There are two kinds of musicians in the world: those who are reading to endure malnutrition in exchange for artistic credibility, and those who want to be filthy rich.
For the latter, the aim is always to penetrate the upper echelons of the charts, which, although no mean feat, isn’t really a fast-track route to pop stardom. For many, it ends up being a dispiriting anti-climax – a once-achieved high watermark, because many of them will never reach those same peaks again.
Remember the Baha Men? Whatever happened to those guys? Did they ever find out in the end who let the dogs out (who, who, who, who)? Who (who, who, who) knows.
And while I can’t tell you specifically what happened to them, because they’re so irrelevant that even Googling their fate isn’t worth the time or the finger power to do so, I can tell you what happened to them in the broadest of terms: they quickly fizzled out into irrelevance like a junkanoo supernova, never to grace the charts again.
The mean-hearted amongst you will probably dismiss this as a contemptible failure, but a huge proportion of chart-busting musicians will never repeat that feat, so the Baha Men aren’t unique in that regard.
Several years ago I came across an interesting statistic: nearly half of all musicians that created a chart hit in the half-century in between 1955 and 2005 never did so again – 47.5 percent, to be exact.
This Hollywood Walk of Shame includes the likes of Los Del Rio (Macarena), A-ha (Take On Me), Nena (99 Luftballoons), Chumbawumba (Tubthumping) and, more recently, Psy (Gangnam Style,) not to mention countless other has-beens.
This information comes courtesy of Storm Gloor, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado in Denver, who trawled through a full 50 years of the US Billboard Charts, punching numbers into a calculator to come up with this figure.
Of the 5745 artists who thought that they had realized a childhood dream by releasing a hit record, for 2732 of them, this would be nothing more than a false dawn.
Although tragic, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they would be denied a lifetime of fame. Take Vanilla Ice as an example: 1990’s “Ice Ice Baby” was his one and only hit, yet he has endured for nearly three decades as a regular pop cultural reference, the punchline of many jokes about shitty white boy rap, and he even appeared in season 23 of Dancing with the Stars. If you turn your nose up at this then I am really curious to hear what you have done with your life that’s so great.
So what is it about pop stardom that makes it so difficult to sustain? Actually, to call a one-hit wonder a “pop star” is highly denigrating to proper pop stars like David Bowie or Prince, who built long careers from consistently gauging the sonic desires of the masses. One-hit wonders are mere accidents.
Their place in musical history is cemented by the human desire for novelty. Because that is really all they are: a fleeting amusement that briefly entertained enough people to propel them into the charts. Fundamentally, one-hit wonders are the record industry’s version of a viral video.
This human thirst for novelty is a very real thing, hence why the one-hit wonder is such an enduring phenomenon (according to the aforementioned study, the percentage of one-hit wonders is pretty much the same every year.) Novelty is the lifeblood of the fashion industry, too: most people don’t buy new clothes simply because their old clothes are falling apart at the seams.
They do so because of trends and marketing or plain old boredom. Buying something new is a brief excitement in the same way that the Baha Men momentarily offered an unfamiliar sound to the musical mass market, but people quite clearly grew bored very quickly and decided that they weren’t worth listening to again. Tough luck, chaps.
But that’s not the only factor. Most people fail to comprehend how difficult the creative process can be. Execution is only part of the battle, and is in many ways actually easier than sourcing inspiration and forming it into viable ideas. I know plenty of great writers who work in advertising, because while they’re able to produce a fantastic article once in awhile, churning them out regularly is a far greater challenge.
This is a problem that plagues musicians, too. You’ve probably heard of the curse of the second album, which is when a band or musicians follows up a hit breakout LP with a terrible sophomore effort.
The Kaiser Chiefs are a prime example: Yours Truly, Angry Mob, their follow-up to the record that made them famous, Unemployment, saw a 55 percent decline in sales. Their third sold 75 percent less than their second. The fourth… who cares? Not enough to matter, that’s for sure.
A$AP Rocky’s first proper album, Long. Live. A$AP, which succeeded his break-out mixtape, Live. Love. A$AP was absolute rubbish in my esteemed opinion and you’ll struggle to find a critic who rates it higher than the aforementioned mixtape.
This is probably because he was too busy snorting things (I presume), engaging in orgies and revelling in all the excesses that his new-found fame allowed.
The same is true for pretty much every musician ever. Their eye isn’t on the ball. The hunger to succeed satiated by a brief taste of glory. You have your entire lifetime to created a debut, but the second is usually compromised by touring and record label pressure to strike while the hype is still warm, and that’s hardly conducive to inspiration.
Success isn’t simply a matter of talent either. Sometimes musicians are so in sync with the desires of the music-buying public at a particular moment in history that they create an era-defining work. NWA’s Straight Outta Compton is a prime example of this. But the zeitgeist moves on, shared tastes change, and an artist simply isn’t able to find that same synchronicity again – probably because it’s the sort of thing that only ever happens by chance, rather than any conscious calculation.
Linkin Park’s debut, Hybrid Theory, wasn’t a virtuosic piece of work. They were a faddish band that arrived at a time when the market demanded nu-metal. The critical and commercial disappointments that they produced afterwards are proof of that.
I would also argue that for some musicians, their talents and imagination are a finite resource. Mike Skinner, better known as The Streets, produced two cult albums: Original Pirate Material and A Grand Don’t Come For Free. The first earned him a five-album deal, but each release from number three onwards served only to cruelly illustrate the limits of his vision.
There was the odd good tune, but each of that final trio of releases felt increasingly strained and labored: forced by obligation to his record company rather than any sort of creative urge. As his finale approached, he openly admitted that he was quite done with The Streets, and his output since has been nothing like the music that made him famous (or even very good.)
Musical prowess is often viewed through a similar lens as sporting ability. Elite footballers don’t really lose their talent, they just lose power and speed that those talents depend on as they age. The physical body gives out, but the instinct remains largely intact. I don’t think that the same is true for musicians. Sure, the technical ability will always be there, or perhaps even increase with time, but chart success is overwhelmingly reserved for the young.
Look at the Red Hot Chilli Peppers as an example: their greatest successes came in earlier in their careers and critics widely agree that they have been in continuous decline since Californication. I challenge you to find me anyone who thinks that Metallica’s most recent albums can compare to their youthful creations.
Commercial success comprises so many components: marketing, sex appeal, stage presence, press savviness, but the most essential element is arguably being in tune with the mood of the masses – be that consciously or innately.
Young people shape the zeitgeist. They’re out in the field socializing. They know what’s cool and what gets pulses racing. With age we withdraw into ourselves, our social circle narrows and the vast majority of us will inevitably grow out of touch with fads and popular culture.
Sure, you can employ people to research and shape your image for you, helping you dodge your long-passed expiry date like Madonna does so pathetically, but the public can smell a fake. Musical peaks, like youth, often come only once.
If your hunger for good reading hasn’t peaked yet, find out why this author is finally sick of Kanye West.
- Lead image: Move it Like This Album Cover