The New Radicals Get a Victory Lap

Culture

The musical entertainment for Joe Biden’s inauguration as the 46th President of the United States includes some of the most famous people on the planet: Lady Gaga, Bruce Springsteen, etc. But a slightly more unexpected name popped up on Sunday in the deluge of announcements: New Radicals will reunite to close the virtual “Parade Across America” with their ‘90s hit “You Get What You Give.”

There is, of course, a personal explanation for the choice: Biden noted in his 2017 memoir Promise Me, Dad that “You Get What You Give” had become his family’s “theme song” as they rallied around his son Beau Biden, who died of brain cancer in 2015 (Vice President Kamala Harris’s husband Doug Emhoff also regularly used it as his campaign walk-on music). But it’s a surprisingly resonant pick: you’d be hard pressed to find another hit from the late ‘90s that has grown as much in stature over the last couple decades.

The fickle world of pop music is full of brief careers, but few acts came and went quicker than New Radicals: they released their debut single in 1998, with their only album, the platinum-selling Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too, following that November—and were disbanded by frontman Gregg Alexander, who openly referred to the band as a “one hit wonder,” less than a year later. They arrived at a strange and unpredictable time in alternative rock, when major labels had cycled through every possible trend from swing bands to electronica, and once subversive underground bands like Chumbawumba and Butthole Surfers could briefly become radio stars. “You Get What You Give” peaked at #36 on the Hot 100 in the early months of 1999, but the New Radicals broke up in July, before the video for the follow-up single “Someday We’ll Know” had even been released. Alexander became a cultishly adored pop journeyman who wrote hits like Santana and Michelle Branch’s “The Game of Love” and Oscar-nominated music for the 2013 film Begin Again.

“You Get What You Give” kicked up a little frisson of controversy with the section at the end of the song where Alexander promises to kick the asses of “fakes” like Beck, Hanson, Courtney Love, and Marilyn Manson — only Manson responded. (That section of the song opens with some political commentary — “Health insurance, ripoff lying, FDA, big bankers buying” — that feels more prescient now.) Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too was warmly reviewed by the major music mags at the time, but wasn’t critically celebrated enough to make the year-end lists. Over time, though, it’s rightfully grown into its reputation as an underrated gem, with songs like the anthemic “Mother We Just Can’t Get Enough” and the cleverly meta “I Hope I Didn’t Just Give Away the Ending” standing as equals to the big hit single.

By breaking up almost immediately after hitting it big, New Radicals saved themselves the perhaps inevitable fate of struggling to produce a follow-up and getting dropped from their label like so many of their contemporaries. They never jumped at opportunities to play on cruise ships with Sugar Ray or tweet their way back into relevance like Eve 6. But the Biden inauguration has presented a strangely perfect opportunity for the victory lap that New Radicals never allowed themselves the first time around.

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