On 22 March 1980, “What I Like About You” peaked at #49.
Before I talk about what I like about “What I Like About You“, I want to talk about one-hit wonders. The reason why, is because many people remember The Romantics as a one hit wonder, and they think that one hit was “What I Like About You”. But, I argue that this is wrong on two scores: first, the band had more than one hit, and second, neither of its hits were “What I Like About You”.
But to have this discussion, we have to talk about categorization, because otherwise we’ll just be saying, “Yes it is because I feel it is,” “No it’s not because I feel it’s not.” I’ll try to make the discussion entertaining.
The term “one hit wonder” has two important words: “one” and “hit”. “One is pretty clear — there should be exactly one hit. But “hit” is fuzzier because there can be a lot of standards for what makes for a hit. We could define it in terms of sales — maybe the song has to sell a certain number of copies or earn a certain amount of money — but a problem with this definition is that the newer a song is, the more people there are to buy it. This poses no obstacles for people like The Beatles or Madonna, who are still selling copies of their back catalogue, but it is a problem for a band like The Romantics; how many people are still buying Romantics albums, or even singles at Amazon? We then need to turn to the pop charts as arbiters that can control for the passage of time. The charts compare coexisting songs and take into account radio popularity and sales; they make a pretty good yardstick.
But where should one draw the line to differentiate between a hit and a near-hit? We talk about the top 10, the top 20, the top 40, and the top 100… any one of them could serve as a cutoff. We have to pick one or the other, more or less arbitrarily. Picking the top 100 probably lets in a lot of songs that, frankly, shouldn’t be considered hits. Suzanne Fellini peaked at #87 with “Love on the Phone” and never had another chart appearance; as fun as the song is, I don’t think anyone would call that a hit. On the other hand, top 10 or 20 is probably too restrictive: I think everyone would agree that Pat Benatar’s “Heartbreaker” is a hit, even though it peaked at #23. So we need a middling number, and the record industry gave it to us with top 40 radio. 40 is a nice average number — enough to fill a few hours without repeating, but enough to repeat the most popular songs multiple times a day, even with commercials. You could argue for 30 or 50, but no matter what largeish two-digit number you choose, some worthy songs will fall short of it, and some questionable songs will make it over the bar, so why not use the number that the industry itself uses?
So top 40 is what I use to define a hit, and therefore, to be a one-hit-wonder, I say a performer needs to have exactly one song reach into the top 40. For The Romantics, “What I Like About You” is not that song: yeah, yeah, you know all the words because it was in Budweiser commercials in the late 80s, and as a result everyone was playing at their parties every summer that you were in college, but you probably don’t remember it from the radio in 1980. No, the Romantics song that was undeniably a hit was 1983’s “Talking in Your Sleep” which got all the way to #3, and if that doesn’t already ring a bell, I’m sure you’ll remember it once you click the link. Perhaps you don’t associate it with the band that made “What I Like About You” famous; that would be understandable because although “What I Like About You” is a frat-house power pop anthem, “Talking in Your Sleep” is angsty new wave and culturally feels dated. Nonetheless, it was their big hit… but not their only hit. In 1984, a follow-up single, “One in a Million“, went to #37. It is much more akin to “What I Like About You” with a DIY 60s sound to it, but, at least in quality, it’s the inferior song even if it placed 12 slots higher.
So there you have it, The Romantics aren’t a one-hit wonder. There are a lot of other bands that similarly have come down in our collective memories as one hit wonders, even though they had two or more hits: a-ha, Spandau Ballet, Simple Minds, Falco, Naked Eyes. Technically, they’re not one hit wonders, but they feel like they are. What makes us selectively remember their supposed one hit? This gets at what I like about “What I Like About You”: it has a certain style to it that makes it particularly memorable. In this particular case, it serves as a party anthem that can stand shoulder to shoulder with other rocking songs, even if they’re veterans like Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride” or a song with only two summers behind it, like Pitbull’s “Fireball“. “What I Like About You” is straightforward and simple, but nonetheless brings something interesting to the party that makes it, perhaps intangibly, a classic. On the other hand there are those hits that so capture the zeitgeist of a time that they completely overshadow a band’s other work. The best example of this is a-ha’s “Take on Me“, which evokes 1985 so well that there’s no reason to remember that “The Sun Always Shines on TV” reached #20 later that year (even though I personally think “The Sun Always Shines on TV” is the better of the two).
So, in sum, if it isn’t one thing, it’s another. A band may be a one hit wonder if they have a single song that somehow is timeless, moreso than anything else they performed… or a band may have a single song that so fundamentally captures the essence of its age that the band really didn’t need to perform anything else to be remembered.