Screengrab via YouTube / PBS News Hour
January 20, 2021 will go down as a critical turning point in our nation’s history, a day marking the end of a years-long period of darkness in America and the beginning of a triumphant return to the light. I’m talking, of course, about the fact that New Radicals got back together for the first time in over 20 years.
“You Get What You Give,” the band’s 1998 power-pop anthem, is of special significance to Joe Biden; he wrote in his memoir that it became a kind of “theme song” for his son Beau during his battle with cancer. The Biden administration tapped Gregg Alexander, New Radicals’ frontman, to perform “You Get What You Give” during Wednesday’s inaugural parade, and in a sign that there may in fact be a God out there watching over us, Alexander agreed.
“If there’s one thing on Earth that would possibly make us get the band together, if only for a day, it is the hope that our song could be even the tiniest beacon of light in such a dark time,” Alexander said in a statement to Rolling Stone. “America knows in its heart that things will get bright again with a new administration and a real plan for vaccines on the way. That’s the message of the song… this world is gonna pull through.”
Everyone knows that “You Get What You Give” slaps harder than a guest on The Jerry Springer Show, but few are familiar with the song’s origin story—and the reason New Radicals dropped off the face of the Earth just months after their hit jumped to the top of the charts in the late 90s. In honor of their strange, unexpected, and undeniably badass reunion, it’s high time we revisit how “You Get What You Give” came to be.
By 1998, Alexander had already been signed and dropped twice—first by A&M, then by Epic—after failing to make a splash with his first two albums. At that point, he was “used to making records that never got heard,” he told the Hollywood Reporter in 2014, and decided to stop trying to make music that might be successful. Instead, he said, he “ripped up [the] few rules that applied to my first two records” and produced an album almost entirely on his own: Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too.
“Most of that record was me pulling favors with studios or musicians that had played on earlier records and were like, ‘Oh, Gregg’s down on his luck—let’s go play on his demo for the hell of it, we’ll have a good laugh, have a couple of beers and maybe smoke a J or whatever,'” he told the Hollywood Reporter.
Almost overnight, the album’s lead single, “You Get What You Give,” rocketed onto the Billboard Top 40. To Alexander, the fact that the song succeeded at all came as a surprise, he told the Hollywood Reporter:
My favorite writers and artists had a human-politics aspect to their work, and that was something that drove me as well. I felt—perhaps too early on—that it was going to be a challenge to get even a portion of that sentiment across. As an experiment on the song ‘You Get What You Give,’ I had what at the time was one of the more political lyrics in a long, long, long time, to the point where some of the people I was working with were horrified. In a pop song, I was going after health insurance companies and corruption—’Health insurance rip off lying’; the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration, and the hypocrisy of the war on drugs, which was not real; ‘big bankers’ and Wall Street. To allude to all that stuff in a pop song was, in retrospect, a naively crazy proposition.
That subtly transgressive message, slipped into a song that’s about as earwormy as they come, clicked. “You Get What You Give” reached number 36 on Billboard’s Hot 100, and claimed top spots on charts in the U.K., Canada, and New Zealand. Alexander was in a position to tour the world, to make more records, and—after spending years languishing in the trenches of the music business—to finally spend some time at the top of it. But in 1999, he walked away from it all, disbanding New Radicals right before their second single came out.
He’d become disillusioned with the recording industry, he told the Hollywood Reporter, and had grown to detest the “big businesses that run these corporations and multinationals that own the record companies and all of the conduits through which artists get their music out there.” So instead of feeding that beast, he abandoned it.
“I’m going to be turning 30 next year, and [I] realize[d] that traveling and getting three hours sleep in a different hotel every night to do ‘hanging and schmoozing’ with radio and retail people is definitely not for me,” he wrote in a statement at the time, according to the AV Club. “Over the last several months, I’d lost interest in fronting a ‘One Hit Wonder’ to the point that I was wearing a hat while performing so that people wouldn’t see my lack of enthusiasm.”
He spent the next two decades writing under pseudonyms for other artists, notably including Santana, who won a Grammy for a song Alexander co-wrote called “The Game of Love.” He told Rolling Stone he’s had countless offers from labels promising him “small fortunes” to get New Radicals back together, but he never legitimately considered doing it.
He never thought he’d perform “You Get What You Give” again, and Wednesday may be the last time he ever does, he told Rolling Stone. But to him, the opportunity was impossible to turn down.
“A presidential inauguration is vastly different from other potential reunions, particularly when our democracy’s at stake,” he told Rolling Stone. “Or when you learn that one in four Americans under 25 has thought of suicide in the last month. So you hope if someone hears you singing, ‘If you feel your tree is breaking … just bend’ on TV, you might give them the tiniest reminder to hang on in the face of the negativity we unfortunately can’t escape online or in the news every day.”
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