What make a great one-hit wonder?
For starters, it can’t just be a normal hit song. It must be the sort of hit that everybody on the planet knows word-for-word — even years after its heyday has come and gone, even if nobody can remember who sings it. It is absolutely vital that the maker of this song be known for absolutely nothing else other than their one hit and, possibly, the unintentionally hilarious music video that accompanied it.
Next, the song should be extremely cheesy, but also skillfully assembled. The sort of track you can’t help but get stuck in your head, even if this makes you want to chop your own head off. What matters most is that the song must in some way signify the era in which it rose to prominence. While the song’s ubiquity in the moment made it temporarily hateable, the way it endures as a time capsule that provides instant recall of a particular time and place makes it lovable in retrospect.
By this definition, the greatest one-hit wonder of the decade is “Rude” by the Canadian pop-reggae band Magic!
Do you remember “Rude?” Of course you do. It’s a story song floating along on gentle island rhythms derived from the Great White North, about a young man who asks the father of his fiancée-to-be for permission to marry, and is, ahem, rudely rebuffed. Oh, who can forget the guitar solo that comes in at precisely the 2:34 mark, one of the worst displays of instrumental proficiency in the history of the pop charts? It’s like Kermit The Frog being strangled with a Talk Box.
And there’s the song’s highly quotable hook: “Why you gotta be so rude? Doncha know I’m human, too?” There it is, stuck in your head just in time for the weekend. You’re welcome!
How popular was “Rude” back in 2014? Way, way more popular than you probably remember. The song went to No. 1 in the US and the UK and hit the top 10 in seven other countries. (Strangely, it only peaked at No. 6 in the band’s home country of Canada. Coincidentally, ’90s one-hit wonder and fellow Canadian Snow also did better in the US with his pop-reggae hit, “Informer.” Times change but our love of Canadian reggae in America never fades. Speaking of which: Shout-out to Bryan Adams’ “Reggae Christmas.”)
Overall, “Rude” sold a staggering 8.6 million units worldwide, though that’s barely a fraction of the song’s streaming numbers. To date, it has been streamed more than 652 million times on Spotify and more than 1.7 billion times on YouTube. The acoustic version of “Rude,” which is good for when the lightly swinging original track seems just a little too intense, has been streamed an additional 89 million times on Spotify, while the Zedd remix (which Pitchfork, newly drunk on poptimism, praised with contrarian bravado) has been spun over 48 million times.
In case future generations presume that the massiveness of “Rude” denotes the widespread popularity of pop-reggae in 2014, allow me to clarify: It was just as bizarre then that “Rude” penetrated so deeply in the culture as it is now. Even in the moment, this song felt like a fluke. The sound and vibe of “Rude” were utterly disconnected from the rest of the pop world in the mid-2010s, even if the group’s primary architect, lead singer and songwriter Nasri Atweh, had been a hired gun for pop acts for about a decade previous to releasing “Rude,” working with Chris Brown, Justin Bieber, and the New Kids On The Block.
And yet whenever I watch that music video, in which the bro-ish Atweh faces off against the Mitt Romney-esque patriarch in a battle royale over marriage-related etiquette, I can’t help but feel a rush of nostalgia. The mid-2010s were hardly a halcyon time of innocence, but listening to “Rude” makes it seem as if it were. Were we really ever so guileless once upon a time as to embrace a song so silly and yet also so benignly sunny?
In our current era, there’s little chance for this sort of escape. Even the most famous pop stars in the world talk endlessly about battling mental illness and the impending apocalypse. And while these things are worth discussing, there is something endearing about a song in which the only stakes concern the dad of your girlfriend acting like a total a-hole because he can’t recognize that you’re human, too. I can’t help but adore it.
Being classified as “a one-hit wonder” is often construed as a put-down, even though making a song as popular as “Rude” is a highly unusual achievement that even many of the most respected legacy never come close to attaining. Unfortunately, one person who apparently had trouble accepting that was Nasri Atweh.
After “Rude,” Magic! tried in vain to recapture the, well, you know. In 2015, they released a non-album single called “#SundayFunday” that’s exactly as cloying as you’d expect from the title. The following year, they put out their second album Primary Colours, on which Atweh openly grappled with the burden of having a hit song so big that it completely overshadows your band.
The most incredible — by which I mean insane — track from Primary Colours is “Dance Monkey,” in which Atweh spins a parable-like tale about a precious lil’ primate who learns “a simple song” and becomes famous, only to find that he’s actually being held captive by his money-grubbing handlers. By the end of the song, however, the monkey learns a new song that is less popular, but more artistically satisfying.
“It doesn’t matter what the people say,” Atweh sings. “You can take my house way / ‘Cause I know that I’ll never be no / Dance, dance, dance monkey.”
On the off-chance that the “secret” message of “Dance Monkey” was unclear, Atweh clarified in a subsequent Rolling Stone interview. “When you’re doing promo you’re singing one or two songs over and over again. We would sing ‘Rude three times a day, every day, often acoustically,” he complained. “It was like, ‘This is ridiculous!’ It was a little much but still fun.”
While Atweh himself claimed that he was sick of “Rude,” he also dismissed the song’s haters — “I think the people that didn’t like it don’t like anything” — while maintaining that actual reggae artists loved “Rude.” (“We got to Jamaica or Barbados or Trinidad and we’re embraced. They’re like, ‘Wassup, bros!’”) Above all, he insisted that Magic! was in it for the long haul. “We’re going to get old and weird and our songs have to be something that transcends everything. We can already see the next three albums. ‘Rude’ was just the introduction,” he promised.
Primary Colours was Magic!’s In Utero, the angry anti-fame record. Alas, unlike with Nirvana, their fame had already pretty much disappeared by then. It’s hard not to read the title of the band’s third LP, 2018’s Expectations, as another subtweet commenting on the dashed hopes of Atweh’s grand “we’ll grow old and weird” ambitions. Nevertheless, “Rude” lives on. While Magic! didn’t get there they way they would’ve wanted, they nevertheless achieved immortality. Someday we’ll all be dead, and the people left to wander the post-apocalyptic wasteland will still be asking each other, “Doncha know I’m human, too?”