In We’re No. 1, The A.V. Club examines a song that went to No. 1 on the charts to get to the heart of what it means to be popular in pop music, and how that has changed over the years. In this installment, we cover New Radicals’ “You Get What You Give” which spent one week at No. 1 on the Canadian RPM singles chart on February 8, 1999.
In the time between grunge’s cultural saturation and the dominance of nü-metal, the alternative music major-label landscape was remarkably weird. Jason Heller’s recent 1995 Week piece on this phenomenon noted how many underground bands were welcomed and then subsequently consumed by the cogs of industry. But as if in reaction to their inability to turn Jawbreaker, Seaweed, and Hum into the next Nirvana, labels then started trending more pop-oriented when pushing rock bands. Although this shift facilitated the mainstream popularity of palatable acts such as Third Eye Blind, Matchbox 20, The Verve Pipe, and Smash Mouth, modern rock didn’t become completely beige overnight.
Ben Folds Five’s worldview ranged from sardonic to sentimental to caustic, while Semisonic, Fastball, and Fountains Of Wayne crafted power-pop that was classic-sounding, catchy, and smart. An even weirder slew of one-hit wonders sprouted on modern rock radio, especially at the tail-end of the ’90s and into 2000: Marcy Playground’s “Sex And Candy,” Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping,” Wheatus’ “Teenage Dirtbag,” Len’s “Steal My Sunshine,” Bran Van 3000’s “Drinking In L.A.,” Marvelous 3’s “Freak Of The Week,” Harvey Danger’s “Flagpole Sitta,” Fretblanket’s “Into The Ocean,” and Citizen King’s “Better Days.” (Swirl 360’s “Hey Now Now,” despite its presence in the Top 40, felt like a lost alternative music classic in the vein of Sloan and Fastball.) With the exception of “Flagpole Sitta,” most of these songs never became wildly influential—in fact, a large portion of these bands gathered dust in the dollar bins, sunk by their own novelty—but they made the teeming underbelly of alternative-rock radio far more interesting.
On paper, New Radicals’ “You Get What You Give” isn’t drastically different than many of the other one-hit wonders of the late ’90s. The tune is airy-sounding and uplifting in a general way, courtesy of frontman Gregg Alexander’s soaring falsetto. Musically, it’s vaguely alternative-sounding, between the electric guitar corkscrews and optimistic piano chords popping out of the mix here and there, although it possesses enough of an accessible pop sheen to explain why it scraped the bottom of the Top 40. (The song was co-written by Rick Nowels, who went on to co-write huge hits for Dido, Madonna, and Lana Del Rey, and features contributions from Rusty Anderson, a former member of Ednaswap who’s now Paul McCartney’s guitarist.) The bridge contains a spoken-word section that Alexander often transformed into a near-rap live, in a nod to the era’s growing conflation of hip-hop and rock, while the vocalist’s forceful, half-spoken, half-sung delivery on the chorus made it easy (and fun) to sing along to.
New Radicals’ overall aesthetic also didn’t help the perception that it was just another ephemeral, goofy project. Alexander was frequently spotted wearing a face-obscuring fisherman’s hat (including on the cover of New Radicals’ lone album, Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too, itself dominated by a very-late-’90s garish yellow palette), while the song’s teen-movie-like video was filmed in a mall and focused on rebellious kids revolting against uptight adults. Yet musically, “You Get What You Give” takes its cues from far more timeless eras and sounds, specifically blue-eyed soul. Production-wise, it’s incredibly detailed—listen closely for the percussion rattles in the intro, or the lush keyboards and guitar shading humming faintly underneath the surface—and has a pristine balance of instrumental voices, in a way akin to XTC’s 1986 LP Skylarking. Alexander wasn’t trying to obscure or distort his voice, and he was unabashedly earnest, in both his irreverent worldview and lyrics.
Accordingly, the circumstances around New Radicals becoming a one-hit wonder are rather different than what happened to other groups. Instead of cultural forces or label indifference, Alexander himself decided he was over being the frontman of a band in the middle of an album cycle: In July 1999, he broke up the group right before the release of Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too’s second single, “Someday We’ll Know.” In a press release, he announced his intention to go into production and songwriting for other artists, while also hinting at burnout with the whole process of trying to scare up a hit record.
“I’m going to be turning 30 next year, and realise that travelling 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. “Over the last several months, I’d lost interest in fronting a ‘One Hit Wonder’ [sic] to the point that I was wearing a hat while performing so that people wouldn’t see my lack of enthusiasm.” True to his word, Alexander stopped doing press until a 2014 interview, and immersed himself in songwriting and production.
Alexander’s disillusionment makes more sense when taking into account that the New Radicals represented his third try at mainstream success: Two solo albums, 1989’s Michigan Rain and 1992’s Intoxifornication, released via two different labels, didn’t have much of a commercial impact. “I was on Epic [Records] around grunge time, so I refused to kind of look like Eddie Vedder,” he joked to KROQ in early 2015, although he later elaborated on his disappearing act more seriously later in the same interview:
I liked touring, it was fun, but I really missed writing songs every day and being creative and being an artist. I felt maybe for me personally, that grind might not be the right fit. I had two records out before the New Radicals record took off… By the time I finally had a hit record, I had already been around it for 12 years, so I was already ready to retire.
