Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our new show, 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 13, which explores the history of the New Radicals, their biggest hit, and their journey to the Biden inauguration, with help from Rob Sheffield.
The second-to-last time I saw the New Radicals perform “You Get What You Give” onstage was the culmination of the ’90s-est five-day span of my whole entire life. This was December 1998, and I was a junior in college, and a lowly intern at a Cleveland alt-weekly, for whom I reviewed three concerts in five days. Concert no. 1: Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. The swing band. Swing revival band. From Swingers, the movie. People danced. Swing danced. I did not dance. I was a professional. Concert no. 2: Sevendust and Godsmack. A pretty rad nü-metal double bill, if we’re honest. Sevendust were quite drunk and jovial; Godsmack, who were not quite yet multiplatinum stars, were of course named after an Alice in Chains song about heroin. I understand that’s redundant. But “Godsmack,” the Alice in Chains song, is, like, extra about heroin. People moshed. I did not mosh. I was a professional.
Concert no. 3: A bizarre all-day alt-rock-radio-station festival and canned-food drive coheadlined by the ska-punk band Less Than Jake … and the New Radicals. Somebody should probably do a 20,000-word long read on Less Than Jake. I can’t guarantee you it won’t be me. Less Than Jake are lifers. They have my enduring respect. They were ska punk way before ska punk was cool and also long after. They tour to this day, pandemic-willing. Less Than Jake fans love Less Than Jake. Also, anecdotally, Less Than Jake fans hate the New Radicals.
What we knew then about the New Radicals, basically it’s what we know now. They were from L.A., and were led by singer-songwriter, “only guy on the album cover” multi-instrumentalist, charming narcissist, and bucket-hat enthusiast Gregg Alexander. “You Get What You Give,” an upbeat piano jam like Billy Joel in a good mood for once, and the nominal band’s one and only hit, was still climbing the charts at this point.
In Cleveland, the New Radicals take the stage first. Among the more cynical among us, already there’s a sense that they are destined to be one-hit wonders. Actually for a long time I thought they were English. They are not. Gregg is from Grosse Point, Michigan; he was raised a Jehovah’s Witness, he used to drive around with his mom listening to Motown, he heard Prince’s “The Beautiful Ones” as a teenager and resolved to run away to California and be a rock star. And then he did. But I don’t know, he just looked to me like he smelled like fish and chips. Maybe it was the bucket hat. He looks a little like Karl Pilkington, from the Ricky Gervais extended universe, you can picture him dancing to Depeche Mode in front of the Mayan pyramid at Chichen Itza. Anyway, Gregg and the New Radicals are “Going for It.” In this moment, in terms of chasing pop stardom, for what would turn out to be a remarkably brief period of time, “Going for It” here is defined as “willing to play a canned-food drive in Cleveland a week before Christmas.”
Gregg doesn’t seem happy to be there, in Cleveland, a week before Christmas. The crowd is indifferent. Halfway through the set, the band pulls out “You Get What You Give.” The crowd perks up. The New Radicals proceed to play other, far less popular New Radicals songs; the crowd once again grows indifferent. The set ends, blessedly. No encore is requested, and yet the New Radicals return for an encore anyway. The encore consists of “You Get What You Give,” again.
At this point a disgruntled crowd member yells out, “Somebody find a power outlet!” It wasn’t me. I was a professional. And then I watch, as a sizable group of Less Than Jake fans, huddled together in the middle of the crowd, stand silently, with their middle fingers raised toward the stage, for the entirety of “You Get What You Give,” again. Not a great time to be surrounded by canned food. This is my enduring image of “You Get What You Give” by the New Radicals, or at least it was, until the very last time I saw the New Radicals play “You Get What You Give” onstage, which was in mid-January 2021, as part of Joe Biden’s virtual presidential inauguration. Wow. Wow.
Like you, perhaps, there I was, on Sunday evening, minding my own business, which is to say mindlessly scrolling Twitter, and there it was, via Rolling Stone: The New Radicals will reunite for the first time in 22 years to perform “You Get What You Give” for something called a Virtual Parade Event to celebrate the inauguration—on Wednesday, January 20, 2021—of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. The New Radicals imploded, pretty quietly as implosions go, in 1999, basically while “You Get What You Give” was still on the charts. First thing I do: tweet a joke about Joe Biden kicking Marilyn Manson’s ass in. Second thing I do: tweet about the Less Than Jake thing. I said in the tweet that the New Radicals played “You Get What You Give” three times at that show, I regret the error, it was only twice, though in my defense “You Get What You Give” twice basically feels like any other song three times. Third thing I do: ruminate (privately, for once) on how random, and absurd, and openly dystopian this feels, this pairing of song and political event. Hopefully not like you, I react, like the doomscrolling cynic I have become. Universal Health Care: Wake up kids, we got the dreamer’s disease.
To hear the full episode, click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Thursday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.