In Defense of New Radicals

New Radicals
Maybe You've Been Brainwashed Too

“So original in her black lipstick

Listening to some obscure band

But isn’t she pissed that all the other non-conformists

Listen to that same obscure band”

— “Jehovah Made This Whole Joint for You”

Oh, but if only the New Radicals were ever able to settle into obscure band status after 1998, when their lone record, Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too, gained notoriety on the heels of the unforgettable hit, “You Get What You Give”. The song was inescapable, a catchy, little jingle famous for name-dropping pop stars during its outro, threatening, of course, to kick their asses. The single’s message could be perceived as encouraging or even downright optimistic (“You’ll be OK/Follow your heart,” the bridge intones), but underneath the hopeful utterances was a fantastically subversive cynicism in which frontman Gregg Alexander seemed to work best. 

How so? Well, in one of the smartest, most unexpected (if not somewhat crazy) moves modern day pop music has seen, Alexander blowed it all up (and blowed it up real good) mere months after his song took the world by storm, one shopping mall at a time. If I remember correctly (and trust me — each bit of research I tried to do on this stuff led me to dead end after dead end), the group left a tour with the Goo Goo Dolls in 1999 before it was complete (I remember this, because my 15-year-old self didn’t like the Goo Goo Dolls and I had considered attending a tour stop to see only the New Radicals, though when I found out they wouldn’t be there, all my plans dissolved). To this day, there is still some debate on if “You Get What You Give” was ever properly followed up with “Someday We’ll Know” by way of an honest-to-goodness record-label push. It didn’t really matter, of course, because Alexander was done. The New Radicals were dead. 

A press release regarding the development was issued in the wake of it all, and it read, in part, as such:

The New Radicals are disbanding… Gregg Alexander elaborates: “It was an experience playing the artist, but I accomplished all of my goals with this record, and I’m ready to move on and make the next step in my career. I’ve been writing songs for and working with artists as varied as R & B acts to Belinda Carlisle intermittently for the last nine years, and I’m looking forward to starting the day-to-day creative process of building a successful production company. I view myself much the same as a just getting started Babyface or Matthew Wilder (No Doubt producer), who dabbled in performing, but whose real calling was being a producer.

“I’m going to be turning thirty next year, and realise that the fatigue of travelling & getting three hours sleep in a different hotel every night to do boring ‘hanging and schmoozing’ with radio and retail people, is definitely not for me … now I can do what I do best. … Over the last several months, I’d lost interest in fronting a ‘One Hit Wonder’ to the point that I was wearing a hat while performing so that people wouldn’t see my lack of enthusiasm. I am, however, excited and looking forward to getting started on working in the studio with a wide range of artists and building the next phase of my career. So although there will be no more albums, videos (besides the two made) or unalbum worthy outtakes from the band or me solo, as a producer there will be a lot more good music coming.” (“New Radicals Dissolves”)

As for the good music Alexander hoped to have a hand in creating, well, it ranged from undeniable success (Michelle Branch and Santana’s “Game of Love”), to absurd (dude actually wrote songs for S Club 7 and Justin Guarini), to ironic (remember that whole kicking Hanson’s ass thing? Yeah, he helped write “Lost Without Each Other” on the brothers’ 2004 Underneath album). He wasn’t not a success, per se, but he also wasn’t the pop rock answer to Babyface, either, despite his occasional glimpses with greatness. 

These days, it’s damn near impossible to find information regarding what he’s up to, either as a producer, an artist or anything else that has much to do with professional music. He had his one hit. He had his platinum record. He had the riches. He had the fame. And he had the success. Then, almost as soon as he achieved all those things, he walked away from it, dropping the mic in an act of either defiance, brilliance, insecurity or some combination of all three. He figured he was destined for one-hit-wonderdom, anyway, so he quit while he was ahead, driving home with an extra hundred bucks in his pocket, rather than putting it all on red for one more spin aimed at landing him thousands. 

