In 1999, Elle Hunt’s dad convinced her that New Radical’s ‘You Get What You Give’ was actually by U2. Today, she revisits the life-changing moment she realised he was wrong.
The loss of innocence is a hallmark of growing up. In my personal bildungsroman, mine was precipitated by my dad telling me that ‘You Get What You Give’ was by U2. Being eight or nine I had believed him. When I saw the video, showing the band wreaking havoc on squares at a mall, I thought: has Bono always worn a bucket hat?
But I suppressed my doubts because, on pop music, Dad was always right. Given he sometimes forgot his daughters’ names, he had an impressive recall of songwriter credits, chart placings, lyrics and trivia of pop songs put out between 1961 and 1980.
His dislike of U2 was often stated and spanned decades. But in the case of ‘You Get What You Give’, it seemed to only add to his authority. He would be the last to give them any kudos, let alone circle the block to let their song play out when it came on the car radio: the mark of only the best pop.
Besides, no one had heard of New Radicals. Stylised Иew Radicals, it sounded forgettable, even made up – like the fake name you’d give a real band for a cameo on Gossip Girl, or the failing side project of a side character in a slacker comedy. But everyone knew about U2, and Bono, and Bono’s bucket hat.
Music, we know, is linked to memory, and sometimes imperfectly. ‘You Get What You Give’ continues to strike me as a song by U2 and then not by U2, transporting me 20 years back in time to the back seat of Dad’s Ford Mondeo on the way home from school, extending the journey by four minutes just to let the outro fade out: Can’t. For. Get.
But there are many more songs that are just as intrinsic to that moment in time that I don’t remember. The Now That’s What I Call Music compilations unlock them all, even the ones that I never knew the names of, have never deliberately put on, yet discover, decades on, that I know by heart.
Like ‘Tender’ by Blur, a song I only ever knew as “Comeoncomeoncomeon. Get through it”. And ‘Buses and Trains’ by Bachelor Girl, a song both instantly forgettable and apparently carved onto my consciousness like a long-lost cave painting, awaiting rediscovery. As for ‘U Don’t Know Me’ by Armand Van Helden, I would have sworn that I’d never heard it before, right up to the 1:08 minute mark, when an earworm that has lain dormant in my memory since 1998 lurches into life. (I do not know where Armand Van Helden is now but the title of his album, 2Future4U, has not aged well).
Along with ‘You Get What You Give’, all three are brought together on Now That’s What I Call Music 4, released in 1999 and washed with the optimism and trepidation of the cusp of the new millennium. Consider Now 4’s opening one-two punch of ‘Fly Away’ by Lenny Kravitz and ‘Strong’ by Robbie Williams: both songs that straightforwardly yearn for escape from this stratosphere. Let’s go and see the stars, the Milky Way or even Mars, proposes Kravitz, plaintive and unmuffled a full decade before he was best known for his big scarf. Robbie Williams says he’s still young, we’re still young – step inside the su(uuuuuu, uuuuuuu)n.
Well, no one in the Now 4 demographic is young anymore, least of all Robbie, no matter how he might kid himself on that Reputation tour stage. Listening to Now 4 today, when pop music has never been slower or more dark, it is striking how upbeat it is, even at its most nihilistic. You think that I’m strong, you’re wrong, sings Williams to a cheery guitar strum in E-flat major, to 172 beats per minute. With the average number one today slogging away at under 100bpm, ‘Strong’ is practically speed metal.
‘Fly Away’, too, is in a major key and uptempo. The Mavericks want to ‘Dance The Night Away’ with a horn section, even as they get over a broken heart. Semisonic have a remarkable clarity of purpose for being kicked out at ‘Closing Time’. Jennifer Paige has a ‘Crush’. Even when Now 4 is down, it’s up – Vengaboys may say they’re both, but let’s not kid ourselves. The most sombre it gets is ‘Goodbye’ by The Spice Girls.
You get the sense that, at the time of Now 4, pop music offered escape from quite a nice existence, like going on holiday and, in the case of T-Spoon, having public intercourse. Pop music today sounds like it is soundtracking The Hunger Games or, at its cheeriest, giving momentary respite from them. The Now compilations, as essential and era-defining to my generation as Top of the Pops was to my dad’s, act like time machines, letting us pick any moment and go there instead.
I can put on ‘You Get What You Give’ today (“Interesting,” says my flatmate mildly, returning home mid-chorus) and relive a happier time when my biggest concern was not whether it will be my children or my children’s children who will have their access to resources restricted, but whether it was by U2. Eventually I could no longer deny Иew Radicals’ existence and by that time I was 12, old enough to challenge my father’s wisdom.
Not only was he unmoved, he denied ever claiming it was by U2. But he had.
He definitely had.
This content is brought to you by Now That’s What I Call Music New Zealand and Universal Music. Listen to and talk about all the Now That’s What I Call Music New Zealand compilations on Spotify and Facebook.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.