Finding Hope For a Divided Nation In a Nineties Alt-Pop Classic

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Whoever is responsible for tracking down and persuading the New Radicals to reform for the Biden inauguration deserves a medal.

Tomorrow, on Wednesday January 20, one-time frontman Gregg Alexander will get the old band back together for the first time in twenty-two years to perform their one and only hit single for the virtual Biden-Harris “Parade Across America” inauguration event.

As part of one of the most famous one-hit-wonder bands of all time, Alexander disbanded New Radicals in the summer of 1999 at the height of their fame, a mere nine months on from the release of their debut single You Get What You Give. The song became an international hit in the fall of 1998 and will no doubt be familiar to anyone who came of age at the turn of the millennium and had their ears within spitting distance of FM radio. Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too, the band’s only album, sold more than a million copies — back in the booming industry days when an album could do so without even cracking the top forty.

A reunion on this scale (or, indeed, any scale) always seemed unlikely, but being asked to perform at the inauguration seems to have convinced Alexander otherwise. “If there’s one thing on Earth that would possibly make us get the band together, if only for a day, it is the hope that our song could be even the tiniest beacon of light in such a dark time,” Alexander said in a statement.

New Radicals co-founder Danielle Brisebois has spoke of the “mad, fun scramble” of getting the band back together and planning their performance, having received the invitation only last week. Yet despite the hasty reunion and what could be chalked up as bad project management, You Get What Your Give has clearly resonated deeply with those involved in the Biden campaign for much longer. It was chosen as the personal walk-on song for Kamala Harris’ husband Doug Emhoff during last year’s campaign, and Joe Biden himself has commented on the song’s resonance, explaining in his 2017 autobiography Promise Me, Dad just how important its lyrics were to his family in the final days before his son Beau died.

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The New Radicals in 1999.

Waking up to the news this morning that the band would reunite to perform felt like a light bulb going off. Of course this make sense.

You Get What You Give has achieved ubiquity in ways that most popular music being released today just can’t — but that’s not why it’s being performed again in two days. It shines as a beacon of hope and the world needs that now more than any point in living memory. Listening to the song after this morning’s news achieved new context, casting its lyrics in an entirely new light.

Sure, it might sound cheesy — almost impossible — that a pop song could bring together a nation that has become so fractured over the last five years. America is a nation divided, but it is not broken. It is down, but it is not out.

Many still have reason to believe there’s light at the end of the tunnel after a pandemic that has devastated the world and a presidency that has caused the largest political rift in the country for more than 150 years. Many of America’s problems — and indeed, the world’s — were set in motion long before You Get What You Give was even released, but now is the time for coming together, not standing apart.

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Lyrically, You Get What You Give feels — for want of a better word — entirely radical, perhaps even more so now than it did back in late 1998. Alexander opens the song with a call to arms: “Wake up, kids, we’ve got the dreamers disease.” Decrying everything from big banks and celebrity culture to the burgeoning internet boom, what once was an anthem for the disaffected youth now takes on a resonance that goes beyond mere inspiration — it feels like a survival guide.

The chorus hits harder than the verses ever could, as is entirely the point in pop music. Yet in 2021, the words of that chorus achieve a near-religiosity that is incredibly powerful.

Given everything that we’ve all been through in the last twelve months, the words to one of the most famous radio hits ever released feels written precisely for this moment and this moment alone:

“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, we only get what we give.”

“This whole damn world could fall apart; you’ll be okay, follow your heart.”

The virtual “Parade Across America” will also feature performances from musical heavyweights such as Lady Gaga, Bruce Springsteen, Justin Timberlake and the Foo Fighters, but I’m betting on the revival of a much-loved one-hit wonder from the turn of the last century stealing the show.

We all know the world’s problems aren’t as simple as waving a magic wand, or even reciting some of the above lyrics. But surely it’s a good place to start.

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