Like pornography, “one-hit wonders” are hard to define, yet people know them when they see them.
A “one-hit wonder” is technically defined as “a band that has a single hit song in a nation’s official music charts, then fades into obscurity forever”. But, in reality, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
For example, it’s often implied that the “one hit” is huge, like Los del Rio’s “Macarena”, Baha Men’s “Who Let the Dogs Out?” or Chumbawumba’s “Tubthumping”. This is to differentiate it from a long-running, well-respected indie band who just happened to have one song peak at #39 in the mainstream charts. I call this the “Pixies Clause”, because although the Pixies had a long career and several hits on the US Alternative charts, most mainstream music fans only remember them for “Where Is My Mind?” (a song, incidentally, that was never a single).
But even this is open to interpretation. The Swedish band a-ha landed at #8 on VH1’s “100 Greatest One-Hit Wonders” list of 2002, not to mention countless “One-Hit Wonders of the 80s” lists. But the band actually had two Top 20 singles in 1985: “Take On Me” reached #1 while the arguably better “The Sun Always Shines on TV” reached #20. Similarly, Great White are often considered one-hit wonders for their #5 hit “Once Bitten Twice Shy”, even though “The Angel Song” also made it to Billboard’s Top 40.
Geography is integral with one-hit wonders. A band can be hugely successful in one country but still be considered a one-hit wonder in another. Sweden’s The Cardigans had ten Top 40 singles in the UK, yet are thought of as “one-hit wonders” in the US for their hit “Lovefool”, which became popular after being featured in Leonardo DiCaprio’s version of Romeo + Juliet. Other geographically-hindered bands in the US include Nena, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Dexy’s Midnight Runners and Crash Test Dummies. Flipping it around, Brownsville Station and Alphaville are considered one-hit wonders in the UK, even though both had more than one hit single in the US.