16 October, 1998
In 2005, Joni Mitchell released her Artists Choice compilation, curating masterworks by Dylan, Duke Ellington, Leonard Cohen, Billy Holiday and others. It closed with You Get What You Give, a 1998 release by the New Radicals, of which she wrote, “It was sassy and smart and had real emotions. It rose from the swamp of ‘McMusic’ like a flower of hope.”
The song appeared on the New Radicals’ sassy, smart LP Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too, out today. Anthemic, barbed and possessed of a preternatural freshness, You Get What You Give blended uplift and accusation, taking aim at health inequality, big business and an America he saw as dumbing ever downwards, and the power of the individual to resist and transcend. It also called Beck, Courtney Love and Marilyn Manson “fake” and threatened them with a bashing. Speaking to MuchMusic TV in Canada, intense, six-foot-five New Radicals mainman Gregg Alexander questioned critics latching onto the celebrity angle rather than his wider social critique. “(It) was a little bit of a test of the emergency broadcast system of pop culture, to see whether it’s pop culture that’s going in the wrong direction,” he said, ‘Reni’ hat tight over his eyes, “and it turns out it is.”
Alexander, originally of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, was raised in a Jehovah’s Witness household with a Motown fan mother and Prince’s Purple Rain as his epiphany. He released his debut Michigan Rain in 1989, aged just 19. A second LP, Intoxifornication, followed in 1992. Neither album sold. It was a wiser man, with simultaneously less and more to lose, who launched New Radicals in 1997. Recorded in Detroit and Los Angeles, Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too featured regular keyboardist Danielle Brisebrois alongside contributions from session aces Alessandro Alessandroni, Greg Phillinganes, Lenny Castro, Rusty Anderson and Josh Freese, plus songwriter Rick Nowels on keyboards. With the sounds compared to Prince, Todd Rundgren, Hall and Oates and The Waterboys, the lyrics addressed greed, the military-industrial combine, consumerism, religion, hypocrisy, racism, sexism and global doom. Alexander didn’t excuse himself from blame, lamenting on the title track, “So cynical, so hip, so full of shit/ They told us to shut the fuck up and write another hit.”
"I’m excited to have a catchy single. I’m ready to be carted around like a piece of meat."
On October 31, You Get What You Give was at 34 on Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart, one place below Oasis’ Acquiesce. It was helped on its way by a goofy, subversive video set in a mall, where authority figures are netted and caged, mods ride around on scooters and kids dance and throw food. A live band featuring guitarist Brad Fernquist and bass player Sasha Krivtsov was formed, with dates commencing the following month. Shows could include two performances of the single plus album tracks In Need Of A Miracle segueing into a cover of Musical Youth’s Pass The Dutchie and I Hope I Didn’t Just Give Away The Ending quoting Lou Reed’s Walk On The Wild Side.
“I’m excited to have a catchy single,” Alexander told Billboard on November 14, 1998. “I enjoy watching it climb up the chart… I’m ready to be carted around like a piece of meat. You have to cut a deal with the machine and be thrown to the wolves.” You Get What You Give would peak at US number 36, and Maybe You’re Brainwashed Too at 41, in January 1999. In the UK the single reached number five and the album number ten in April.
New Radicals split...
Then, in May ’99, dates including a UK tour were cancelled. On June 12, Alexander released a statement that the New Radicals were over. “I accomplished most of my goals with this record… over the last several months, I’d lost interest in fronting a ‘One Hit Wonder’,” he said, arguably prematurely, “to the point that I was wearing a hat while performing so that people wouldn’t see my lack of enthusiasm.” His label and management were shocked, the latter’s Martin Kirkup observing, “Gregg has pulled the plug on himself.”
In decades that followed Alexander wrote hits for Ronan Keating, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Texas and others, and shared a Grammy with Rick Nowels for writing Santana’s The Game Of Love in 2003. He also worked in the charitable sector and co-composed the OST for 2013’s musical comedy drama Begin Again. The New Radicals seemed done and dusted.
Then came the inauguration of Joe Biden as US President on January 20, 2021, and a band reunion for a spirited run-through of You Get What You Give on the virtual Parade Across America. They were, Alexander explained, playing in memory of the new President’s late son Beau, who drew strength from the song when fighting brain cancer, and “with the prayer of Joe being able to bring our country together again, with compassion, with honesty, and with justice for a change, because we need it.” Naturally, he did it with his original bucket hat on.