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Freakonomics Podcast: What’s Wrong With One-Hit Wonders?

Remember the Macarena?


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Frank Racioppi

a year ago | 2 min read

Do you know what is one of the most high-profile one-hit wonders in recent music history? It's Gotye's Somebody That I used To Know. This 2012 song topped the charts in over 27 countries including Australia, New Zealand, the US and the UK. It has sold over 10 million copies worldwide. Yet Gotye never approached that success again in the U.S., but is still popular in Australia. So is he truly a one-hit wonder?

In this week's episode of Freakonomics Radio, the show investigates the phenomenon of "one-hit wonders." Sometimes premature death can explain a one-hit wonder such as The Confederacy Of Dunces by John Kennedy O'Toole. Published in 1980, this masterpiece of modernist literature was actually published 11 years after the author committed suicide at the age of 31. 

Other times, the explanation for the one-hit wonder phenomenon is more complex. In music, The song 96 Tears is a surprisingly catchy hit about too much crying. It brought the garage rock band Question Mark and the Mysterians some fleeting success in the mid-1960s, but it wasn't enough to keep them in the limelight into the next decade. 

How about a one-hit wonder that drifts in and out of the zeitgeist in different decades. Long before this song had new life thanks to Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy and even before it gained popularity in the 90s thanks to Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, 70s kids were walking around singing "ooga-chaka ooga-ooga" (whatever that means). Still, Hooked on a Feeling, which itself was a cover of B.J. Thomas' 1968 original, is the only hit Swedish rock band Blue Swede ever had at any time.

In the Freakonomics episode, host Stephen Dubner asks, "We tend to look down on artists who can’t match their breakthrough success – should we be celebrating them instead?

Host Stephen Dubner looks at research about the one-hit wonder phenomenon, speaking with professors at Stanford and Washington University who have studied the topic. A new 2023 study shows that writing a particularly successful first cookbook makes authors less likely to produce a second book within five years, and Dubner brings those findings to one such cookbook author: Samin Nosrat, author of the massively successful Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat who, six years later, has yet to follow it up.

And, of course, Dubner also speaks to a musical one-hit wonder: Sean Nelson, singer of Harvey Danger. Sean says, of his band's one and only hit ("Flagpole Sitta"):

"Imagine if you told a joke at a party when you were 20, and then every party you ever went to for the rest of your life, the only thing anyone wanted to hear you say, and the only reason you were invited, is because they want you to tell that joke again. It’s not quite as funny, it’s not quite as thrilling. But there are way worse things, and you feel like a total fool for complaining. It’s just a particular little sting in the tail."

Listen to the new "What’s Wrong with Being a One-Hit Wonder?" episode at freakonomics.com (there's a full transcript there too) or wherever you get podcasts. 

 

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Frank Racioppi

I am a South Jersey-based author who published a nonfiction book on Amazon called The COVID Hotel about the pandemic. After nearly 40 years in the Corporate world, I manage a publication --Make A Connection -- about how to manage more effectively through improved communication. I am also the lead writer for the Ear Worthy podcast blog on Substack and Podcast Reports on blogger.


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