But here’s the thing: As “Game of Love” proved, Alexander was good enough to be far more than a mere flash in the crowded pan that has claimed home to the ’90s more so in recent years due to an inordinate amount of nostalgia-influenced package tours. Think about all the hit-makers from that decade, and then think about the last two summers. Everclear, Sugar Ray, Gin Blossoms, Marcy Playground, Lit, Ben Folds Five, Guster, Barenaked Ladies, Filter, Live, Sponge, Smash Mouth, Fastball and Vertical Horizon have all combined in some form or another over the last 12 to 18 months to tour small-to-mid-sized venues across the country ad nauseam. The one group missing? 

You guessed it. 

On one hand, Alexander’s retreat into seclusion elevates his group above all these other acts who couldn’t help themselves from getting back out there and making one more quick buck — Lit, Vertical Horizon and Everclear were groups I was super-duper into back in the day (don’t judge), though seeing them all succumb to the temptation of playing the type of shows that single-handedly reduce their integrity for the sake of their own pocketbooks is, in a word, sad. Shoot, even Ben Folds Five, a trio that still holds some cool-kid cred, has diminished their own legacy a bit by seeming so, dare I say, whorish. 

On the other hand… Come on, man — I want to hear some new music! If there was one thing both the New Radicals and, by proxy, Alexander did well, it was cynical angst. “I Hope I Didn’t Just Give Away the Ending” is one of the most hilarious, bitter, and absurd pop tunes of the last two decades, a pure example of precisely how exciting, distinguishable and addicting Alexander can be as a wordsmith. For my money, the thing is the best Brainwashed gets, and that even includes the funky “Mother We Just Can’t Get Enough” or the weirdly awesome title track, which, themselves are worthy competitors. 

The point is this: How exciting would it have been to hear where the New Radicals would have gone, had Alexander allowed them to exist? By all accounts, their lone record was essentially a platform for a warped mind to bring in top-of-the-line studio musicians aimed at helping him try and produce the best-sounding stuff he could get. This wasn’t some low-budget, under-produced sarcastic story-telling “poet” who was trying to ruffle some feathers by being somewhat confrontational all in the name of image (still can’t understand what the hell Art Alexakis is mad about these days). Gregg Alexander, with all due respect, was fucking nuts, and proof of that can be found in his pre-New Radical days video for “The Truth”, a tip the great Evan Sawdey offered up after catching wind of my affection for the group (and not to spoil anything, but get to the midway point and hold on tight). 

He’s a guy who very literally looked fame in the eye and told it to get lost. Whereas so, so, so, so many artists of all walks of life chase recognition and success for entire careers without ever even getting as much as a head-nod from achievement’s direction, Alexander reached for an alarm clock before he could fully realize what the dream was about. It’s like drinking non-alcoholic beer or setting a winning Powerball ticket on fire — he wasn’t trying to shun the fruits of his labor; he just naturally preferred vegetables. 

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t people still curious, 15 years later, as to what great music will now more than likely never be written by Gregg Alexander as New Radicals. Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too was a lightning rod of a record, an indictment on popular culture and an irresistible amalgam of ’70s rock and soul influences. This is where tragedy at least slightly visits the story, of course, considering how the guy’s insistence on moving in the opposite direction of stardom has since reduced the collection to nothing more than That One Record With That One Song About Marilyn Manson. Sure, he embraced the one-hit-wonder label, but at what expense? To think that the New Radicals should share company with the likes of the guys who wrote “Sex and Candy” is disheartening at best and downright unfair at worst.   

Alexander and his talent are better than that. Better than “You Get What You Give”. Better than the single album he allowed his band to produce. And, for God’s sake, better than Mark McGrath or anything Sugar Ray ever released into the stratosphere. It’s only a matter of time, now, until New Radicals become just another obscure band last heard of during years far too gone to remember. So in the end, maybe Alexander got what he wanted, experiencing just enough of the fame game to know he wanted no part of it. But then again, who really knows what it is Alexander has been wanting all this time, anyway? 

Him, and him, only. And to the dismay of the few of us who found the greatness in his band’s lone album, it doesn’t look like he’s willing to change that fact anytime soon.