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Pop Music

Radical Child


Teachers do miraculous work. When I was in my teacher education program, I watched movies based on the lives of some of the great ones. There was Jaime Escalante of “Stand and Deliver” fame and Louanne Johnson of “Dangerous Minds.” These teachers were tough but they loved their students, and their students loved them. They accomplished miraculous things together, overcoming tremendous hardships to form communities of grace. I dreamed of being that kind of teacher.

My three-year teaching career didn’t turn out that way. I had moments when I felt good about my work and know that I helped a student or two, perhaps in a way that no one else could have. I have a beautiful pastel drawing on my bulletin board even now from a teen who said that he didn’t give up art because of me.

Mostly, though, I struggled with classroom management and the few students, generally boys, who seemed set on making life miserable for me. There were difficult parents, endless stacks of grading, countless extracurricular duties and administrative tasks. When I couldn’t sleep most Sunday nights, felt sick to my stomach Monday mornings and dreaded late August as the saddest time of the year, I knew it was time for a change.

Gregg Alexander, founder of the new group the “New Radicals,” reminds me of some of my most problematic former students. He’s young, smart and, big surprise, has a problem with authority figures. His group’s album, Maybe you’ve been brainwashed too has so far peaked at number 41 on the Billboard Album charts. The first single, “You get what you give” has been on the charts for 23 weeks so far, topping out at No. 11. That’s an impressive feat for Alexander, who wrote or cowrote all of the album’s songs, sings lead vocals, produced and arranged it.

The album is an easy listen, with catchy ’70s-style poppy tunes, grooves reminiscent of the Beatles’ later work and vocals that occasionally have U2’s “Joshua Tree” passion. There is a simplistic, sweet love song, “Someday we’ll know,” which should be another hit for the group, with its romantic lyrics about dancing on the moon, the end of the rainbow and stars crashing into the sea. There are darker moments, too, that take the listener into a world where horrible acts are committed without remorse, and drug use and casual sex are just part of life.

One of the most disturbing songs on the album is “I hope I didn’t just give away the ending,” a deceptively mellow six-minute story built around the refrain: “Are you an illusion/Or am I just getting stoned/Because I can’t take it alone.” In the song, the singer and a girl make a porno movie for cocaine (“I hear I’m big in Japan,” he sings), witness the death of the girl’s father when he accidentally mistakes the cocaine for Sweet’n Low for his coffee, then steal her father’s wallet and drive “him to the hospital/To sell all of his donatable [sic] body parts.”

The girl dies of a drug overdose, and the singer is blamed “in the confusion.” All this, and his conclusion is that he “didn’t even love [the girl]/We weren’t even friends/It’s just that I can’t take it alone.” Poor thing.

Drug references continue throughout the album. In “Gotta stay high,” Alexander sings that “I saw your eyes/I had to run away/I fell too deep in love/There were no words to say/I just had to get high.” Elsewhere, he sings that his love is real, “As real as the flowers you smoke to get high.”

Alexander says in record company promotional materials that he’s “tried most drugs,” and that he has dark secrets, “but nothing I’m not proud of.” Don’t expect to see him in an antidrug campaign anytime soon, then. Blame it on youth, perhaps, and that sense of invincibility that comes with it. Maybe drugs hurt other people, like Everclear rocker Art Alexakis, who recently did his own television antidrug spot, or countless other musicians through the decades who died from their habits. There’s nothing on the album that indicates that Alexander’s drug use troubles him. The implication, then, is that it’s OK for his teen fans, too.

This is disturbing -- partly because Alexander sets himself up to be a spokesman for youth. Young teens especially will love the anti-authoritarian bent to his songs, especially the hit “You get what you give.” On the surface, it’s a poppy feel-good song. “Don’t give up/You’ve got the music in you/Don’t let go/One dance left/This world is gonna pull through/You’ve got a reason to live/Can’t forget/We only get what we give.” There are scriptural truths here, allusions to reaping what you sow and all things working for good.

The song’s underbelly has a darker message, though, especially when combined with its video. “Wake up kids,” it starts, “We’ve got the dreamers disease/Age fourteen/They got you down on your knees/So polite/You’re busy still saying please.”

What does it mean to wake up in Alexander’s world? According to the lyrics, you could “smash [a] Mercedes-Benz,” then run, then laugh “till we cry.” If you’re a rock star like Beck, Courtney Love or Marilyn Manson, you could “run to your mansions” because “you’re all fakes” and Alexander and company want to “kick your ass in.” In the song’s video, Alexander presides over a youth riot at a mall, where dogs are let out of cages and well-dressed adults are driven into cages.

A woman is accosted by the teens, put into a waitress uniform and forced to serve them at a restaurant counter, while the teens press in close, shout at her and shake their fists. When a security guard tries to help, he runs into a net and is captured. All of this is great fun and only troublesome if you’re 30 or older or have ever worked as a waitress.

Which is just one of the reasons why it would have been difficult to be Alexander’s teacher. He bills himself as a radical, a voice of the voiceless, a defender of the downtrodden. That’s wonderful; that’s biblical. At the same time, though, record company promotional materials brag that at school he “alternated between gifted student and juvenile delinquent” and was the “school revolutionary (i.e., the only kid tall enough to confront his conservative teachers).” He’s an unashamed drug user and is proud of his open sexual experimentation.

He says, “I hope we don’t forget the reason everybody embraced rock n’ roll in the first place. Where else can you #@$%^ your brains out and simultaneously fight oppression of the human spirit?”

Still, the written lyrics to “Maybe you’ve been brainwashed too” (the words in the song itself are largely unintelligible) have moments of genuine compassion and insight. “Is real investigative reporting dead? Of course, but keep watching your CNN -- The glitz, the glamour, all jokes aside -- If a sponsor pays enough, they’d turn a blind eye on Third World genocide.”

Alexander says that music needs to do more than just make money. Like “making closed minds, sexism, corporate greed, economic and educational separation of the races, homophobia and fat people phobia a thing of the past.”

It’s hard to argue with that, until you remember his cruelty toward those he doesn’t like. It’s not that I’m such a big fan of the rich myself. Neither was Jesus, that rabble-rouser -- mostly because money kept people from him. When one rich young man came to Jesus, he went away sad. But it wasn’t because Jesus yelled at him, pushed him into a cage or threatened to kick his butt. Jesus loved the guy in spite of his wealth. Love, then, is the real radical way to deal with social inequality.

The former teacher in me would like Alexander to lay off the drugs and casual sex. Even with these habits, I expect that he’ll be around for awhile. He has genuine talent, an undeniable presence. If we’re lucky, as he matures, all that is good about him and his heart will grow. Someday maybe his videos won’t focus on putting businessmen in cages but instead will explore ways to help all people out of theirs -- even the “corporate ass kiss phonies,” and the “heartless, faceless corporate millionaires.”

When what is new about the New Radicals grows older, just a bit, they’ll be a force to contend with -- especially if Alexander can keep the social justice elements of his music alive without becoming just like the people he hates now.

Robin Taylor writes from Dayton, Nev.

National Catholic Reporter, May 7, 1999