is a one-hit wonder:

BB: So what is the definition of a one-hit wonder that you're working with when you do your research?
DK: People that only made the Billboard Top 100 one time and never made it again.
BB: So even if you cracked at 99, you're no longer a one-hit wonder.
DK: That's right.
[underline emphasis mine]

I raised an eyebrow at that underlined part there. On its face, it makes enough sense. The Billboard Top 100 is far from perfect, but it seems to be a good enough metric. It is, of course, heavily biased toward the US, especially considering the prominent place the UK Singles Chart holds in Western pop music lore. The more glaring question that came to mind, though, is "what about album artists?"

I decided to look up the chart histories of some of the past few decades' most famous artists known principally for their albums. Think of it as the one-hit wonder version of the infamous BMI of NFL players study from a years ago. Here are some understandably hilarious results.

Artists you didn't know were one-hit wonders:
King Crimson - "The Court of the Crimson King" (1969)*
Judas Priest - "You've Got Another Thing Coming" (1982)
NWA - "Straight Outta Compton" (1988)
The Replacements - "I'll Be You" (1989)
Megadeth - "Symphony of Destruction" (1992)

King Crimson was a highly influential band that had albums chart at 28 and 31 in the US, and much higher (5 and 4) in their native UK. Judas Priest has sold four platinum albums in the US alone. NWA has sold two platinum albums in the US (their only two). The Replacements released a string of influential albums that are sadly obscured in terms of commercial performance. Added to that is that "I'll Be You" is nowhere near their best-known song. Megadeth has sold six platinum albums in the US alone. So... one-hit wonders, anyone?

Possibly even weirder, none of Slayer,** Anthrax, Pantera or Iron Maiden has ever cracked the Billboard Top 100, despite a slew of highly successful albums between them - and plenty of UK singles hits. Meanwhile, [gulp], Duncan Sheik has. Sister Hazel actually has two Top 100 singles. (No, I don't know "Change Your Mind" either, and I was pretty into pop culture in 2000.)

While the metric is safely blasted to bits on its letter, I get the spirit of it. Some artists are just one-hit wonders, no matter how great they are. Nonetheless, the Billboard Top 100 test needs a lot of qualifiers, mostly based on UK Singles Chart and just about everywhere album performance.

*In all fairness to the metric I'm poking fun at here, King Crimson was notorious for simply not releasing singles off its albums, even more than, say, Pantera.
**Hot Singles Sales is a separate chart.

NOTE: Apparently, EMF and A-Ha had multiple Billboard Top 100 hits. You learn something every day, I suppose. (Check the top links if you're confused about why I'm commenting on this.)

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