Take on One Hit Wonders

Take on One Hit Wonders

My scholarship looks at the shadows of words we use as neutral or benevolent in terms of educational technology:  MOOC, innovation, failure, content.  I am interested in what we are talking about when we put these words into conversations, policies and strategic plans.  Response to my work is often ambivalent, appreciative of the effort but not understanding why someone would spend time researching the word content (it’s stuff) or innovation (it’s new stuff or new ways of using old stuff).  As I work to better refine my elevator pitch of why I find such work important, I use the example of popular music one-hit wonders as metaphor for the problems inherent in EdTech language ubiquity.

Ever so often, the purveyors of popular music find a slow media cycle and use the space to celebrate one-hit wonders.  Rolling Stone did this in May 2011, VH1 did this in May of 2013, and Sirius XM did it this May.  The one-hit wonder is the McRib of the music industry…bring it out on occasion, celebrate it, but please do not take too much time to think about what’s underneath the sauce.  The songs that dot the semi-regular listicles share a commonality of ‘defining’ a space and time with a stratospheric success…Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ Come on Eileen, Lou Bega’s Mambo Number 5, A-ha’s Take on Me

But A-ha is not a one-hit wonder.

If you follow popular music and one-hit wonders, this information is nothing new.  A-ha has dominated European music charts for more than 30 years, and they are to Norway what ABBA was to Sweden and what Blink 182* was to college campuses at the demise of Generation X.

The asterisk comes for Blink 182 because, technically, they are a one-hit wonder.  Despite being a early aughts mainstay on radio stations across the dial and seemingly inhabiting every angst-riddled movie from 1999 to 2006, All the Small Things is their only song to chart on the Billboard Top 40 (#6).  A-ha charted both Take on Me (#1) and The Sun Always Shines on TV (#20).

So, how do we define what entails a band or singer being a one-hit wonder?  It is tough to consider Blink 182 a one-hit wonder as any number of their songs could get stuck in your head and require severe measures to extract.  Yet technically, they are.  As are the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Weezer, Garth Brooks*…

Well, here we go again, because technically Garth Brooks is not a one-hit wonder.  Rather, Chris Gaines, the alter-ego of Garth Brooks, is a one-hit wonder for Lost in You (#5).  Garth Brooks has never charted on the Top 40.  Garth Brooks is a no-hit wonder.

Once again, what is a one-hit wonder?  We would assume a one-hit wonder to be a musical act which only charted one time on the US Billboard Top 40, and we use the US Billboard as the stick of measurement because, well, because it was the first stick to measure.  This is the dictionary measure of one-hit wonder

an individual or group with only one success, such as a hit song, bestselling book, etc.  

Straightforward.  But the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has a different belief on the one-hit wonder

For as far back as rock and roll can remember, there have been artists associated with only one song — and one song only.  It may have been their debut recording, or it may have come after an entire career’s worth of show business perseverance…If, as Andy Warhol once predicted, everyone famous will only be so for 15 minutes, then the ‘one-hit wonders’ represent rock and roll’s unique fulfillment of that prophesy.

We have two conflicting definitions here:  one based entirely on standardized instrumentation (placement on a specific measurement scale) and another appropriating the scale to focus more on the space where a cultural phenomenon meets the creative apotheosis of an artist.  In the spaces where the technical definition takes a Jimi Hendrix and puts his work in the same space as a Men Without Hats, there is a massaged understanding of the term to focus on flashes in the pan.  Toni Basil is Mickey. Iggy Pop is Iggy Pop.  Chumbawamba is Tubthumping. Lou Reed is Lou Reed. A-ha is Take on Me.

A-ha is A-ha.

In Alan Levine’s recent blog post Dog and Cat Look in Vain for Their Attribution, Levine discusses the deeper problems of misattribution as a “sea of dead ends.”  Taking this further, the people Levine identifies as seeking ideas and connections too often end up in a simulacrum, a space of copies where there is no original source to provide that foundational story.  The story is instead built on shifting sands, less based on a specific space and time and context and more on the overarching dominant themes of that day’s society.  Levine quotes Slate’s Rebecca Onion in a way prescient for both his articles and this

By failing to provide context, offering a repetitive and restricted view of what “history” is, and never linking to the many real historical resources available on the Web, these accounts strip history of the truly fun parts: curiosity, detective work, and discovery.

When A-ha is boiled down to a kitschy video incorporating an animation lens and live-action, anyone seeking more about that band with the smooth sound and catchy synth riff starts and stops with the one-hit wonder label.  They miss 2+ years of experimentation in the Take on Me song

They miss the rest of the album Hunting High & Low

They miss a band in the rarefied air of having put out a James Bond theme

They miss the 1994 Winter Olympics featured act

They miss the 2000+ A-ha continuing to push popular music while incorporating the technologies of the day

They miss a band which broke up due to health concerns, yet came back together in order to support a country’s national memorial after the 2011 terrorist attacks

Depending on your interest in music, world culture or popular events, A-ha goes from one hit wonder to gargantuan power in the entertainment sector.  That’s quite a jump from the Three Kids from Norway find Magic in a Bottle story.

This feels like a lot of bluster for people who do not care about A-ha, are not interested in syth-enabled music, who grew up post-1980s and for whom music videos are meaningless, or people for whom there is no time to consider an A-ha that does not fit a basic trope.  The Internet is there to find stuff about A-ha if you really want to.

If education is about helping people find things they will love but do not yet realize, we must find ways in which to shepherd these introductions and developments.  Access is not enough, and it is surely not enough when the language with which we label entities muddies narrative waters it seeks to clarify.  A-ha is not a one hit wonder by any metric.  That we continue to celebrate them as such says more about our assumptions than it does about what we mean when we say one hit wonder.

Posted on: May 20, 2016admin

2 thoughts on “Take on One Hit Wonders

  1. And they were smarter than ZZ Top to forsee the value of alphanumeric sorting, “Take on Me” always pops to top of music players that default to sorting by band name.

    But “one hit wonder” (I more enjoyed “one trick pony” as a visual metaphor”) harkens to bygone eras where how hits were made was by command and control of the distribution networks. (cough)pay attention some day, publishers, builders of digital content paywalls?(still coughing)

    If I can decipher MoeTalk– there no “one hit wonder” in a venue of infinite venues.

    (PS, the weird scrolling here i making me dizzy mrs lizzy)

    1. Sorry about the scrolling…what looks fine on a desktop masquerading as a device looks awful on the device.

      MoeSpeak – we use one hit wonder in many ways, and the conflation makes the term dismissive despite a neutral or even celebratory assumption. In the case of A-ha it relegates them to a very small space that discredits their much richer and important history. And thus, infinite venues make one hit wonders problemarix

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