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It’s a familiar scene to anyone who’s seen VH1 programs like Behind The Music or Where Are They Now?, or the channel’s endless lists of ‘one-hit wonders’ of the ’80s and ’90s: a musician whose brief fling with stardom is well behind them sits at the mixing desk of a studio, while the voiceover details that they’re moving into production or songwriting, to help guide new talent. It usually feels like an unconvincing cliche, like an actor saying “But what I really want to do is direct.”
I thought back to those scenes when the Dixie Chicks won Song of the Year at the 2007 Grammys for “Not Ready To Make Nice,” and a familiar face got to accept the award with them: Dan Wilson, who less than a decade earlier had enjoyed fleeting fame as the frontman of Semisonic. Their 1998 single “Closing Time” reached No. 11 on the Hot 100 Airplay chart (which means it would’ve been a top 40 hit, if Billboard had allowed songs without a physical single onto the Hot 100 at the time), but none of the band’s other singles were remotely as successful. So when Semisonic broke up just one album later, it’d be reasonable to assume Wilson too would disappear; instead Wilson scored big, first with the Dixie Chicks, and then with three songs on Adele’s blockbuster album 21, including the chart-topper “Someone Like You.”
Around the same time Semisonic were ruling the ’90s alternapop world, a funny little band called Geggy Tah enjoyed one minor hit, “Whoever You Are,” which peaked at No. 16 on the Modern Rock chart. It’s the kind of song that people only seem to remember or talk about if they want a good one-hit wonder punching bag. But Geggy Tah multi-instrumentalist Greg Kurstin got the last laugh: he’s since become an incredibly busy producer and songwriter, working with both alt-rock hitmakers (Foster The People, Red Hot Chili Peppers) and pop stars (Britney Spears, Ke$ha). So far, Kurstin has had success primarily with album tracks and the occasional UK hit, like Lily Allen’s “The Fear” or Kylie Minogue’s “Wow,” but he recently notched his first American megahit with Kelly Clarkson’s chart-topper “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You).”
In 1998, the power pop band Marvelous 3 hit No. 23 on the Modern Rock chart with “Freak of the Week.” After the band failed to score any other hits, left their major label deal and broke up, frontman Butch Walker set about forging a solo career as a cultishly beloved singer-songwriter. All along the while though, Walker wrote and produced for other alt-rock bands like Bowling For Soup and Fall Out Boy, eventually moving up to pop stars like Katy Perry and Pink. To date, his biggest Hot 100 hit is Avril Lavigne’s “When You’re Gone” (No. 24 in 2007), but it’s possible his most recognizable composition is Weezer’s 2009 rock radio staple “(If You’re Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To.”
In 1994, rapper/producer Lucas Secon, then known simply as Lucas, scored his only hit as an artist with “Lucas With The Lid Off,” which peaked at No. 29 on the Hot 100 and thrived on alternative and pop radio as well as MTV. He hasn’t released another solo album in the 18 years since, but his discography as a producer and remixer is pretty dizzying, including dozens of huge pop and R&B acts. Most of the singles Secon has produced, for Sean Kingston and Big Time Rush and Travie McCoy, have languished in the lower reaches of the Hot 100, but in 2008 he co-wrote the Pussycat Dolls’ “I Hate This Part,” which reached No. 11. Like Greg Kurstin, Secon’s productions have been more ubiquitous in the UK, where he’s worked on top 10 hits by The Wanted and Pixie Lott.
Of course, pop history is full of figures who move back and forth between performing stardom and behind-the-scenes, especially songwriters who pen hits for others before stepping out on their own, from Carole King to Ne-Yo. One of the most ubiquitous songwriters in today’s pop landscape is Ester Dean, who early in her career released one solo single, 2009’s “Drop It Low” featuring Chris Brown, that grazed the top 40 before she went back to focusing on writing, leaving her as not just a one-hit wonder but a one single wonder. After being heard on the hook to the Nicki Minaj megahit “Super Bass,” though, Dean is getting ready to make another run at stardom this year.
Some stars-turned-producers end up with equally short-lived success in the latter career. A few years after Third Eye Blind’s brief run of hits dried up, frontman Stephan Jenkins began dating pop singer Vanessa Carlton and producing several of her singles. Unfortunately, Carlton has had about as much luck following up “A Thousand Miles” as Jenkins has had equaling the success of “Semi-Charmed Life.” Gregg Alexander broke up his band New Radicals almost immediately after their debut single, the 1998 smash “You Get What You Give,” had run its course, cementing the band in the annals of one-hit wonder history. Alexander’s stated goal of focusing on producing hasn’t panned out all that well, though: his only big hit as a songwriter, Santana and Michelle Branch’s 2002 hit “The Game of Love,” features almost the exact same soaring vocal hook as “You Get What You Give.” Rapper Kwamé enjoyed a number of solo hits in the late ’80s and early ’90s, before his trademark polka dots fell out of fashion and he started working behind the scenes. Over a decade later, Kwamé briefly became one of the most buzzed about producers in hip hop with Lloyd Banks and 50 Cent’s “On Fire” in 2004 and Will Smith’s “Switch” in 2005, before falling back off the map.
Of course, it’s likely that nobody has made the jump from one-hit wonder purgatory to hit factory glory quite like Linda Perry. Her band 4 Non Blondes had virtually disappeared after their sole hit “What’s Up?” peaked at No. 14 in 1993. Nearly a decade later, ascendant pop star Pink decided to leverage the success of her debut to insist that her childhood hero Perry producer her second album. The gamble worked, and the 2002 worldwide smash “Get The Party Started” launched Perry back into the music industry, where she quickly topped herself with an even bigger hit, Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful.” Perry has bummed along with a string of lesser hits in the decade since, but those two songs alone will probably continue generate royalties far beyond whatever “What’s Up?” was bringing in for decades.
Not all of the above artists are strictly one-hit wonders, which has in recent years become an overused and often misused term for pretty much any artist with one song that is clearly more popular than their others, even if they actually had several chart hits. For that reason, I prefer the term “flash in the pan” to describe artists whose time in the limelight lasted for only an album or two, whether that meant one hit or half a dozen.
I’d begun to recently wonder if one-hit wonders are becoming more scarce—the music industry has seemed to get better about milking the momentum of one hit for follow-ups, to the point that even acts that seem like one-hit wonders, like LMFAO, can score back-to-back smashes. But a study published last month by University of Colorado Denver assistant professor Storm Gloor shows an amazingly consistent pattern: every year from 1955 to 2005, at least 70 artists charted on the Hot 100 for the first time, and without fail roughly half of them never appeared on the chart again. Obviously it’s too soon to measure more recent years, but I’d be interested to see if the iTunes-era Hot 100 yields very different figures. In any event, 2012’s dozens of inevitable flashes in the pan should look at the musicians mentioned in this column, and give some serious thought to starting a production company.