What Mocking One-Hit Wonders Tells Us About Ourselves

Why we need to reject this concept, and redefine success

Posted Mar 04, 2014

I grew up during the 80’s, when songs like Tony Basil's “Mickey,” the Knack's “My Sharona” and Nena's “99 Luftballoons” dominated the Top 40 charts. While these  songs were embraced as part of the cultural landscape, these artists were often referred to with derision as “one-hit wonders.”  

The “one-hit wonder” label often casts its shadow as soon as an artist has a popular song; critics and fans will speculate about whether the artist will be able to repeat their success or if they’ll just fade from glory. And this label is no longer unique to musicians; it is a catch-all phrase for anyone who has reached the pinnacle of achievement without follow-up success. Four of the most recent prominent cultural events—the Grammys, the Super Bowl, the Olympics and the Oscars—all have been surrounded by debates over which winners might end up being one-hit wonders. 

Take Lorde, for example: it’s speculated that the 17-year-old Grammy-winning pop phenom whose hit song, “Royals,” has been so ubiquitous that even my four-year-old knows the lyrics, could be a one-hit wonder. Peyton Manning was condemned for his poor play in the Broncos’ recent Super Bowl loss and, even though he won a previous championship, his status as a “winner” is now under question. Ted Ligety, the skier who won a gold medal in the 2006 Olympics, has at last escaped the label of one-hit wonder with his triumph in Sochi. And, of course, no Oscar season is complete without reference to one-time Oscar winners such as Cuba Gooding Jr. 

So why do we cheapen people’s achievements with the one-hit wonder label? 

The reason is that many of us feel like “no-hit wonders,” incapable of achieving our goals. We not only doubt our ability to succeed, but we actually fear the consequences of success. If we experience the exhilaration of having our dreams come true, what happens when it ends? As an example, many people panic when falling in love because they fear losing that love. Worse, this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as paralyzing fear leads us to behave in unhealthy ways (e.g., jealousy) that undermine our relationships. 

This gut fear may help explain our one-hit wonder obsession. Artists, athletes and celebrities in our society “boldly go where no one has gone before.” They achieve great things that we wish we could. If they succeed but then consequently fail to maintain success, our labeling them as one-hit-wonder serves two purposes. First, we feel better about being no-hit-wonders because the discrepancy between us and a one-hit-wonder is less than the difference between us and a multi-hit individual. And further, labeling someone a one-hit-wonder reassures us that our choice to avoid success is valid—better to have never loved at all than to have loved and lost.

Instead of focusing on perceived failure, we need a paradigm shift, not just in thinking about celebrities, but in thinking about ourselves.  How can we work toward our goals without succumbing to the fear of becoming a one-hit wonder?

One of our strongest defenses is to recognize that working toward goals has its own rewards, which are distinct from perceived success. Winning a Grammy is not necessary to derive a great deal of personal development and enjoyment from playing music. While many athletes dream of winning championships, they don’t have to be all-stars to learn life lessons of fitness, team spirit and the importance of practice. We must view our successes as icing on the cake; this will allow us to keep our focus on the daily pleasures of doing something we love. 

We also have to re-frame our definitions of success and failure. Each discrete life event is its own entity, and each of our achievements are like a trophy in life’s trophy case. Some trophies are bigger than others, but all should be a source of pride. Further, we need to realize that failures do not diminish our achievements. Just look at Mike Eruzione, who is deservedly still giving interviews about his part in the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey team’s “Miracle on Ice.”

Success and failure are not mutually exclusive; rather, success is typically built upon what we learn from our failures. If we are not prepared to lose, it will be that much more difficult to take the risks necessary to achieve. A boxer who cannot tolerate the notion of being hit hard will probably never step into the ring. 

Moreover, we must prepare for the inevitable social comparisons that we or others will make. Social comparisons are human nature and a useful way for us to understand ourselves relative to others. When these comparisons reflect favorably on us (we come in first place in a race), we feel good. When they reflect poorly (we come in last place in a race), we feel badly. But if we use these social comparisons as points of information rather than as labels, we can be inspired to identify points of growth rather than becoming deflated. 

Another way to avoid succumbing to our fears is to critically examine the success of others for motivation. Their success lets us know what is achievable and allows us to discover techniques we may find useful. Glenn Frey of the Eagles famously learned the craft of songwriting by listening to Jackson Browne practicing in the apartment beneath his. 

Finally, when we can learn from our experiences rather than fear them, we realize that “it ain’t over ’til it’s over.” Top comedians Bill Maher and Jon Stewart each had shows that were canceled by the networks before developing sustained success with “Politically Incorrect” and “The Daily Show,” respectively. What would have happened if they had decided that they were just one-hit wonders and given up? Many people who were labeled one-hit wonders went on to diverse, exciting careers. Four Non-Blondes singer Linda Perry’s song “What's Going On” was her only hit, but she went on to become one of the world’s most prolific songwriters for artists like Pink and Christina Aguilera. Tom Hulce never achieved another hit like his Oscar-winning performance in “Amadeus,” but he has gone on to become a Tony Award-winning producer.

Yes, critics will continue to deride many successful people as one-hit wonders. But if we reject this concept for ourselves and others, we free ourselves to see our lives not as working toward one shining moment of “success,” but as a series of hits.

Dr. Mike Friedman is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Follow Dr. Friedman onTwitter @DrMikeFriedman and EHE @EHEintl. 

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