Short Seasons in the Sun?
In recent appearances on both “Saturday Night Live” and “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” a member of the rock band Chumbawamba cheekily wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase “One Hit Wonder.”
It was a defiant gesture because just about everyone in the pop world has been thinking the same thing about the English group since its novelty hit “Tubthumping” began racing up the charts late last summer. That’s the record that repeats the phrase over and over:
“I get knocked down
But I get up again
You’re never going to keep me down.”
Along with such other ultra-catchy hits as Sugar Ray’s “Fly” and Aqua’s “Barbie Girl,” the Chumbawamba single contributed heavily to what many pop observers glumly called the year of the novelty. And the trend has not diminished--just ask Jimmy Ray.
Pop music history is littered with one-hit wonders. What would trivia games be without the likes of Terry Jacks or Taco, figures with just one bright moment in the pop spotlight?
But one-hit wonders were generally just one aspect of the business. While acts such as Kajagoogoo and Mouth & MacNeil may make momentary spurts up the charts, the heart of the business has always centered on the development of career artists who are embraced by fans for a series of albums.
The fear now, though, is that the one-hit wonders are becoming the rule rather than the exception. The two most frequently cited reasons:
* Rock and alternative-rock radio stations, which over the years championed bold innovators, seem now to lean on the kind of hot, instantly catchy records that once had been left for the pop Top 40 stations.
* The exponential increase in media and marketing opportunities has led to overexposure, often making fans tired of a hot new act before there’s a chance to put out a second record.
“There’s no allegiance at alternative radio to any of the acts they’re breaking,” says Monte Lipman, who signed Chumbawamba to Republic Records, which he co-owns with his brother Avery, and who now serves as vice president of promotion for Republic’s parent, Universal Records.
“Top 40 has always been about playing songs based on merits of the song. But alternative used to play based on the merits of the group. That’s not true anymore.”
On the matter of overexposure, Sky Daniels, general manager of the trade publication Radio & Records, says, “The mystique about songs and artists has been eradicated.
“In the old days, a band came to town, partied at the Hyatt, played the Whisky and went on to the next town. Now they get up at 6 a.m., do a dozen interviews, a CD-signing for the fans, a meet-and-greet dinner with radio VIPs and after the show meet a bunch of concert-goers. By the time they crawl out of town, the record company has gotten them through 35 marketing avenues. And it works. They rev up all 35 and the consumer who likes the song at first gets overwhelmed with that.”
Throughout the record business, executives complain that economic pressures created by the recent spate of corporate mergers and consolidations of radio station ownership have led to mandates that programmers get immediate results with their ratings. Stations can’t afford the luxury of championing artists just because they believe in them or want to build a relationship with them for the future.
At the same time, increased reliance of radio management on audience research that relies solely on a quick response to song snippets has led to an emphasis on the most immediately catchy songs.
They could range from such obvious novelties as “Barbie Girl” to something with an undemanding, sing-along hook, such as “Tubthumping” or Smash Mouth’s “Walkin’ on the Sun.” It could also include a record with the lilt and lack of originality of Sugar Ray’s “Fly” or OMC’s “How Bizarre.”
All pop hit-makers face the challenge of getting a second hit. The fight is especially difficult when the act is perceived to be a novelty or otherwise lightweight--a stigma that has been placed by many on Chumbawamba, Aqua, Smash Mouth and Sugar Ray, all of whom have had platinum or multi-platinum albums.
The fact that Chumbawamba is making fun of its one-hit wonder image shows that the band and its label are working hard to mitigate the damage.
“We’re not preoccupied with battling that stigma, but to maximize the potential on the band,” says Lipman, the Universal Records executive. “Other acts, when they know they’ve got one huge hit, squeeze it for all it’s worth. . . . We feel this album is three or four singles deep and we are just going to keep our nose to the grindstone.”
The hope is that radio programmers will respond to the other tracks and therefore erase the impression that Chumbawamba is a one-song band.
But the challenge of diverting attention from “Tubthumping” is enormous.
Though “Amnesia,” the follow-up single by Chumbawamba, is picking up some radio airplay, it is still dwarfed by the amount of spins being given to the band’s hit single.
On the Aqua front, the band--whose quirky music and image aim for a novelty connection with its fans--has managed to get two more songs on the radio after “Barbie Girl,” including the current single “Turn Back Time.” But it seems to have little chance of ever duplicating the hit’s success. After six weeks on the Billboard radio airplay chart, “Turn Back Time” appears stalled at No. 49.
Similarly, follow-ups from Sugar Ray, Smash Mouth (whose “Walkin’ on the Sun” was one of 1997’s biggest singles) and OMC have hardly made a blip on the pop radar.
In the long run, dropping from sight may be helpful to the acts, because it may eliminate some of the public burn-out factor.
Indeed, Sugar Ray has taken a course that counters some conventional wisdom about a big hit. Rather than continuing to milk “Fly,” the group has finished its touring and is starting work on a new album, says Ron Shapiro, executive vice president and general manager of Atlantic Records.
Tom Whalley, president of Interscope Records, which released Smash Mouth’s album, says his band is trying to overcome the “one-hit wonder” stigma by constant touring to prove to fans that there is value to the group.
“I could have walked away from this months ago and sold as many records [on the hit’s momentum] and spent less money,” Whalley says. “But the band is going to do hundreds of shows, and to me that is not a one-hit wonder, but what a band is supposed to do to build a career.”
Meanwhile, there’s some optimism that the hit-single wave is passing and that a new one, with more long-term interest and depth, is forming. The new R.E.M.s and U2s are out there.
“I think their names are the Verve and Radiohead,” says Patti Galluzzi, MTV’s senior vice president of music and talent. “And the new Michael Jackson’s name is Puff Daddy.”