For an emerging artist, a hit single is both the best and worst thing that can happen to you.
On the one hand, having your song all over radio and MTV essentially guarantees your first-ever national club tour will be sold out. On the other hand, it turns every show into an awkward waiting game, where the audience politely endures every song on the setlist that isn’t The Hit, until The Hit is played and everyone loses their shit for three minutes, and three minutes only. If you drop The Hit too early in the set, everything from that point on feels anti-climactic. But if you save it for last, the big moment feels too premeditated — it’s like walking into a surprise birthday party for yourself that you already knew about.
I don’t remember too much about the time I saw New Radicals play their one and only Toronto gig at Lee’s Palace on November 30, 1998. But I do remember them dropping The Hit in the middle of their set and thinking it was a ballsy move. As it turns out, it wasn’t that risky a proposition, because New Radicals had a failsafe plan for going out on a high note. For their encore, they did something I had never seen a band do before and haven’t since.
They came back onstage, and played The Hit again.
The Hit was, of course, “You Get What You Give,” the track that, for a few months at the end of 1998, turned New Radicals frontman Gregg Alexander into America’s most famous food-court hooligan. It’s a driving, piano-powered anthem that pulled off the rare feat of sounding both unabashedly optimistic and bitterly cynical — a plaintive plea for sanity and humanity in a hyper-consumerist culture that treats celebrities like deities and encourages teens to rack up five-figure credit-card debts before they’re out of college. It was also the rare non-gangsta-rap track to name names and make beef, calling out the era’s foremost hipsters (Beck), innocuous pop pin-ups (Hanson), and self-obsessed rock stars (Courtney Love and Marilyn Manson) as apolitical pawns propping up a soulless music-industry machine. In the final line, Alexander threatens to “kick their asses,” effectively making “You Get What You Give” a UFC pay-per-view event in pop-song form.
I had the chance to interview Alexander in a Toronto pub the day after that Lee’s Palace show, for a Canadian teen publication called What! A Magazine. (Yes, it was actually called What! A Magazine. And miraculously, my Dictaphone recording of our half-hour conversation managed to survive the ensuing two decades of multiple apartment moves and perpetual cardboard-box storage in moldy, dusty basements.)
I started off by asking him why he played The Hit twice the night before. For any other artist, the move might’ve seemed like a good-natured lark. But coming from someone who’d just released an album called Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too, I wondered if there as ulterior motive at play, if Alexander was making some sort of meta-commentary on his song’s sudden popularity. It seemed that, if most people in the crowd were only there to hear that one song, Alexander was giving the people what they wanted … by ramming it down their throats like the sadistic killer in Se7en who makes his gluttonous victim overdose on spaghetti. But Alexander claimed his intent was much more charitable.
“That was just a chance to maybe go into a little celebratory mode in a live context, which is different from the spirit of the album,” he said. “Lyrically, there’s a lot of social commentary in there, but I don’t want the shows to be heavy-handed. When we go out there, we’re not afraid to be vulnerable and happy, even if it’s only happy for the moment.”
Alas, there wouldn’t be many more of those moments for Alexander to savor. For someone who preached, “don’t let go/ you’ve got the music in you,” Alexander proved unwilling to heed his own advice. Within a few months of our interview, New Radicals were a done deal and Alexander all but disappeared from public life. Of course, there were no lack of one hit wonders in the post-alt-rock landscape — for every Smashing Pumpkins or Radiohead, there were a thousand Better Than Ezras and Marcy Playgrounds. But New Radicals distinguished themselves from the ’90s-rock landfill in one crucial way — they were a one-hit wonder on purpose.
Really, it’s amazing that “You Get What You Give” was a hit at all, given how out of step it was with everything else happening on rock radio at the time. The year 1998 was alt-rock’s Wild West moment. Once-dominant trends like grunge and Britpop had entered late-stage gentrification. Pop-punk was in flux, with Green Day getting serious, and the Offspring turning into a comedy act. Indie rock was shaking off the fuzz in favor of bedsit acoustic balladry and post-rock experimentalism. Nu-metal was burbling up from below, but had yet to go full Nookie, while the mainstreaming of electronica saw guitar solos replaced with DJ scratching. And the line between alternative rock and adult-contemporary was getting increasingly blurry. So naturally, in this anything-goes era, the year’s defining song was a manic folk-rock-rap pastiche that name-dropped Harrison Ford and Chinese chickens.
Less a proper band than a vehicle for Alexander’s auterist vision, New Radicals slunk around all those trends as if dodging slow-motion bullets in The Matrix. Musically speaking, there was nothing especially radical about Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too — the album was a faithfully smooth recreation of lush ’70s soul and soft rock produced with a crack crew of studio veterans including drummer Josh Freese, future Paul McCartney sideman Rusty Anderson, and Eric Clapton’s go-to keyboardist Greg Phillinganes. But compared to everything else that was happening in 1998, it may as well have come from another planet. The sense of dissonance was compounded by the album’s rave-flyer of a cover, featuring Alexander floating in a bright yellow sunburst, his fisherman’s cap coyly obscuring his eyes just so. You couldn’t help but wonder: Who the fuck is this guy? Or rather, what the fuck is this guy? Todd Rundgren in club gear? Jamiroquai with a more modest hat budget? Jeff Buckley for TRL kids? (It turns out the New Radical was actually an old major-label hopeful who had previously released two unfashionable, unsuccessful rock albums under his own name — including one with the perfectly Chili Pepperian mad-lib title of Intoxifornication.)
But Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too’s anachronistic sound wasn’t the only thing that distinguished New Radicals — among his Buzz Bin contemporaries, Alexander was one of the few artists who sounded like he actually read a newspaper regularly, and he often used his interviews to redirect the spotlight away from himself and onto the world at large. While he was open and cordial during our interview, he got visibly riled when the conversation turned to ’90s alternative-rock culture — in particular, its promotion of irony over earnestness, and apathy over outspokenness.
“That’s one of the things I’ve got my boxing gloves on about — I’m ready to go out there and fuck shit up,” Alexander told me. “Because as far as I’m concerned, that whole Silverlake-chic thing of ‘Oh, aren’t we cool’ and lyrics like ‘the beer can fell into the washing sink of dreams and came up with a purple smile on its face’ — it’s like, fuck that shit! Quit living in your white-bread world. Those things actually do get under my skin. Because it’s rock ‘n’ roll recreating the same vague, apolitical bullshit as a fucking Coca-Cola commercial. What do these people have to say about the fucking real world? The whole ’90s alternative-rock thing was such a letdown — it was all about ‘oh well, whatever, never mind.’ Rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to be a voice against oppression, not an apathetic grunt.”
But if such attitudes made Alexander an outlier in 1998 rock culture, two decades later, they’re ubiquitous — to the point where major artists are routinely called out for not using their elevated platform as a soapbox. And New Radicals’ anomalous status at the time has ultimately allowed them to transcend their moment more easily than, say, Semisonic. While it might be a stretch to call Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too a lost masterpiece (it does, after all, have a song called “Technicolor Lover”) it’s aged infinitely better than most artifacts of its era — and there’s a case to be made that “You Get What You Give” isn’t even its greatest song. (No, seriously: the power-pop knockout “Jehovah Made This Whole Joint For You” and aching ballad “Someday We’ll Know” deserved to be just as huge.)
For one, the album’s session-player slickness and pristine melodicism anticipated both the 21st-century yacht-rock revival and indie rock’s ongoing Rundgrenaissance (and if the connection isn’t clear enough, maybe this will help). You could also argue Arcade Fire have devoted their entire career to seeking alternate cures for the dreamer’s disease. But more importantly, the album’s key concerns — financial insecurity, environmental degradation, media addiction, corporate dominance, and, especially top-of-mind for a lapsed Jehovah’s Witness like Alexander, spiritual emptiness — have only become more oppressive in the intervening years. It’s easy to look back at the late-’90s as a more innocent time — a pre-9/11 era when geopolitical turmoil didn’t feel so viscerally omnipresent in the everyday lives of most North Americans, and social media didn’t exist to amplify our anxieties. In retrospect, Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too’s proto-woke prognostications were like the original Twitter news alerts, rudely interrupting the happiest days of our lives to inform us we’re all doomed.
For Alexander, “You Get What You Give” wasn’t just a catchy, calling-card single, but a test-market trial of the New Radicals’ mainstream-subversion mission. The song’s most famous lyric was also the album’s least sincere — Alexander didn’t have any real intention of challenging Beck or Marilyn Manson to a cage match. He was essentially engaging in an early form of trolling — baiting the media to see if they would pick up on the song’s indictment of health-insurance companies, big banks, and the FDA, or just dwell on the celebrity shit-talk.
The experiment was a little too successful for his liking. Disillusioned by the process of constantly explaining himself to the press, and craving the anonymity that once allowed him to write authentically about the everyday human experience, Alexander deep-sixed New Radicals in 1999. But he stayed behind the scenes in the music industry, enjoying a successful if considerably lower-profile second act as a shadowy song doctor to the stars. (In 2015, he and former New Radicals collaborator Danielle Brisebois, along with Nick Lashley and Nick Southwood, scored an Oscar nomination for the track “Lost Stars,” featured in the Keira Knightly/Mark Ruffalo dramedy Begin Again.)
But even when Alexander’s not front and center, his presence is unmistakable. His most famous post-Radicals composition, the 2003 Santana/Michelle Branch collab “The Game of Love,” includes a familiar ascending falsetto flourish remarkably similar to the one heard near the end of “You Get What You Give,” like a mysterious breadcrumb clue left behind by someone who doesn’t want to be found. But if there’s a cruel irony to hearing an anti-consumerist anthem getting stripped for spare parts that get repackaged into an adult-contemporary pop song, it’s an outcome that Alexander all but anticipated himself toward the end of our interview 20 years ago.
“I think history has proven that when pop songs or rock songs or R&B songs try to speak against oppression or injustice, it just gets turned into a wedding song three years later,” he said. “You go to a wedding and you hear Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Goin’ On’ and people’s grandmas are dancing. I would say the tale is going to be told as to what happens over the next couple of years with what the New Radicals are about, and what the Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too thing gets turned into. I’ll be curious to see.”
Well, as I can attest from first-hand experience DJing several friends’ nuptials over the years, “You Get What You Give” is indeed a killer wedding jam (and by extension, a can’t-lose karaoke crowd-pleaser). It’s also spawned a cottage industry of wistfully nostalgic cover versions, from high-profile musical productions to fledgling YouTubers. It’s even turned up in commercials for the sort of money-grubbing, debt-inducing institutions that Alexander railed against. But then the song’s inherent contradictions are what make it so eternally fascinating. “You Get What You Give” is a sleek throwback dad-rock jam mobilizing kids to riot. It’s a jumble of dated celebrity references and timeless topical issues. It’s a protest in pop-song clothing, a major-label product with an underground-resistance heart. And it’s a palace-storming critique of pop culture that became a Top 40 phenomenon itself. Gregg Alexander bailed on his mission before he became a fake in a mansion. But that fate only reinforced the song’s most remarkable quality: “You Get What You Give” is a song whose success was ultimately contingent on its failure.