To All the One-Hit Wonders
I spent half my college years as a one-hit wonder.
An emerging songwriter working somewhere between Billy Joel and Ben Folds, I practiced asking the piano to disturb something buried deep, to reconcile the world within me to the one spinning outside.
One summer, drunk on the three-dollar wine that is Train’s “Drops of Jupiter,” I sat down to pen my take on the power ballad. Burrowing headfirst into B-flat major—a key easy on piano players and suited for my natural baritone—I wrote about how certain people, lovers especially, come to feel like home.
The song preserved a little lilt from Train’s Top Ten hit, left space to draw out a few charismatic “heys” and lost all the talk of fried chicken and soy lattes. Taking “Home” from a solitary studio to rooms humming with people, I found my set-closer, my signature. If anything qualifies as a hit around one Christian campus and a few Southwest Missouri coffeehouses, I had it.
Listeners patiently waited through lesser anthems to hear a few familiar strains. Nods of recognition, a few kind souls sitting up in their seats to mouth along, a friend or two asking me to play “that one.” What a blessing. God, what a burden.
No matter how smitten I was, new songs moved through the world like beset younger siblings, murmuring into the gap between their best efforts and their star older sister’s reputation.
Eventually, in the life cycle of our connection to a single song, we dare artists to outdo themselves, laying chart-topping millstones around their necks.
The tale of the one-hit wonder, as Tom Hanks acknowledges in “That Thing You Do,” is a very common one, indeed. We love to rank and remember them. Our lips trip over the names of their creators, then ask “Where are they now?”
But our relationships to these artists fall so far short of mutual. Our categories, meant to be generous, steal something precious and often misunderstood.
We take for granted the scarcity of a single hit. Right now, songwriters curled up in Silver Lake and Austin, gigging along the South Side of Chicago and buried behind the heart of Jersey City tenderly coax their guitars, praying for a miracle. God remembers my appeals—that my song would float from rooms of 15 to 1500. Surely he recalls saying “No.”
We also underestimate the stuff hit songs are made of, the stardust they string together. The one-hit wonder tag diminishes the power of “Come On Eileen” to remake every room it inhabits. Our conversations fail to recognize how A-ha honored the holy trinity of pop music with “Take On Me.” A luminous lead riff predicts an impossible high, the song’s verse melodies preparing the altar for communion.
“Torn” pops up on a playlist and we pay too-faint tribute to that plaintive opening strum, to the gorgeous ache Natalie Imbruglia wraps around her every word. Calling “One of Us” an unrepeatable phenomena ignores how Joan Osborne summed up the mystics in 5 minutes, 20 seconds.
Eventually, in the life cycle of our connection to a single song, we dare artists to outdo themselves, laying chart-topping millstones around their necks. Or we stop seeing and hearing them altogether. And we only end up hurting ourselves.
Calling it quits at “Closing Time” means missing the sensual touches and lamplit soul of Semisonic’s “Secret Smile.” Turn off the radio after “No Rain” slides away and you wriggle around the tragic final notes of Blind Melon singer Shannon Hoon. Our lives gain a little understanding when we learn how the great physicians in Harvey Danger—who pronounced us all “not sick” but “not well”—went on to staff fantastic Midwestern bands and commit worthwhile acts of music journalism.
What if we applied Stevenson’s words in reverse? Imagine the collective sigh if we agreed each person is worth more than the best thing they’ve ever done
Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, righteously testifies that “each person is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.” This gospel lets me unlearn everything I once knew about systems of justice and rhythms of mercy. Stevenson empowers me to smash the frame my 8-year-old constructs when he speaks of “good guys” and “bad guys.” We all live the same, I tell him in lesser words, just people bound by our mistakes.
What if we applied Stevenson’s words in reverse? Imagine the collective sigh if we agreed each person is worth more than the best thing they’ve ever done. One-hit wonders might live free to build catalogs full of deep cuts, songs that neither bow to nor buck against their successful siblings. Some of us would flourish without fear of our own hype; others would withdraw from any and every pressure machine, tasting the fruit of quiet and contentment.
I still worry about carving a plateau out of a single moment. Gripped by the lie that each essay must outshine the next, I labor over sentences, believing they might make or break me. This way of working denies life’s true fabric.
No rocker, writer, pastor, parent, teacher, or taxman can live from high to high. We chase faithfulness, one idea after another. Some designs work better than others, endure longer than others. But we trust these manifold threads to meet each other and hold together.
Forget the signature song to find the signature approach—which always reveals itself in years, not minutes.
The same night I sat down to wrestle these words, poet Aaron Belz tweeted out a message of freedom: “If you are to be remembered, writers, it will be for a signature approach, not one particular work.” My friend’s words, to borrow from Derek Webb, felt like a meal and a bed.
Forget the signature song to find the signature approach—which always reveals itself in years, not minutes. Give yourself the grace to grow. Stop sweating every cool neon sign flashing failure or success. And take an extra three or four minutes to find a new favorite song by a band you only know for a single sound. After all, learning to love a one-hit wonder as yourself eventually frees you to simply love yourself.