It’s September 25th; and you know what that means? Yeah, I didn’t know until this year either.
It’s National One Hit Wonder Day!
Yeah, I didn’t know that there was a whole day dedicated to those songs and artists that shone super bright and then largely seemed to just disappear either. Finally, something I’ve learned in 2020 that isn’t horrible.
There are a few different ways to define a one hit wonder, though the closest to a standard definition is an act that has appeared on Billboard’s Pop Top 40 only one time. This definition leaves room for a band or artist that is well known and still active to still be a one hit wonder, like Fiona Apple: despite her still recording—she just released an album this year—and having more than one hit, her 1997 single, “Criminal,” is the only of her songs to grace the Top 40. In those cases, the single that hits the Top 40 ends up being a gateway to the artists’ other works for fans. In other cases, a one hit wonder’s single will top the charts and then seem to entirely disappear: The Breeders’ “Cannonball” charted in 1993 and then the original line-up went on a 20-year hiatus, reuniting in 2013.
Regardless of how you define a one hit wonder, their songs speak to the spirit of their eras and encapsulate for each of us the memories we’ve attached to them. I will never be able to hear Lit’s “My Own Worst Enemy” without thinking of hanging out with my best friend in high school, letting off steam after a crappy day. The Darkness’ “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” will forever remind me of hanging out at the bar after finishing up the semester’s final exams in college.
To celebrate National One Hit Wonder Day, I’ve compiled a playlist—available on YouTube and on Spotify—of some of my favorite one hit wonders ranging from the 1960s to 2017 (and the inclusion of those as recent as 2017 is questionable, given how recent that is). Despite not being exhaustive, the playlist is still over 100 songs; and I have memories attached to each one of them. What can I say? I love music. Here are some songs with which I have some of the strongest associated memories:
Bobby “Boris” Pickett performing “Monster Mash”
Bobby Pickett’s 1962 single, “Monster Mash,” is ubiquitous in the month of Halloween (yes, all of October is Halloween, thank you very much). You can’t shop for Halloween decorations or candy without hearing it. Every time I hear it, I am reminded of getting ready for trick-or-treating in 1993. We lived in Louisville at the time and, that year, we got snow on Halloween. I had decided to go as a football player—I was trick-or-treating as Michael Irvin during the Cowboys’ golden era—and the costume was so thin, so we kept trying to layer warm clothes underneath the not-quite football uniform. When I hear “Monster Mash,” I think about frantically layering clothes and putting on an inflatable helmet.
The memory I have attached to Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” is one of confusion. I love to sing. I love singing. And I most definitely sing along to songs, which is part of the reason I can’t listen to music that isn’t instrumental when I am writing: I start singing along and then my brain can’t seem to separate the words I’m writing from the words I’m singing and, before I know it, I have half a page of song lyrics typed up. Anyway, because I love singing along, it’s frustrating when I can’t figure out the lyrics and often I end up humming along. “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” had me stumped for years; when I first heard the song as a kid, listening to a classic rock compilation at a cousin’s house, I knew in my heart of hearts that there was no way he was actually singing “in a gadda da vida”—that’s just nonsense. It wasn’t until high school that I discovered that the song’s title is a reverse mondegreen of “in the Garden of Eden” and he was, in fact, singing “in a gadda da vida.”
Sugar Hill Gang performing “Rapper’s Delight” at the Soap Factory
Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” was not the first song to include rap but it was the first to bring hip hop to mainstream listeners. It was also a mainstay of some of my earliest school dances. It was just one of those bops that we would get us all over the awkwardness of a school dance and start us dancing. I will always associate it with bouncing around with my friends as we all surveyed the class, deciding who we would try to slow dance with, and making the first pass at the snack table.
We’re Not Gonna Take It
Long before Dee Snyder became a go-to personality for various VH1 productions, he became famous among the mainstream as the front man of a quintessential glam band. “We’re Not Gonna Take It” became an anthem of teenage rebellion and it was no different for me. Don’t get me wrong, I’d jammed out to it plenty but it was on the list of just fun songs, like “Cum on Feel the Noize.” But I remember hearing it on a San Antonio radio station when I was in high school right after an argument with my stepmom and it was just the right song at the right time. Is it the best song in the world? Nah. Is it campy as hell? Yuuuup. Sometimes, though, it might not be the song you deserve but it is the song you need.
What Is Love?
Is there any more quintessentially early-90s song than Haddaway’s “What Is Love?” And, y’all, it still slaps. I don’t think I will ever stop loving this song. While I will always associate the song with Saturday Night Live and do the side head bob thing, my strongest association with “What Is Love?” is cleaning the basement. When we lived in Louisville as kid, we lived in a duplex with basement access and it was often my chore to sweep and straighten the basement. I hated the actual cleaning but I always looked forward to my time down there, to rocking out to my boombox tuned to WDJX. I put together whole performances of “Walking on Broken Glass” and “Shout” and, of course, “What Is Love?”
Macy Gray’s “I Try” was a revelation when it came out: no one’s voice sounded like Macy Gray’s distinctively whispery, gravely, melodic voice that just carried so much raw feeling in it. The music video’s use of color hooked me and I definitely still want that coat she’s wearing. Every time I hear “I Try,” I’m transported back to riding the bus at o’dark thirty on my way to school. More accurately, I feel like I’m back to applying my makeup on the school bus—an admittedly risky venture—at o’dark thirty in the morning. It’s kind of a hopeful, anticipatory feeling that I attach to the song because those morning bus rides were taking me to see my boyfriend and, yeah, I guess to go get my education too.
I Believe in a Thing Called Love
As I mentioned previously, this song reminds me so much of hanging out at the bar after wrapping up finals week. Specifically, it takes me back to grabbing food after my last final exam at Lucky Lou’s in Denton, TX—a BLT, fries, and a Blue Moon—before heading home to sleep for about 18 hours straight. I had broken my tailbone a week before and, on top of the usual stress of final exams and final research papers, I had to take all of my exams standing. My last exam was for Constitutional Law and it was a three-hour exam. I was *done*. So, I’m at the bar, enjoying food and a beer, while standing, and this song starts playing in the bar and, in that moment, I just felt content. Tired. But content.
And I wasn’t kidding that I have memories attached to each and every of the over 100 songs on my playlist. One hit wonders have a way of speaking to a specific moment that is quite a bit different from artists whose popularity is sustained over a period of time. They shape us and our memories every bit as much as other artists. So let’s celebrate those one hit wonders! Look up your favorite one hit wonders and rock out!
YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLVzbtkHgKL18Qo8zzHKwPH3RoMbv_ZAN2