This In Defense Of was contributed by Square Zeros' Derek Hawkins.
Sometimes it's best to let Ice-T do the talking.
In summer 2006, the Soldier of the Highest Degree appeared on Late Night With Conan O'Brien, who asked if there was music he liked that would surprise his fans.
"The most pop record I used to really like was a song by The New Radicals," Ice-T said, and proceeded to sing, "Don't give up / you got the music in you!"
"I had that CD and I bumped it all the way to Vegas," he said. "And I was just feeling it, and it was just, like, two white boys in a mall singing, or something. I just dug it. I used to rock that."
When you've got the author of "6 In The Mornin'" on your side, I don't know how much more of a defense you need.
But I'll elaborate.
Released in fall 1998, "You Get What You Give" by The New Radicals was an alt-rock mainstay of the FM band for more than a year. The video made plenty of rounds on MTV and VH1 — you might remember the horrendous bucket hat, and the sequences of the teenagers taking over the Staten Island Mall and locking adults in dog cages. The song was also featured as the second track on the Now That's What I Call Music! 2 compilation, right behind Britney's "Baby One More Time."
If you grew up in North America in the 1990s and you don't know "You Get What You Give," you might have been living under a rock. Then again, it's the kind of classic one-hit-wonder material that slips through the cracks until you're reminded of it. Like so many marginally successful and utterly forgettable bands from the late-90s, The New Radicals were the chosen sons of an era in rock n roll when people were desperate for the Next Big Thing — ANYONE to help shake the affliction of rap metal, boy bands, and teeny boppers like Ms. Spears. Of course, they weren't strong enough. The New Radicals dissolved in mid-1999, just two years after they formed and a matter of months after the release of Maybe You've Been Brainwashed Too, the album that supported their hit single.
Part of me wants to defend their entire record, which my brother owned and played on repeat the spring after it came out. But my attachment to it is too sentimental to make much sense as an argument. "You Get What You Give," however, is salvageable on a bigger scale.
Lyrically and thematically, the song is exactly what radio-friendly post-alt lacked at the turn of the decade. Frontman Gregg Alexander's words are a sincere and positive call to action — an attempt to bring a punk rebelliousness to mainstream rock at a time that didn't allow for it. The airwaves were crowded with the vapid solipsism of post-grungers like Matchbox 20 and Sugar Ray, the mindless violence of Limp Bizkit and Korn, and — yeah yeah it's kinda funny now because Justin Timberlake is in movies and all — sappy fucking boy band bullshit. Amid all that, The New Radicals offered something thoughtfully anti-establishment: "Wake up kids / we've got the dreamers disease / age 14 / they got you down on your knees / so polite you're busy still saying please."
As I write this, I'm looking at the related videos column on the YouTube page for the "You Get What You Give" video, and it's almost entirely stuff that seems crass by comparison. To cherry-pick a little: "Steal My Sunshine" by Len, "Every Morning" by Sugar Ray, "Closing Time" by Semisonic, "Bittersweet Symphony" by the Verve, "Torn" by Natalie Imbruglia, "Walking On The Sun" by Smashmouth. Those were all fairly big hits from the same period and none of them contains the rallying cry or the legitimate angst of the equally successful "You Get What You Give." You're hard-pressed to find a lead singer from the time as empathetic as Mr. Alexander: "Don't let go / you've got the music in you / one dance left / the world is gonna pull through / don't give up / you've got a reason to live / can't forget / you only get what you give."
Musically, the song is pretty vanilla. It plays like a bored Todd Rundgren track — a midtempo piano-driven number peppered with some unadventurous guitar lines and some studio gimmickry. But the vocal patterns are catchy and Alexander's voice has a nice, energetic edge to it, especially when he doubles his lines.
I think the contrast between the unremarkable music and the posi-hardcore-esque lyrics makes "You Get What You Give" more complex and interesting than it would have been otherwise. Superimpose Rob Thomas or Mark McGrath and things get ugly. But the fact that you've got the spunky and earnest Gregg Alexander instead gives the song an insurgent element that makes it satisfying to listen to.
You get the best and worst of that at the end of the song, when Alexander belts out an anti-pop culture tirade. It's the most sophomoric part of "You Get What You Give," but it's also the most risky. Here it is in full:
"Health insurance rip off lying / FDA big bankers buying ' fake computer crashes dining / cloning while they're multiplying / fashion mag shoots / Beck and Hanson / Courtney Love and Marilyn Manson / you're all fakes run to your mansions / come around we'll kick your ass in!"
As the story goes, Alexander wrote those lyrics as a "test" — his word — to see what music journalists would cling to: the celebrity shit talking or the, uhh... issues that he alluded to. To no one's surprise, they covered the former.
The effort wasn't impressive per se. The political message, or whatever you want to call it, is completely incoherent, and it's a little ironic to start musical beef with four artists who — fashion shoots be damned — are probably too big to even notice you. But the fact that he was attempting to send a timely message at all, at a time when his Now That's What I Call Music! counterparts could barely complete a thought, makes his little diatribe at least forgivable. Compare it to the dis tracks and rivalries that have permeated hip hop since its inception. Rock n roll wouldn't suffer from a little chest-thumping. And, come on: Marylin Manson may have been creating more dangerous music than The New Radicals, but that dude's a fucking fraud.
Gregg Alexander's youthful simplicity and honesty in "You Get What You Give" was refreshing at the time and remains a fun, memorable we're-in-this-together number now.
Please join me and Ice-T in a second listen. You've got the music in you.
Previous Entries of "In Defense Of":
Derek Hawkins, In Defense Of: Teenage Dirtbag by Wheatus
Duane Gibson, In Defense Of: Rammstein