You Get What You Give (1998)
It’s a struggle to recall how different the world was before 9/11. So it is striking how a cynical, almost hysterically anti-establishment song like “You Get What You Give” feels antique, sentiment-wise, almost quaint in the way it lashes out. Our current view must be analogous to how people familiar with the highest peaks of the 1920s would have viewed the pre-Crash world of prohibition, bathtub gin and flappers when they looked back through the lens of the Great Depression.
In no way does that diminish the appeal or artistry that the one-hit wonders, The New Radicals, breathed – with fire – into “You Get What You Give.” It’s a big Rock-Pop hit, a neo-Wall Of Sound number, a rocker with more hooks than a bait shop.
Nobody said it was going to be easy
Most of all, it’s a song about the excesses of the 1990s and an indictment of the slavish devotion to prosperity that America hews to. Writers Alexander and Nowels are telling kids that they better watch out or they’ll lose their soul, lose control. Its rabble-rousing beat and sway are contagious, vaguely reminiscent of the early 80s UK band, Wham – but all liquored up and unwashed. The New Radicals also feed a bit of Hip-Hop attitude into their mix as well as that genre’s hesitating, off-the-beat vocals.
The lyrics attempt to stir teenagers and others to wake the hell up from their torpor, the anesthesia of wealth, privilege and consumerism. There’s something else out there. Seize it. Rebel, even if it’s only for the sake of rebelling. Strike out, opt out, bark like mad dogs, tune in, turn on, drop out before you get ground into pet chow.
Wake up kids we’ve got the dreamers disease
Age 14 we got you down on your knees
So polite, you’re busy still saying please
Frenemies, who when you’re down
Ain’t your friend
Every night we smash their Mercedes-Benz
First we run and then we laugh till we cry
The chorus is where the great riches of “You Get What You Give” are to be discovered. The music comes alive through pounding drums, slick guitars with zooming effects and a falsetto tracked with Gregg Alexander’s lead vocals.
Alexander plays a clean, train-going-down-the-rails rhythm guitar. Rusty Anderson is adroit at zipping in and out with an ear-pleasing lead. Co-writer Rick Nowels provides a seriously fine honky-tonk piano that lifts just the right amount of drive from Jerry Lee Lewis.
Then there is an attempt to give some answers, which is when the dance groove kicks in hard and cool. You can close your eyes and see the vanguard of the Millennials dancing in the gym:
But when the night is falling
and you cannot find the light
If you feel your dreams are dying
You’ve got the music in you
Don’t let go
You’ve got the music in you
One dance left
This 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
One objection that can be raised against “You Get What You Give” is that the lead guitar mission is scrubbed before it’s given a chance to leave Earth’s gravitational pull. The sweet solo lasts only ten seconds. Given that the song is so intricately produced, it is an unnecessary fumble.
A vibrant libertarian-anarchic strain runs through the track. There are no sacred cows in the writers’ worldview: “Miracle Mile” malls; the rich; God freaks; the perpetual broke state of the adolescent – all shouted down with wit and verve. Around the three-quarter poll you start warming up to these guys and their message about a country run amok, but still pretending to be normal.
What’s real can’t die
You only get what you give
Just dont be afraid to leave
Health insurance rip off lying
FDA, big bankers buying
Fake computer crashes dining
Cloning while they’re multiplying
The song is a celebration – weird as the criticisms of society may be for such a seductive happy-sounding number. Perhaps it’s the cognitive dissonance between theme and groove that commands the listener so imperatively.
The dynamics found in Rebel Without A Cause or The Wild One, in which James Dean and Marlon Brando star respectively, provide a parallel. Two fantastically appealing young men – handsome, don’t-give-a-shit, sex on their minds, scorching hot in leather jackets – run hard against a prosperous society as if that’s their sole mission in life.
Three years after “You Get What You Give” was released, the psychopathic terrorists struck New York, Washington and a plane in the skies over Pennsylvania. The wacky world of the Bill Clinton presidency (which had spilled over to George Bush’s first year) came to a thundering, flaming close. The United States, and the whole world with it, entered into an era of conflict, waste, irresolution, and deadlock over core human values.
Like the 1920s, or like the Old South (un-mourned as it may be), a whole social structure, a whole state of mind, was “gone with the wind.”
With grace, grand competence, and – like the times it springs from – a lot of irrational exuberance, “You Get What You Give” delivers a message, a feeling and one of the best songs from the third age of Rock. It makes you realize anew that all good Rock-N-Roll is born of excess.
- Joni Mitchell, in the liner notes to her 2004 Artist’s Choice retrospective said, the New Radicals’ song was “rising from the swamp of ‘McMusic’ like a flower of hope.”
- “You Get What You Give” was released in November of 1998. In July of 1999, The New Radicals broke up.