I have resisted discussion of the one-hit wonder up to this point of the series because it never felt appropriate to the topic’s central theme. That theme is how overwhelming and outrageous fortune either caused career momentum to crash (The Rembrandts), caused public perception of an artist’s intentions to shift, not for the better (Elton John), or caused an artist to need to clarify, re-clarify, or re-re-clarify what their mission statement is (The Cardigans). Most of the time, these are entities that have established a framework for themselves over a bit of time, then the shining door opens, they walk through, and the slam behind them knocks them off their feet and on their face.
As pop culture phenomena go, none is quite as mercurial as the one-hit wonder. They are borne of equal parts savvy and brutal marketing, capturing something fleeting in the zeitgeist. Such was the case in 1993. As hairspray hard rock was falling under the weight of alt-rock, and party time rap was going gangsta, traditional soul-pop was getting a little jazzy. The shift was happening for some time and can be seen in George Michael and Swing Out Sister, among names you’ll recognize. If you think about Brenda K. Russell’s “Piano In The Dark,” you will have a handle on what I mean about soul-pop. The pseudo genre assumed a lot; especially its airs that it was somehow classier and more refined than all of its competitors, like Times New Roman in the middle of a page of Sans Serif.
Into this soul-pop ethos came a steady parade of artists, mostly one-hit wonders, and they came and went without so much as a notch on the side of the door marking they’d ever been here, aside from the anonymous drone from department store Muzak that resurrects them twice daily as you shop for underpants. One of them had a catchphrase, and her unambiguous embrace of the catchphrase did her in more than the lite-pop sound or the constant cramming of her tune down the collective consumer throat. Her name was, and I assume still is, Des’ree. The song is “You Gotta Be.”
You could be forgiven for blanking on her name, but from the utterance of the song title alone, I’ll bet the hook line of the chorus dug in deep and hard into your brain.
You’re Welcome. “You gotta be bad, you gotta be bold, you gotta be wiser – you gotta be tough, you gotta be hard, you gotta be stronger…” The song is everything a label could have possibly wanted. It is as tasteful as it gets and Des’ree had, and I assume still has, a very good voice. She doesn’t oversing or resort to the kind of histrionics that her soon-to-be peers would ride to the chart tops would. The lyrics are boilerplate inspirational stuff, the sort of “you go girl” aphorisms we get nothing but these days. It is inoffensive and toothless.
And then there’s the hook line, the title. Remember that slowly building rage when you heard Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg say you had to “lean in” for the hundred-millionth time? That’s “You Gotta Be” in a piano-drenched nutshell. Much like Sandberg, Des’ree embraced the tag with both arms, in a big bear hug. I recall she was a musical guest on Saturday Night Live that year, probably for the season premiere or close to it. In the promos, week’s guest host Bob Newhart makes the announcement turns to her, and she says, “You gotta be!” To which Newhart, in a pissy sort of manner replies, “No, I don’t!”
Precisely. By that time we had been browbeaten for the umpteenth with Des’ree’s slogan, and were ready to hastily move her off the stage before she said it again. That’s a pity, because she clearly had talent, and she clearly had taste, but the song became the worst kind of irritant over time – the kind you once liked but find you cannot like now, and that former ingratiation is thrown back at you again, and again. We probably would have loved what came next from Des’ree, were it not for the lingering fear that the next time she opened her mouth, it would be “You Gotta Be” again.
One-hit-wonderdom is not chosen. Who ever would? It is the beast that lives in the woods that lies in wait for an innocent, hapless person to stroll by. It promises riches and delivers them, but cannot wait for the payback, and there always is a payback. Des’ree had the tools, and I assume still does. Yet when the time came to rely on those tools, and not easy marketing ploys — like a bumper sticker phrase so easily regurgitated that it loses any resemblance to its pre-digested form – the beast said, “You gotta be” and Des’ree apparently replied, “Yes!”
The one tick on her list of things she failed to check off was, “You gotta be very, very careful.”