Traditionally, the best and most important songs are those that win awards, feature in box-sets, or push toward a movement that illuminates how we view the world and everyone in it. Tracks like David Bowie's "Heroes", Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit", or The Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen" spring to mind. But if we're to see ourselves as a vessel that's slowly being filled with our own experiences until the ticker in our brain turns itself off, there's another type of song that's as important to existence as anything Rolling Stone have put in their 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list.
These significant, crucial compositions are the tracks that carry us through life. They're as infused in our childhood memories of riding in hot cars as they are in collapsing to our knees in a karaoke bar, somewhere around the age of 25, feeling like we're teetering on the edge of an existential crisis. Of course, there's no reason these songs can't be in the vein of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" or Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind". But more often than not, the ones that make the most impact are those you were forced into listening to, through domestic legislation, as a child. They're The Pale Fountains' "Jean's Not Happening". Or they're The New Radicals with their enchanting hit single and 1990s totem "You Get What You Give".In my case, it is both of these songs. For the sake of argument though (and to keep in line with anyone born after 1990), forget The Pale Fountains. Instead, let's remember The New Radicals. Like most formative memories, my first experience with the band took place as I was sliding across a village hall floor, calypso cup in hand, reaching for my own version of heaven or Las Vegas. At that age, you don't really think about what happens next. In your unformed mind, you imagine you'll be skidding across dusty, recreational floors for the rest of your life. As someone who's leaning into adulthood though, I've found myself thinking a lot about "You Get What You Give", what it means to me, and perhaps more pertinently, to the way in which we navigate the future.
When The New Radicals released the track in 1998, it's unlikely they thought it would remain in the periphery vision of every local radio station DJ nearly 20 years later. Like other consummate singles that've rotated their way from the past and into the future – Kim Carnes with "Bette Davis Eyes", The Police on "Every Breath You Take", every song from the 90s that exists to fill the holes in Heart FM's playlist – part of its endurance comes down to the eternal nature of the songwriting. Gregg Alexander, the frontman and chief songwriter of The New Radicals, is behind other everlasting hits from Ronan Keating ("Life Is A Rollercoaster"), Texas ("Inner Smile"), and Sophie Ellis-Bextor ("Murder On The Dancefloor"). Each of Alexander's songs uses a structure that – through the science that connects sound to body and converts it into feeling – evokes a specific kind of sentimentality, sitting somewhere between Savage Garden's Greatest Hits and Len's "Steal My Sunshine".Like Max Martin, who penned some of the biggest hits of the 21st century – The Backstreet Boys and 'NSync; Britney Spears and Katy Perry; Taylor Swift and that Weeknd song about doing an irresponsible amount of cocaine – the guy from the New Radicals has fashioned his own brand of songwriting. As a child, and even as adults, we may not understand the mechanics of how these songs are made, how the chords fuse together to speak to unspeakable parts of our soul, but we do understand the feeling. In the case of Martin, this process is why seven-year-old girls have enjoyed his songs as much as 35-year-old men. But though Martin's work has the same infinite quality as Alexander's, something else differentiates the pair – beyond one of them being the most well-known songwriter on the planet and the other a name you're more than likely reading for the first time.
Aside from the one about cocaine, most children can grasp what Martin's songs are about: crushes, love, fun, the sort of thing you understand even when you're three cakes and an Um Bungo down at the school disco. But in the case of Alexander and "You Get What You Give", as you grow older the lyrics make more sense and take on a new meaning, importance and permanence. Unlike Martin's best tracks, "You Get What You Give" grows with the listener. Or at least that's what happened to me when I last heard the track at the tail-end of a three-day weekend, submerged in a pool of thoughts about the dead-end my life is hurtling toward, and what is or isn't going to happen.
Of all the laws in the world – health and safety; intellectual property; shouting "shotgun" – there's a lesser known, but no less important one called The Law of Attraction. Based on the concept that the energy we put into the world we also draw back in, it's kind of like karma but for New Thought academics and fans of self-help books. For example: if you focus on becoming successful and content, there's a good chance you will, at some point in the future, feel fulfilled. Conversely, if you spend the present complaining about your finances and how under the weather you feel, it's likely you'll continue to feel like a dilapidated colostomy bag left out in the rain.It's this message of attracting what you desire that sits at the root of "You Get What You Give". Literally, it's the name of the song. That's not all though, the rest of the song is centred on a narrative that there's potential for life to be okay so long as you put into it what you want to get out, and therefore there's a reason to live and not to give up. "Don't let go / you've got the music in you", Alexander sings. "One dance left / This world is gonna pull through".You don't think about death as a child until, one day, you clean out the hamster's cage and it appears to be unable to move, immortalised in the one sad-looking position it left the world in. As an adult though, the idea that there is an end to life seeps into almost everything we do. It's something to fear, something to motivate, or for some people, a final means of escape. Looking through the YouTube comments for "You Get What You Give" though, this innocent-sounding song from youth has grown into a beacon of hope for some people. One poignant comment underneath the video reads: "How many people has been saved thanks to this song?"On the surface, "You Get What You Give" is in the same league at OMC's "How Bizarre" or Spin Doctor's "Two Princes". Dig in deeper though, and it's more like Gabrielle's "Dreams", another pop song from the same period with another similarly motivating message. It's difficult, impossible even to argue that "You Get What You Give" is on the same level as more widely recognised, impactful songs. As its own vehicle though, in my own life and perhaps in yours, a song like this is special. It has an immortality, in the way the very best songs do. "You Get What You Give" was there, even when my brain hadn't formed the function allowing it to keep hold of memories. And it will be here, for as long as I can.You can find Ryan on Twitter.