A one-hit wonder is born when the identity of a song outstrips the identity of the artist. When “Rolling In The Deep” gained sincere radio play, the focus was on Adele rather than the song. When “Just A Girl” introduced the charts to Gwen Stefani and No Doubt, the band had more personality than the track in question. While there is a matter of talent versus merely being in the right place at the right time, having only one song become massively popular can be a crushing experience for an artist. It is the music world and pop culture as a whole stating “good job having one good idea, now please go away until I’m feeling nostalgic at karoake…” True, some artists are just happy to be playing in the big leagues at all, but every one of these artists had the central goal of getting past that song. Nirvana got past “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Radiohead got past “Creep”, but most are not so fortunate. It is worth some analysis to figure out why their big hit succeeded and their follow-up single failed to set them apart.
1. Lou Bega, “I Got a Girl”
Lou Bega had the misfortune of being floated by three short-lived 90s fads: the swing music revival, the Latin music revival, and Will Smith’s rap career. His unavoidable “Mambo No. 5” became a smash hit worldwide, still holding the record for most weeks at #1 in France and the dubious honor of being called “the best pop song of all time” by conservative talk-radio host and overstuffed duffel bag Rush Limbaugh. Bega’s follow-up single, “I Got A Girl,” makes the classic mistake of sounding way too much like its predecessor. Whereas in “Mambo” he lists the names of the girls he’s “got,” his second single merely lists the places: “You’ve got a girl in Paris/you’ve got a girl in Rome/You’ve even got a girl in the Vatican Dome.” The opening verses are strong evidence of self-plagiarism. “One, two, three, four, five/Everybody in the car so come on, let’s ride” says “Mambo,” but “six, seven, eight, nine, ten/Lou Bega on a trip/ Would you all come in?” asks “I Got A Girl.” Featuring the same syncopated and synthesized horn beat of “Mambo,” I imagine most would hear it and still remember how funny it was to hear the name Monica in the late 90s.
2. The Buggles, “Living In A Plastic Age”
Most would probably be shocked to know the new wave creators of “Video Killed The Radio Star” were merely two guys, given their most famous hook is sung by a woman (disco starlet Tina Charles). “Living In The Plastic Age,” however, is prototypical early new wave, landing somewhere between Devo and A Flock of Seagulls. The song draws parallels between a dystopian, image-obsessed future culture and what they saw in the early 1980s (surely an impossibly large and unbelievable stretch of the imagination). “Talking fast I make a deal/Buy the fake and sell what’s real” is probably the best advice any artist could have used in 1980. The irony of this song is “Video Killed The Radio Star” would, two years later, be the first music video to play on MTV, a television network that now seems to pride itself on a torrential lack of substance, dragging down most of basic cable with it.
3. Owl City, “Vanilla Twilight”
Adam Young’s experiment in blatantly ripping off Ben Gibbard bringing dreamy synth pop to the masses yielded little more than 2009s “Fireflies.” “Vanilla Twilight” is similarly weepy and filled with the sort of sentimental drivel 13-year-old girls will cling to when the cute-yet-pale boy next to them turns out to be a Minecraft fanatic and not Edward Cullen.”When violet eyes get brighter/And heavy wings grow lighter/I’ll taste the sky and feel alive again” sings Young, presumably trying really hard to imagine what acid makes you see (a more accurate lyric for that purpose would be “When a passing jet goes by/I’m pretty certain I’ll die/So I cut out my tongue and pray to Ra”). It’s still quite early after “Fireflies” to write Owl City off, but considering their most recent accomplishment is a collaboration with fellow future-bargain-bin-filler Carly Rae Jepsen, I speak with a certain degree of confidence.
4. Billy Ray Cyrus, “Could’ve Been Me”
Probably my favorite memory associated with the mulleted crooner Billy Ray was being 5 at a Chuck E. Cheese-style restaurant and watching animatronic bears singing “Achy Breaky Heart,” easily one of the worst country songs to ever become a crossover hit. Country was in a weird space as a genre in 1992, not quite embracing the swagger of Garth Brooks, the breathy sex appeal of Shania Twain or The Dixie Chicks, or the Rick Rubin-ized reincarnation of Johnny Cash. That said, it’s hard to see why the literal Bigwigs of Nashville failed to catch on to Cyrus as an artist, though it could possibly be his failure to sing like he meant a goddamn thing he was saying. Whereas “Achy Breaky” was groan-inducing, cheesy, and had a hummable tune, “Could’ve Been Me,” with its predictable lost-love storyline and failure to relate any original emotion at all, is the sort of country song that turns off most people above the Mason-Dixon from the genre as a whole.
5. The Knack, “Good Girls Don’t”
It must be a sad day when you realize your band is most famous for not living up to expectations. While “My Sharona” remains an outstandingly fun listen more than 30 years later, The Knack suffered a massive PR backlash when it became common knowledge they were not only singing about underage girls (Sharona was, in fact, 17) but Capitol Records was also working overtime to sell them as the new Beatles, even modeling their debut album Get The Knack after Meet The Beatles. “Good Girls Don’t,” which likewise uses risqué lyrics as a backdrop against their British Invasion style, had to have both an album release and a “clean” release. A sampling: “And it’s a teenage sadness/Everyone has got to taste/An in-between age madness/That you know you can’t erase/’Til she’s sitting on your face.” 1979 was such a simple time. But much like the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies or The Darkness, The Knack suffered from purposefully identifying themselves with a previous era, regaling them to a novelty act (especially when the era in question gave us “A Day In The Life” and Tommy).
