When was the last time you heard a song on the radio and couldn’t place the artist or the title? It has felt like years since I last heard a song topping the charts without having heard or known something about the artist prior. Since the 80s, 90s and early 2000s, the music industry has evolved in ways that make it difficult for underground artists on the periphery of the mainstream to keep up with current trends.
The charts nowadays are chock-a-block with household names; Ariana Grande, Stormzy, Taylor Swift, and Ed Sheeran to name just a few. Artists with reputable discographies tend to dominate the charts more than ever because they are no longer purely musicians, but commodified brands supported by armies of songwriters, producers, stylists, and publicists. Large teams enhance the quality and the accessibility of their music through streaming services such as Spotify, billboards in densely populated areas, and other public projects that boost audience awareness. Artists without access to the funds to employ creatives tend to struggle competing against those that are more established and have a larger platform.
Twitter and other social media sites exacerbate the difficulty for smaller artists to score a mainstream hit. Fandoms work hard to support their artist. By sharing music, communicating upcoming releases, and holding numerous listening parties, they rack up media attention and popularity. In this sense, fans also help to get their favourites nominated for awards and accolades. Many music awards shows are dictated by votes from the public, such as the upcoming Billboard Music Awards and the American Music Awards, and thus fandoms can directly impact the recipients of these awards and the press coverage that comes afterwards. It is clear then that musicians with one hit song and smaller fan activity will inevitably struggle in the market and lose out on the opportunity to solidify their place in the mainstream realm of the music industry.
One-hit wonders are often characterised because of their fleeting moment of notoriety; they usually offer something fresh, unique, and catchy that strikes a chord within the public. They can capture a sound previously unexplored within the industry and this is what makes them exciting. This was the case with Gotye and Kimbra’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” that peaked at Number 1 on the UK Charts at the beginning of 2012. The track is a slow, sonically minimalistic mix of raspy vocals, acoustic background harmonies, and a xylophone. It creatively twists the classic melody of the nursery rhyme ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ into an emotional heartbreak ballad. It contrasted with the increasingly produced bubble-gum pop sound that filled the charts – most notably Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Call Me Maybe.’ Its catchy simplicity yet unique sounding rhythm propelled it into cars, cafés, and classrooms across the globe. Yet eventually the song ran its course and Gotye and Kimbra faded from the mainstream charts.
Gotye and Kimbra, and the plethora of other one-hit wonders may have fallen from their pedestal of momentary fame, but that did not spell the end of their careers. Most one-hit wonders continue to create music for their smaller fanbases. Personally, Carly Rae Jepsen has been one such artist whose music I love and listen to on repeat. Carly topped charts across the world in 2012 with her cheeky, lovesick anthem “Call Me Maybe.” Carly continues to release brilliant tracks of pure pop perfection, reminiscent of her mega-hit. Yet her current releases also demonstrate her artistic evolution. Her most recent album ‘Dedicated’ takes the route of synthpop, dancefloor musicality that continues to be lovesick and yet euphoric and mature. Carly proves that just because an artist can have one mega-hit, it is not worth to simply write them off afterwards.
One-hit wonders thus straddle the unique fabrics of the music industry by achieving popularity against the grain of a commodified and Capitalist market. Their authenticity is their defining quality; they evoke a sense of nostalgia that is comforting in their effect and specific in their temporality. Yet try not to confine the artist to their song – take a chance on these artists and explore the rest of their discography.
Illustration by Verity Laycock