Day 6

Carly Rae Jepsen and the death of the One-Hit Wonder

Carly Rae Jepsen had all the makings of a being a one-hit wonder. Her 2012 hit "Call Me Maybe" was so incredibly popular that its success seemed impossible to replicate. But her new album E•MO•TION dropped in North America on August 21st and already has a Top 40 hit with "I Really Like You". But is she really a one-hit wonder? Data journalist Dan Kopf says not only has Carly Rae Jepsen dodged the title, but that one-hit wonders are going extinct.
(The Canadian Press)

What do the songs "Steal My Sunshine", "I'm Too Sexy", and "Who Let The Dogs Out" have in common?   

You know them, you love them, and chances are these songs transport you immediately to a certain time or place. That's the power of the one-hit wonder.  

Carly Rae Jepsen had all the makings of a being a one-hit wonder. Her 2012 hit "Call Me Maybe" was so incredibly popular that its success seemed impossible to replicate. But her new album E•MO•TION dropped in North America on August 21st and its single "I Really Like You" already broke the Top 40 this spring. 

So is she really a one-hit wonder? 

Data journalist Dan Kopf says not only has Carly Rae Jepsen dodged the title, but that one-hit wonders are going extinct. He says the music industry is changing and the once relatively common one-hit wonder is becoming rarer: if an artist charts once, you're likely to see them again.

So why is this? 

(Dan Kopf)

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Brent Bambury: You're a data guy; you work with statistics. What do you love about one-hit wonders?

Daniel Kopf: Well, I think they've always brought me back to a place and time. Many of my favourite one-hit wonders take me back to the early 90s, late 80s and early 2000s in a way that no other music could.

BB: Let's define what a one-hit wonder actually is, because there's a little bit of nuance here. I'm going to play you some music and you tell me if this song is a one-hit wonder or not (plays clip). Ok from 1997 that is "Tubthumping" by Chumbawamba. Daniel, is that a one-hit wonder?  

DK: That would be the ultimate one-hit wonder, and one of my favourites.

BB: Ok, and they never ever had another hit?

DK: They did not.

BB: All right, so here's another one. This is from a little bit earlier. Tell me what you think of this (plays clip). So that is Nena and "99 Luftballoons" from 1983. Daniel did Nena ever have another hit?

DK: She did not, and that's another one-hit wonder.

BB: So what is the definition of a one-hit wonder that you're working with when you do your research?

DK: People that only made the Billboard Top 100 one time and never made it again.      

BB: So even if you cracked at 99, you're no longer a one-hit wonder.

DK: That's right.

BB: OK so there's two. Now listen to this one... (plays clip). Obviously more recent now. That's Psy's "Gangnam Style" from 2012. Is Psy a one-hit wonder?

DK: Well, by the definition that I use for my research, he is not actually.

BB: Really? So what were his other hits? Why don't we know them as well as we know "Gangnam Style"?

DK: Oh, there's a song called "Gentleman" and another one called "Hangover", neither of which I have ever heard of in my life. But they made the Billboard Top 100. They didn't get a ton of radio play, so I think the reason they made the Top 100 is because they had a lot of streams.

BB: And so this speaks to how Billboard qualifies the songs on the Top 100 now. Do you think they're doing it accurately and is the way they're doing it influencing the way we see one-hit wonders?

DK: Yes, sure. Originally the Billboard Top 100 was made up of jukebox plays and how well the songs sold in stores. But things have changed over the years. Billboard tries to keep up with the way people listen to music now, and it's weighted sort of equally between streaming digital downloads, single sales and radio airplay. Some songs do incredibly well on streaming, but don't really do any of the other things. People are often perplexed when those things make the Top 100.

BB: So Carly Rae Jepsen had a global hit with "Call Me Maybe". Then she disappeared off the charts for four years, but this spring she had another song in the Top 40. Has she escaped the one-hit wonder label officially?

DK: I believe so. I think with the heft of her record label behind her and her Facebook and Twitter followers, she has most certainly escaped one-hit wonder status.

BB: But she still feels like one. People still talk about this album as being her ticket out of one-hit wonder status. Why does she still feel like a one-hit wonder?

DK: Well "Call Me Maybe" was a monster hit, and her latest songs have not even reached the same heights or close. "Call Me Maybe" has sort of a special place. It's got the certain kitsch that a great one-hit wonder usually has. For her to get out of one-hit wonder status in people's minds, it's going to take another really big hit.

BB: But she's really already there?

DK: Yes.

BB: So back to your research. If Carly Rae Jepsen had remained a one-hit wonder, she would be an anomaly because you're finding that one-hit wonders are in decline. Why?

DK: That's right. I think there's two main reasons. One, it's incredibly difficult to get on the chart these days compared to what it was in the past, and that's because songs stay on the charts for much longer. So prior to 1985, no song had been on the charts for more than 50 weeks. That was a very rare occurrence. "My Girl" by The Temptations was only on the charts for 13 weeks, but these days song stay on the charts for well over a year. For example, Sam Smith's "Stay With Me" was on the charts for over 60 weeks and it may still be.

BB: Why does that result in fewer one-hit wonders and not just fewer hits in general?

DK: There are fewer hits in general actually. There are both fewer one-hit wonders and fewer hits. But even proportionally, one-hit wonders have gone down. Many observers of the music industry think that's because the industry has been pushing stars. So if somebody's already had some success, they've put more of their industry heft behind them. And that's because as the industry's revenues have been going down, they seem to be becoming more risk averse. So if they have somebody they believe has some cache, they'll really stick with that person.

BB: So a second hit then from Carly Rae Jepsen feels inevitable because her first hit was so huge and the industry is going to push for more.

DK: Exactly.

BB: When you were doing your research, were you surprised to find out who was on your list of one-hit wonders?     

DK: Yeah there were a number of people that surprised me. So I'm a huge Fiona Apple fan, and she turned up on the list. She's not somebody that I would immediately think of as a one-hit wonder, but "Criminal" from the late 90s was her only hit in the mainstream. But she's been around for years and years just outside of the Top 100, so there are a number of people like that.

BB: We are in the twilight of the one-hit wonder according to your research. How do you feel about that?

DK: Well it's probably good for Carly Rae Jepsen that she won't just go away from the spotlight entirely and live a life having tasted success and never tasted it again. But for me, it's sad. I love one-hit wonders. I find that when you bring them up conversations, they always bring a lot of people delight. One-hit wonders take people back. So it makes me sort of sad.

BB: Do you have a favourite?

DK: Well I like "Tainted Love" by Soft Cell. That's one of my all time favourites.

BB: I like that one too. Daniel thanks for speaking with us.

DK: Awesome, thank you very much.