Earlier this year, I wondered if the concept of the novelty hit was completely dead. It’s been years since a cartoon or puppet had a no.1, charity singles are now sung by choirs of mums or awkward groups of UK urban acts, and there has not (yet!) been an attempt to turn The Inbetweeners into a comedy boyband. The numerous attempts by The Only Way Is Essex stars to break into pop have completely failed, and The Wombles’ big comeback missed the top 40 last Christmas.
Overall, it seems that the British public are no longer interested in buying music just for the amusement factor. Perhaps the proliferation of comedy songs on YouTube made it difficult for any particular one to become a phenomenon, or perhaps the joke just got a bit tired. Either way, there was no money to be made from novelty music, and I was pretty pleased to have it out the way, eliminating an easy excuse for grumpy bores to moan about pop.
However, as summer 2012 comes to a dreary close the chart is full of potential one hit wonders and songs that could redefine the concept of novelty pop. Call Me Maybe, Somebody That I Used To Know and Bom Bom all have the make-up of a novelty hit: a catchy song with a strong concept and memorable chorus, sung by an artist who no-one really knows anything about. Even tracks such as Heatwave and Whistle could be considered novelty hits as the identity and notoriety of the song completely overwhelms that of the artist, despite the fact that Wiley and Flo Rida are established hit-makers.
In fact, Flo Rida is an example of an artist whose entire career is made up of tracks that would normally be one hit wonders, and the fact that they are all by Flo Rida is immaterial. Even I, as a music nerd, couldn’t tell you one fact about him, and I doubt I’d recognise him in the street. What is most interesting about Flo Rida is that he has had three huge UK no.1s, but they have been interspersed with total flops. Anyone remember In The Ayer or Turn Around (5, 4, 3, 2, 1)? Flo Rida has no fanbase or fan loyalty – he is simply a name attributed to songs that a record label wants to release in order to get them on the radio and music channels. And it seems the stronger the novelty factor in his songs, the better chance they have of hitting no.1.
With the old-style novelty songs, there were many more flops than hits, and it was often just down to timing and chance whether the public would get the joke, and whether it would actually amuse them enough to part with £1.99 for a CD single. Now a record label or production team can come up with a concept, such as “whistle + innuendo” or “Dead Or Alive sample + innuendo”, label it with Flo Rida’s name and get it straight onto Radio 1, Capital FM and all the equivalent radio stations around the world. The same goes for LMFAO, Pitbull and many more acts whose sole purpose is to openly and proudly appeal to the lowest common denominator. Even Rizzle Kicks are far less successful when not talking about trumpets or dancing mums.
In 2012, novelty hits still exist, but they are not sold as such. They are attributed to established artists as discussed above, or new acts who appear to be in line for a long-lasting career, even if it’s clear to anyone who investigates them a little further that they have no other songs with the same commercial potential. For example, Carly Rae Jepsen’s options for a follow-up to Call Me Maybe were so dire that she had to quickly be levied into Good Time, a song which had huge novelty hit potential but was attributed to an artist, Owl City, who was totally past his sell-by date. Now the track, a total pop triumph in my opinion, sits at no.4 in the iTunes chart, but without the person who put two and two together, Carly would have been a one hit wonder without a shadow of a doubt.
Like Call Me Maybe, many of 2012’s biggest hits have been by artists who were previously unknown, or at least very little known: Gotye, fun. and Alex Clare for example. Some of them may be able to follow up their hits with more successes, but when you start so big there’s a lot to live up to, and the comparisons may kill their career before it’s really begun. These artists may have more than one hit, but they’ll only be remembered for one in years to come. One way to get past this is to follow in the footsteps of Cee-Lo, and release another novelty song even bigger and better than the first, but then you’ll be back to square one again, trying to force people who find your single amusing to pay for eleven more tracks, when they only actually wanted one.
But now, as the novelty high season of summer draws to a close, it’s starting to seem like the public may be ready to welcome back the old-style novelty hit. Sam and the Womp’s current chart-topper is a clever combination of camp silliness and cool 2012 sounds, a halfway point between the old and new novelty formula. The true test will be next month, when huge international novelty hit Ai Se Eu Te Pego by Michel Telo is released. The song is in Portuguese, apart from a rap by little known U.S. teen Becky G, and has an infectious accordian riff, but couldn’t be described as cool or current in any way.
With Syco on board and a prominent X Factor placement expected, it’s hard to imagine how Ai Se Eu Te Pego could fail to sweep the nation, but early Radio 1 support has not resulted in a national obsession to match Bom Bom’s whirlwind success. There is definitely reluctance from Radio 1 listeners, who can broadly be described as music fans, but will reality TV viewers, generally oblivious to music trends, be able to resist? And if Michel’s song is a hit, will it be an anomaly or will more completely intentional one hit wonders follow him into the charts? I’m excited to find out!