In the music industry, a one-hit wonder is an artist who is generally known for only one hit single.
To be considered a one-hit wonder, it is not enough that an artist have had only one song in the top 40 positions of Billboard Magazine’s list of most popular pop singles; the qualification most music industry insiders use to consider a song a hit. To be defined as a one-hit wonder, an artist must be widely known for only that hit. Most one-hit wonders fade from the public eye quickly after their one hit falls from the singles chart.
One-hit wonders are common in any era of pop music but are most common during reigns of entire genres that do not last for more than a few years, such as disco and new wave.
The hits of many one-hit wonders are novelty songs that are, to an extent, deliberately short-lived, recorded for humor or to cash in on the latest pop culture fad. Examples include C.W. McCall’s "Convoy," related to the shortwave radio fad of the 1970s, and Buckner & Garcia’s "Pac Man Fever," related to the arcade game Pac Man. More commonly however, one-hit wonders are serious-minded musicians who struggled to continue their success after their popularity waned.
In 2002, the American cable network VH1 aired a countdown of the “100 greatest one-hit Wonders.” The top ten consisted of:
- Los Del Rio - "Macarena" (1996)
- Soft Cell - "Tainted Love" (1982)
- Dexys Midnight Runners - "Come On Eileen" (1982)
- Right Said Fred - "I'm Too Sexy" (1992)
- Toni Basil - "Mickey" (1982)
- Baha Men - "Who Let The Dogs Out" (2000)
- Vanilla Ice - "Ice Ice Baby" (1990)
- a-ha - "Take On Me" (1985)
- Gerardo - "Rico Suave" (1991)
- Nena - "99 Luftballons" (1984)
Many one-hit wonders may have several minor hit singles but because those songs have been eclipsed by a much greater hit are nonetheless considered one-hit wonders. For example, The Knack's "My Sharona", Soft Cell's "Tainted Love" and Free's "All Right Now" have overshadowed careers which, at one time, encompassed several somewhat popular songs.
Performers who are successful in one country but who are known for only one song in others are usually considered one-hit wonders in the latter countries. Germany’s Nena, Austria’s Falco, Great Britain’s Madness and Canada’s Crash Test Dummies have each had considerable success in their homelands but are considered one-hit wonders in the United States.
Similarly, some performers are considered one-hit wonders in general but have had considerable success within their respective genres. Celtic music singer Loreena McKennitt, swing band Cherry Poppin’ Daddies and Christian rock band Jars of Clay are each stars within their respective genres but are known for only a single hit each by the general public.
The term one-hit wonder does not, however, usually refer to performers who have had only limited chart success but whose importance spans beyond sales charts. Jimi Hendrix, Lou Reed, The Grateful Dead, Iggy Pop and Radiohead have each had only one song in the top 40 positions of Billboard Magazine’s list of most-played pop songs, yet none is considered a one-hit wonder because each has create other work that, while not as initially commercially successful, has had significance to popular music.
- The phenomenon of one-hit wonders was celebrated in Tom Hanks's film That Thing You Do!, which featured a fictional 1960s band called The Wonders that broke up shortly after their one and only hit single.
- In a stand-up routine on the Dr. Demento basement tapes, comedian Rob Paravonian humorously noted that Johann Pachelbel was the original one-hit wonder. See Pachelbel's canon.
- Norman Greenbaum is a double one-hit wonder. In 1968, under the name Dr. West's Medicine Show and Junk Band, he had a hit with the novelty song "The Eggplant that Ate Chicago" and, a year later, experienced a single hit under his own name "Spirit in the Sky." Ironically, another group, Dr and the Medics, became a one-hit wonder with their version of "Spirit in the Sky" in the 1980s.
The term one-hit wonder is occasionally used to refer to an artist other than a musical performer who is best known for a single work. For example, author Joseph Heller wrote several novels but is still best known for Catch-22 and actress Natasha Henstridge has yet to match the success of the film Species.
- One-hit wonders in Canada
- One-hit wonders in the UK
- One-hit wonders in the United States
- One-hit wonders in classical music