In fact, on one level, “You Get What You Give” almost feels like Alexander’s pep talk to himself to continue on his creative path. The song’s lyrics remind dreamers who feel down on their luck that they’re special and capable, even if they’re broke and desperate (“Don’t let go / You’ve got the music in you”), and encourages them to hang on despite bleak times. Still another throwaway line even seems to presage his disappearance: “Don’t give up / Just don’t be afraid to leave.” In fact, “You Get What You Give” has plenty of subtle layers. The beginning hints at stifling religious forces and youthful abandon; later, there’s a plea to strive for substance, as well as an oblique reference to romantic solidarity. Even the recurring phrase, “We only get what we give,” is deceptively simple: It hints at deeper philosophical and spiritual conversations about the impact a person’s life has on the world.
But this optimism was tempered by the end of the song, which devolved into a very specific, deliberate critique of oppressive forces. “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,” Alexander told The Hollywood Reporter in 2014, during his first interview in 15 years. “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.” But not only did this hiding-in-plain-sight political statement give the song weight, it’s kept the tune relevant 15-plus years later, because the issues Alexander spoke of are still pressing concerns.
Yet another group of prescient lines featured next on the song—a throwaway diss of musicians Beck, Hanson, Courtney Love, and Marilyn Manson: “You’re all fakes / Run to your mansions / Come around / We’ll kick your ass in”—was a contributing factor to his music-industry exit. As he recalled in the same 2014 interview, he was disappointed that these fame-preoccupied lines took precedence over the other, more pointed lyrics: “To notice that everybody focused on the so-called ‘celebrity-bashing’ lyric instead of this lyric that was talking about the powers-that-be that are holding everybody down… That was something that I was kind of disillusioned by.” (Manson was upset for another reason, as he told MTV in 1998: “I’m giving an open invitation to the singer of the New Radicals,” Manson said,“because he’s all strange and spiritual, and he challenged me in one of his songs. A lot of people would say, ‘Y’know, don’t give him the attention, cause that’s what he wants.’ But I think I’ll crack his skull open if I see him. … I’m not mad that he said he’d kick my ass, I just don’t want to be used in the same sentence with Courtney Love.”)
The attention given to his critique of fame underscored his distaste for the culture’s emphasis on celebrity attention, something else that would only grow more intense and pervasive in the coming years. “My favorite artists—Prince, [David Lee] Roth-era Van Halen, even Madonna when she was doing cutting-edge work—they were mysteries to me and my friends,” Alexander said in 2014. “That was part of what made their work compelling, was that we didn’t have their opinions tweeted and Facebooked every 30 seconds. I didn’t know what Prince was having for dinner, thank God. So that was some of what I idealized and thought would be more present in my life as an artist.”
So even though “You Get What You Give” stayed in the mainstream’s consciousness during the next 15 years, Alexander retreated from the public eye, at least under his own name. Using a pseudonym, he wrote or co-wrote major European hits (including Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s “Murder On The Dancefloor” and Ronan Keating’s “Life Is a Rollercoaster”), as well as songs for Spice Girls’ Mel C and Geri Halliwell, Boyzone, and Enrique Iglesias. With Nowels, he also co-wrote Santana’s massive, Grammy-winning hit “The Game Of Love,” which in its demo form isn’t that far off from New Radicals’ amiable style, and was also part of a collective called the Not So Silent Majority, which put together an effervescent song called “Obama Rock” around the time of the president’s 2009 inauguration. More recently, Alexander penned songs for the 2013 movie Begin Again with Nowels and his longtime musical collaborator Danielle Brisebois. One of these tunes, “Lost Stars,” was even nominated for an Oscar, precipitating his brief return to the limelight. The template Alexander created on “You Get What You Give” turned out to be surprisingly influential on popular music, just in a non-obvious, almost obscured way.
Yet New Radicals’ shelf life has also been surprisingly long. “You Get What You Give” has been in a slew of movies, including 2000’s The Flintstones In Viva Rock Vegas and 2004’s Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed. In Glee’s season-three finale, outgoing seniors sang it as a goodbye song to the underclassmen, while Savoir Adore covered the song for A.V. Undercover in 2013. The band also has some superstar supporters: Hall & Oates covered “Someday We’ll Know” with Todd Rundgren, and the members of U2 are unabashed fans of Alexander’s work (in fact, Bono was the one who reportedly connected him to Begin Again director John Carney). The band even received Joni Mitchell’s stamp of approval: “The only thing I heard in many years that I thought had greatness in it was the New Radicals,” she told Rolling Stone in 2002. “I loved that song ‘You Get What You Give.’ It was a big hit, and I said, ‘Where did they go?’ It turns out the guy [Gregg Alexander] quit. I thought, ‘Good for him.’ I knew he was my kind of guy.”
Alexander performed “Lost Stars” live a few times in support of the Oscars campaign, although this doesn’t seem to signal his return to performing. Which is fine: “You Get What You Give” demonstrates that being a one-hit wonder doesn’t have to be a pejorative term or mean that an artist is somehow lacking; in some cases, a single hit can also be a definitive statement from a particular project. One-hit wonders give each era of music their distinctive timbre and direction, and provide cultural grounding, a marker for what was going on in society at a given time. A truly great one-hit wonder like “You Get What You Give” endures and evolves over time, becoming both a nostalgic artifact and a song that transcends any era.