Life was way simpler back in 1999. The fallout from the impeachment of Bill Clinton and worrying about Y2K seems like a golden age compared to now. As the world wondered “What is the Matrix?” and looked forward to the inevitable cinematic triumph that was Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, a catchy, feel-good song was suddenly everywhere.
“You Get What You Give” by New Radicals hit us all like a massive wave of positivity and good vibes smoking weed and passing out free love on the free love highway towards the new millennium. It was one of those earworms that you heard on the radio in passing and maybe thought “hey, that’s a really good new Rolling Stones song.” It was only when you went back and focused that you realized that this wasn’t the work of Mick Jagger and Co. Heavy exposure on the radio and MTV meant that suddenly everyone knew the name of the band New Radicals. Then the song soundtracked a cool final scene in an episode of Dawson’s Creek, and world domination was ensured. As the song told us we all had “the music” within us, and we should not let go, as there wasn’t long left. There were eight months left of the century, we honestly thought it may all be over; this song was the balm easing the anxiety.
The album Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too (released in the fall of 1998) received a major push not long after the release of “You Get What You Give.” At the time, the album was greeted with very good reviews, with critics comparing the material to a wide range of influences from Prince to Sly and the Family Stone to World Party. I finally came to the album in the summer of 1999, and I feel, and have done since that summer, that Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too is one of the best albums I have ever heard. It’s so good in fact that I managed to get my whole friend group on board with this belief, and to date I still don’t know where my original CD copy is.
It’s hard to really pinpoint what it was that hit me so hard about this album. It could be because I was heavily into bands like Semisonic and Matchbox 20 at the time, and on the surface, this was more of that chart-friendly rock that was coming out of America after Grunge finally died, and Nu-Metal was just becoming a thing. Unlike their contemporaries though, New Radicals had much better songs overall. The lyrics and the construction of each track was meticulous and sublime, with each song having its moment in the sun on subsequent listens as the lyrics were revealed to be even darker and edgier than anything in mainstream rock or pop at the time.
The album begins with “Mother We Just Can’t Get Enough,” a funky little number all about that initial fascination you feel when meeting someone who takes your fancy. It’s a track that builds and builds into something soaring and transcendent, and it accompanies one of my favorite memories of being in a car with four friends all singing along at full volume. Next comes the big single “You Get What You Give” continuing the good vibes. After that we head into the ramble of “I Hope I Just Didn’t Give Away the Ending” which is an almost ballad that tells the story of a love affair gone wrong and becoming lost into some kind of addiction, and a general feeling of being strung out on fear of loneliness. It’s lyrically dark and dense and yet sees the beauty in the breakdown, not losing the overall vibe that the album is aiming for thus far.
“I Don’t Wanna Die Anymore” is the sound of someone coming out of heartbreak and coming to an understanding, and a track that I go back to again and again for a little pick-me-up. Things pick back up in lively fashion with “Jehovah Made This Whole Joint For You” with a screed against someone named “Carolina” who perhaps takes herself and her need for a cause a little too seriously. Perhaps a song even more fitting for now rather than 1999. It’s an upbeat number reminding us that it’s a wonderful world full of beauty despite the injustice seemingly everywhere. “Someday We’ll Know” was the follow-up single that sadly didn’t really do much (more on that in a bit), but it’s a story that questions fate, and the big questions, in a beautiful way.
The title track “Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too” is an atmospheric and brief freak-out with heavy drums and echoing distorted vocals. “In Need of a Miracle” and “Technicolor Lover” bring back the funky good vibes for that perfect summer party, and then “Gotta Stay High” hits all the right notes as a beautiful, slightly melancholy song about avoidance, and the need to run away from the possibility of getting hurt. “Flowers” is one the album’s best tracks that works almost as a prequel to “I Hope I Didn’t Just Give Away the Ending” as a love affair becomes real with all of the ups and downs and misunderstandings that come with.
The album ends on “Crying Like a Church on Monday,” which is perhaps the album’s only out and out sad track. Despite maybe going out on a sad note, this is still an incredibly well-written and brilliantly constructed track, with Gregg Alexander’s vocals typically sensitive and angry at the same time.
By late spring 1999, New Radicals had a hit single, an all-timer of an album, a new single on the way and a world tour about to take place. A lot of this was suddenly canceled, and people wondered what was up. “Someday We’ll Know” was released as a single and didn’t have anywhere near the impact of the first song. That July, the record company announced that New Radicals was done, they would no longer record, tour or promote themselves as a band. Frontman and songwriter Gregg Alexander cited the tedium of touring and endless promotion as the cause, and it just wasn’t the life for him. He would instead focus on songwriting and production for other artists. Alexander went on to write hit songs for the likes of Ronan Keating, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, and wrote that goddamn amazing song “Lost Stars” for Adam Levine as part of the soundtrack to the film Begin Again (2014).
You can hear a lot of New Radicals-style lyrics in all of the follow-up songwriting that Alexander did post break-up, particularly in “Love is a Rollercoaster” by Ronan Keating and “Lost Stars.” Due to the early break-up and one hit single, New Radicals have been labeled a one-hit wonder and dismissed as such by many. It could just be me, but I don’t think many one-hit wonders usually have platinum and gold-selling albums.
In 1999 I was a completely different person. I had freedom and a zest for life that gradually ebbed away through constant disappointment, and learning what terrible things people were capable of. Looking back now I see the non-career of New Radicals as an early lesson I would have to learn several times over as youthful optimism drained away. The music had such an impact on me, brought me and my friends together in a way that few things had up to that point, so the fact that they threw all that away was something I couldn’t quite grasp for a while.
I felt the album was so good, so full of promise that I honestly felt it was one time where music could change the world and save people. It was another time in life when I really felt things were about to change for the better for everyone, and then they didn’t. This would happen a few more times, but eventually optimism gives way to cynicism due to experience. The lessons sink in, sooner or later, and New Radicals’ only album was perhaps the last time I had that clear-eyed optimism when looking at the world.
This is why Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too is such an important record for me. It’s not just evocative of a great time in my life; it’s an artifact of some big lessons and the fleeting nature of fame. Despite all this, it remains to this day a significant album of the ’90s, and a startling case of a legend that could have been.