No shame in One Hit Wonderland
Hey, rock and roll fans: Coming to Edmonton soon is INSERT NAME OF ONE HIT WONDER HERE, known chiefly for THAT ONE SONG.
(Suggested insertions: Kongos, Soul Asylum, Gotye, the Stray Cats, refer to WIKIPEDIA for more.)
I didn’t have the heart to even attempt to request an interview with said artist to explore the phenomenon of one hit wonderment. These conversations never go well. Most one hit wonders deny being one hit wonders, first of all, and seem to be ashamed, even angry at the mere suggestion that they might go down in history for writing just a single song. Here, for example, is an excerpt from a short phone interview with John Waite, known chiefly for the 1982 global hit Missing You. He was playing a casino gig in town a couple of years ago.
Q: Does the term “one hit wonder” offend?
A: “If I was a one hit wonder, it probably would.”
It did. He hung up on me two minutes later.
Even Bobby McFerrin, a lovely and talented man whose Don’t Worry, Be Happy was the albatross around his particular neck, and was recently here for the jazz festival, took faint umbrage at my line of e-mail questioning:
Q: Do you feel at some point, certain popular songs – and yours in particular – become more famous than the songwriter to the point people don’t even know, or care, who the writers are anymore? I think of my favourite composer, Mr. Trad Anon.
A: “Almost every time I do an interview I thank the Lord I’m a singer and not a musicologist. There’s a lot I don’t think about. I’m busy listening for the music in my head.”
Cut that shit off, didn’t he? He says he doesn’t perform Don’t Worry, By Happy in concert anymore, by the way. Don McLean tried the same thing with American Pie, for a time, and his fans crucified him.
Deep Purple has a lot more songs than Smoke on the Water, but what will they be remembered for when we’re all dead? Smoke on the Water. In an interview I did with Ian Gillan for the Edmonton Sun in 2006, he deflected the issue with the same disclaimer heard from so many alleged one hit wonders: “It’s just one song. I’ve written 400 songs.”
He’s not stupid. He knows the power of what he hath wrought. Gillan joked that at some point in there, Smoke on the Water seemed to take on a life of its own, demanding to be played in a place of honour every night like some entitled brat, so the band “taught it a lesson” by pulling it out of the set. Fans responded by burning down the concert venue.
I’ve seen hundreds of one hit wonders perform in Edmonton over the last 25 years. There are more now than ever. It’s as if the industry has become so hit-driven that new artists aren’t given the chance to properly develop. For every Katy Perry there are 100 My Name Is Kays. Remember Kay? No? Never mind. Point is: One hit wonderment is built into the modern music business.
Modern or classic, these sort of live shows feel exactly the same – everyone in nervous anticipation over when the band will do THAT ONE SONG. People are afraid to go to the bathroom lest they miss it. It’s an unexploded bomb hanging over everybody’s heads, the band included, causing a pandemonium of excitement when it finally comes, with everything before a preamble, everything after an anticlimax.
Only the most rebellious one hit wonders would dare to put their big song anywhere but the final encore. Gotye stuck Somebody That I Used To Know towards the end of its show in 2012, after proving they’re written more good songs than Somebody That I Used To Know, but it wasn’t the final moment. A number of fans were therefore able to beat the rush to the parking lot.
When Soul Asylum – just here for K-Days – played the Dinwoodie Lounge back in the day, they put their 1993 hit Runaway Train in the MIDDLE of the show, and fans poured out of the building afterwards, satisfied they’d got the high diving act they paid for. It was heartbreaking. You work so hard on new music, trying not to rip yourself off with Runaway Train Returns – yet that’s still got to be in the back of your mind when you’re writing more songs – and how do the fans thank you? By leaving. Moreover, this band suffered from a common problem: THAT ONE SONG didn’t sound much like other songs the band had done up to then – so then do you let the uppity hit dare to not only write your set list, but actually determine your future musical direction? Surely not. They had integrity. Soul Asylum was never as big again.
The bands Smash Mouth and Chumbawamba also suffered from scoring huge hits that had were actually musical departures, Walkin’ On the Sun and that one about getting knocked down and getting back up again, respectively. Sometimes even the titles of the songs are forgotten in the wake of their own formidable hooks. That one is called Tubthumping.
It’s not hard to understand the stigma of one hit wonderment for a career artist who’s created a lot more equally worthy music, or who might not even consider THAT ONE SONG their greatest work. But through such Earthly struggles, maybe they forget there is a special place in rock ‘n’ roll heaven for one hit wonders. Writing one song that touches millions, maybe even billions of people, is an achievement beyond money or fame. It’s a gift to humanity. At a certain point in global ubiquity, a great song ceases to be the property of its creator (taken literally in modern times). It belongs to the world – American Pie, Somebody That I Used to Know, Smoke on the Water – and indeed the names and lives of their creators fade as their creations thrive on their own. When Don McLean played here many years ago, he did the Arden Theatre, 600 seats, and didn’t even sell it out. His song is far more famous than he is, and will be long after he’s dead, and there should be no shame in that. These guys should be proud.
So instead of looking at these artists with scorn and laughter, let us celebrate INSERT NAME OF ONE HIT WONDER HERE when they perform Edmonton in the near future. They all do, eventually.