(2) mark morrison, "return of the mack" defeats (15) new radicals, "you get what you give" 163-86
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchfadness twitter poll. Polls closed @ 9am Arizona time on March 8th.
elena passarello on "return of the mack"
Elena Passarello is the author of two collections of essays, Let Me Clear My Throat and the just-released Animals Strike Curious Poses, both with Sarabande Books. Her work has recently appeared in VQR, Oxford American, and the Essay Daily anthology How We Speak to One Another. Find her on twitter @elenavox.
megan campbell on "you get what you give"
Improbably enough, I actually remember hearing this song during its one and only appearance on the top 40 countdown way back in 1999. I still had a crappy Discman with a radio, and wound up listening to the countdown while I was out for a walk and sick of the lone CD available to me. I’d heard “You Get What You Give” a few times previously, and I sorta liked it. I remember being surprised to hear it on the Top 40, and I even remember some of Casey Kasem’s DJ spiel. The New Radicals were really just one dude, named Gregg Alexander. Gregg had been in the music biz for years, and had experimented with different types of music before “forming” the New Radicals and releasing this, his first hit. As a 90s Gen X-er, I instinctively knew exactly what Kasem, in his trademark bland way (it is this perfect mixture of nonchalance and contempt that haunts Ryan Seacrest’s dreams btw), was telling me: this is a sell-out song. But I listened to the song again, and I still sorta liked it. I continued to sorta like it the—what?—10-20 times I heard it between 1999 and 2016. Then, as March Fadness began taking shape, and I began listening to 90s songs with new, serious attention, I heard it again, and I listened closely. And I thought, “Wow, this may be the most cynical song I’ve ever heard.”
The New Radicals, per their Wikipedia page, were a “revolving door” of musical artists anchored by Alexander and drummer Danielle Brisebois. They existed from 1997 to 1999 and released one album, 1998’s Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too, so unclear how many times that door revolved. Alexander’s own Wikipedia page, which is flagged because “a major contributor to this article appears to have a close connection to its subject” (we see you), also tells me that Gregg is now a successful producer, with a string of hits to his credit. This appears to be reasonably true, yet the entry drips with the surly defensiveness that seems to characterize the New Radicals entire oeuvre.
“You Get What Give” is, superficially, a feel-good song, inching into stadium rock anthem territory (I imagine its jingling opening notes do get used at sporting events sometimes, but I’m the wrong person to ask about that). It doesn’t really fit in a genre—it’s kinda hippie, kinda post-grunge, kinda jam band—it somehow feels like a jam band song, without being one at all. The name New Radicals evokes all of this as well, with some hazy politics thrown in for good measure. The song’s first verse is addressed to disaffected youth “down on [their] knees” (unclear if this is meant to be sexual, but I say nah). Luckily, our plucky teen heroes are not so downtrodden that they cannot“smash [up] Mercedes Benz.” The extent to which this song is about rich teens resenting their rich parents, dressed up with some Cliff Notes knowledge of Das Kapital, cannot be understated. If you doubt me, please note that Alexander is from Grosse Pointe.
But here’s the thing: the next part of the song is good: “Don’t let go / You’ve got the music in you / One dance left / This world is gonna pull through.” The bridge and the chorus are why we’re even talking about this song. It IS feel-good, cause it makes you feel good. It’s . . . positive, without being treacle-y, which is harder than it seems. I mean, it’s problematic—according to my close reading, our protagonists give nothing but smashed cars, so it’s unclear what they expect to get—but, as with all one-hit wonders, it’s the catchy parts that stay with you.
After this high point, we start our brisk journey downhill. Pre-second verse, there is a shout-out: “I’m coming on home baby / You’re tops / Give it to me now.” There’s some narrative confusion here, but let’s assume this aside is addressed to a lover, not the 14 year old car smashers of the first verse. I . . . could spend days speculating about this narrator’s beleaguered girlfriend, but I will limit myself to pointing out that “you’re tops give it to me now” is not going to get anyone laid.
