“The one-hit Wonders… It’s a very common tale”
—Tom Hanks as Mr. White in That Thing You Do!
In the fall of 1996, Tom Hanks, hot off Forrest Gump and Apollo 13, cemented his role as America’s rose-colored glasses with That Thing You Do!, a directorial debut that looked at the music of the 1960s through the sanitized filter of a fictional pop band called The Wonders. Like the group’s titular hit single, That Thing You Do! floats in a strange, alternate version of the decade completely unmoored from the actual culture that defined it. It’s a world where seemingly no one’s worried about trying to compete with The Beatles, even though everyone’s trying very hard to sound like them.
That Thing You Do! takes place in 1964, but it just as easily could have been about the year it was released—a year similarly crowded with fun, forgettable music that may as well have been made by fictional characters, so fleeting was its impact. It’s a year when the biggest song in the world was Los Del Rio’s “Macarena,” proclaimed this century by VH1 to be the “greatest one-hit wonder of all time,” which dominated Billboard charts, FM radio, and the teachers’ portion of school talent shows for 14 straight, interminable weeks. In everywhere but America, its reign was challenged only by the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe,” a hit that heralded reclamation of the proudly commercial, pre-packaged pop that the rise of “alternative rock” had so briefly seemed to snuff out.
But 1996 was also the year that this so-called “alternative” music began to produce plenty of its own versions of The Wonders, playing equally disposable songs that sounded like facsimiles bleeding in from some alternate universe. The faux-graffitied writing had been on the wall for alternative rock’s attenuation into corporate-engineered dross since approximately two weeks after Kurt Cobain’s suicide, right around the time Live’s Throwing Copper was released. But as much fun as it would be to lasso the corpse to Ed Kowalczyk’s dumb ponytail braid, the truth is it was making its guttural death rattle for many months before Live’s album of melodramatic, faux-introspective anthems for the arena of one’s own ass. And 1996 was the year it finally growled its last.