6. OMC, “Land of Plenty”
Slacker anthems were a dimebag-a-dozen when “How Bizarre” topped US charts in 1997 (two years after its release), so why did these New Zealanders strike the match so well? There’s something about “How Bizarre” — which melts the brash story-telling of early rap with the lean-back relaxation of Cake — that makes you want to sit in back with Brother Pele (Sweet Zina having already called shotgun) and go cruising down some beach freeway while unironically using words like “righteous” and “funky.” The follow-up, “Land of Plenty,” is similar musically (holding on to easy-breezy acoustic riffs and atmospheric trumpets) but is largely a patriotic poem lamenting poverty in their island home country — probably explaining their diminished popularity abroad thereafter. While singing about poverty in America can make you quite wealthy here, poverty elsewhere can, evidently, go fuck itself.
7. Soft Cell, “Bedsitter”
While it must be a gash to the ego to only have one song you’ve written gain popularity, it must be even worse to have success with only a cover song. “Tainted Love,” originally recorded by 60s soul artist Gloria Jones, is a song so sinister and powerfully written it may be impossible to ruin, but Soft Cell used a Kraftwerk-esque instrumentation to bring it to dance floors and is still a regular on classic rock radio (often combined with the B-side, a similar cover of “Where Did Our Love Go?”). “Bedsitter,” the second act after “Tainted Love,” hit number one in 17 countries and is a pure embarrassment. Driven by a synth beat that reminds one of nothing less than a sick cat, it sounds quite like a supercilious Depeche Mode parody. Its humdrum tale of a depressive club-hopper immediately brings to mind the goth kids from South Park saying, “dancing is something you do in your room alone at three in the morning.”
8. Semisonic, “Singing In My Sleep”
The cause for a follow-up single’s failure is not always found within the song itself. Some, like Semisonic’s response to 1998’s “Closing Time,” are merely good songs that don’t match their predecessor. “Singing In My Sleep” is not, like most of the songs on this list, an entirely terrible song (it is a wee bit generic for late-90s radio rock and the synthesizer can only be so reminiscent of N64-era Zelda). It’s catchy and has just-fine lyric work; it is what is technically called an “okay song.” However, “Closing Time” was a far more fantastic track with a damn fine hook and heartfelt lyricism. “Singing In My Sleep” is victim to the expectations game. Similar artists of the era like Matchbox 20, Third Eye Blind, or the Goo Goo Dolls managed to play their expectations well, stretching their talent out to last through several strings of hits. Semisonic seemed to have given it all in one push and paid the price.
9. Sir Mix-A-Lot, “Ride”
Listening to “Baby Got Back” today feels a lot like listening to spoofs of rap music, as if it were rap minstrelsy. The lyrics are so hokey and Mix-A-Lot’s delivery so self-consciously blunt it can survive as a hit on humor and novelty alone, which can actually be somewhat refreshing when our current options are the rasp of Pitbull’s arrogance or the psychodrama of Kanye West. “Ride,” however, does very little to change this lyrical formula — even stating “I might get banned but I still like butts” — and placing it on top of an 8-bit beat and a cloying sample that barely registers as a hook. This was an era in rap when popularity for the genre had been gained but the novelty had not quite worn off, with Top 40 artists either being too goofy (MC Hammer or Vanilla Ice) or attempting things mainstream audiences were not quite ready for (Dr. Dre or Ice Cube). So perhaps Mix-A-Lot was merely plagued by being a controversial artist in what was still quite a new style, but this sophomoric effort ensured “Baby Got Back” will be the only song referenced in his obituary.
10. Rebecca Black, “My Moment”
Picking on Rebecca Black is a bit like shooting Rebecca Black in a barrel. The ironic popularity of “Friday” allowed the entire internet to do its favorite thing: make fun of a 13-year-old girl while simultaneously earning her way more money than an 8th-grader should have alongside a cameo in a Katy Perry video and nationally-televised performances. Call her the William Hung of the YouTube era. Given that her only single was not as famous as it was infamous, she can either celebrate the low bar her second single must pass or mourn the fact she, with quite a bit of life ahead of her, is tagged to an Auto-tuned piece of preteen nonsense for which her parents shelled out $4,000 to something that literally calls itself a music “factory.” “My Moment” is disappointing in that it will allow no one the same schadenfreude provided by “Friday.” While still quite blanche and reliant on pitch correction, it could easily pass for a Disney Channel theme song or an off-key Taylor Swift cover. “Don’t miss out on your chance/Your life is in your hands/So take it just as far as you can/But trusting in yourself, forget everyone else” is exactly the sort of inspirational message one would expect from someone without their driver’s license. What makes Rebecca Black so interesting is she pulls the veil off of 90% of pop music today. With what can only be assumed is a modest budget, her music easily blends in with the Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus’ of the world. Check out these terribly cheesy lyrics from Black’s third single, “Fly To Your Heart”: “Touch every rainbow/Painting the sky/Look at the magic/Glide through your life.” Isn’t that just truly awful… oh, I’m sorry. That’s actually “Fly To Your Heart” by best-selling artist and Bieber GF Selena Gomez. But alas, her marketing (and yes, complete and utter lack of singing ability) is what has done her in. She was caught in a maelstrom of gleeful hate and no amount of post-production will bring her into the pop music fold.