There are many more lightly politicized nonsense words, including the phrase “the bad rich” and one of those my-version-is-better-moments (the lyric: “you feel your tree is breaking / just then”—I thought “just then” was “just bend” WHICH IS BETTER, but I also understand that bending is anathema to the pose that’s being copped here). There is the petty coda in which he chides “Fashion shoots with Beck and Hanson / Courtney Love and Marilyn Manson / You’re all fakes run to your mansions.” I’m not sure if his bitterness is directed at these specific people, or at successful musicians in general, as this is a somewhat random collection of names. But “You Get What You Give” is itself a random collection of pop music themes—rebellion and tenacity in one’s rebellion are perhaps dominant, but there’s also hostility, loneliness, a little bit of romance for the ladies (“now say you’re miiiiiiine”), all underscored by teenage Marxist angst over the rilly unfair smallness of one’s allowance. It’s this mixed-bag approach to songwriting that initially caused me to label the song cynical—it wasn’t until I watched the video that I realized it went so much deeper than that . . .
The video. Oh God, the video. It’s set in a mall, like an 80s Tiffany video, but with SLIGHTLY more narrative and much less energy and charisma. There are JNCOs and grown women in pigtails. There is Alexander dancing badly—his striking resemblance to Stephen Miller helps nothing.
In the video, young suburban white people, egged on by Alexander and his backing band, vent their spleen upon slightly older, more corporate looking suburban white people by locking them in pet cages and forcing them to work in the food court. It’s . . . not REALLY class warfare, because these people are all the same class. I guess it’s meant to be generational warfare, but the “teens” are not young, and their victims not particularly old. Ultimately, it’s a video made by the kind of person who would help smash his friend’s dad’s car one night, and then get riotously angry the very next night, when they couldn’t borrow the car to go to the show. Alexander himself is a furtive figure—he seems uncomfortable in front of the camera and struggles to make eye contact at various points. As someone who also hates the camera, I managed a little sympathy for him on that score, right up until he made the blowjob hand gesture when he sang the name “Courtney Love.” God, he seems like an asshole.
There is, of course, a tiny chance that all of this—the mall, Tiffany, the callow youth—is ironic, and is meant as advice to craven teens everywhere, a reminder that “you only get what you give,” so maybe start giving some things? But honestly? That seems overly generous. Instead, it’s most likely that worst of cultural artifacts: a platform meant to make someone look cool that instead makes them look like a clueless dick. It’s Icy Hot Stuntaz writ large.
Because, look: it’s easy to make a cheap fuck you video and it’s easy to make a cheap cutesy video. It’s much harder to spend money and employ extras and rent a mall in order to make yourself look terrible. But this what happens when you’re the type of person who visualizes “in harm’s way” as being chased by mall cops. It’s . . . the opposite of punk? Punk squared? Punk shat out its own ass?
Snark aside, it has to be acknowledged that the video is, in its way, an oracle, pointing us to the truth about this song. For it is prescient: it includes a flash mob and the word “frenemies. “You Get What You Give”, presented to us in the year 1999, was a bridge to the future. It was a sell-out song about not selling out that successfully sold out. It became a hit, and allowed its maker to eventually produce songs for people like Michelle Branch and Enrique Iglesias. Before this song was the 90s, when we would never sell out or compromise our bad art or cop to listening to Top 40 songs. After this song is the Now, when we are pre-sold out, hungering for approval and likes and retweets and swipe-rights and doing all of this for free. A koan: if you get nothing for selling out, have you sold out?
Is “You Get What You Give” the best one hit wonder ever? I do not know. But I do know that, at some point in time, Gregg Alexander shouted into the void, “Is this really what you want, world? A sell-out song about how you should never sell out?” And the world replied, faintly (#36, ya’ll), “ . . . I guess.”
Megan Campbell is a member of the Official March Fadness Selection Committee. She also runs the online vintage store Bad Cholla Vintage.