The ’90s Were a Golden Age of Novelty Pop Hits. We Did Not Appreciate How Good We Had It

The single greatest performance of Performative One-Hit-Wonder Hatred I have ever witnessed in person transpired in December 1998 in Cleveland, Ohio, at a bizarre alt-rock-radio-station music festival and canned-food drive co-headlined by Gainesville, Florida, ska-punk lifers Less Than Jake and glorious L.A. one-hit-wonders the New Radicals. Someone should write a whole-ass book on Less Than Jake, and I can’t guarantee you it won’t be me: These dudes were into ska-punk both way before it was cool and (even more impressively) long after, and they have my enduring respect. Less Than Jake fans love Less Than Jake. Also, anecdotally, Less Than Jake fans hate the New Radicals.

“You Get What You Give.” That’s the New Radicals’ one hit. I feel less rude than usual, stating this plainly, because it sure seems like the New Radicals planned on having just the one. They are led by singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, charming Only Guy on the Album Cover narcissist, and bucket-hat enthusiast Gregg Alexander, who I would’ve sworn to you was English (it’s the hat), but who apparently grew up in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. Sure. Gregg was raised a Jehovah’s Witness, used to drive around with his mom listening to Motown, and vowed, after hearing Prince’s “The Beautiful Ones” as a teenager, to run away to California and become a rock star (reasonable). And then, briefly, he became one.

I suspect you do not require a lengthy, obnoxious description of “You Get What You Give,” an upbeat piano jam with a phenomenal pre-chorus that sounds like peak Billy Joel discovering cocaine and Jesus simultaneously. (At least that description wasn’t lengthy.) So in Cleveland, at this bizarre canned-food-drive situation, the New Radicals take the stage second-to-last, with only Less Than Jake left to go, and among the more cynical among us, already there’s a sense that “You Get What You Give” is gonna be it for these fellas, hit-wise, very much by design. But in this moment, Gregg and his pals are still very much Going For It in terms of chasing pop stardom, Going For It here defined as willing to play a canned-food drive in Cleveland a week before Christmas. Gregg does not, in my estimation, seem happy to be here, in Cleveland, a week before Christmas. The New Radicals play some songs, to broad crowd indifference. Halfway through the set, they play “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 band returns for an encore anyway. The encore consists of “You Get What You Give,” again.

And suddenly Cleveland, in my estimation, doesn’t seem too happy that the New Radicals are still here. “Somebody find a power outlet!” someone yells. And then I watch in amazement 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 image—a bird-flipping flock of peeved Less Than Jake fans—pops into my head whenever I revisit the New Radicals’ debut (and farewell) album, 1998’s Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too, which has, just in case you weren’t aware, other songs, most notably an impressively goopy ballad called “Someday We’ll Know” during which Gregg bellows, “DID THE CAPTAIN OF THE TITANIC CRY?,” which I am rendering here in all caps because that’s how he sings it. The whole album is as chaotic and pompous and ideologically convoluted as subversive major-label pop gets, a sunny hellscape of dystopian post-Motown cocaine melodramas; sometimes, by design, Gregg sounds like an incoherently mumbling hot mess, and sometimes he sounds like a focused L.A. studio pro with a surprisingly affecting falsetto who’s just totally Going For It. Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life” bears mentioning here, I suppose, in terms of maximum dorky pop as a delivery system for maximum drug-binge shock value; I also suspect that Gregg and 3EB frontman Stephan Jenkins would really get along, and that you don’t want to be around when they do.

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