As usual, discussion surrounding this year’s crop of Best Original Song nominees at the Oscars is centered around the big names: How great is it that Tegan and Sara got nominated, but John Legend and Common are probably gonna win, where the hell are Lorde and Lana Del Rey, and so on. Amidst all the star talk, it’s easy to miss a much smaller name that you might not have thought about in a long time, and may very well not recognize at all: Gregg Alexander, who, along with frequent collaborator Danielle Brisebois, wrote the Adam Levine-sung “Lost Stars,” from the John Carney-directed romantic dramedy Begin Again.
At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, Alexander is one of the most underappreciated songwriters of the last 20 years. He’s the master of a very specific sound, one that’s almost impossible to accurately describe but which is nonetheless close to instantly recognizable as his, regardless of the performer. Minor-keyed, piano-led, unabashedly romantic, and utterly devoid of irony, Alexander’s songs strike a primal chord with pop listeners that’s untraceable to any specific point in music history — it belongs equally to Motown, Philadelphia International, C86 and post-grunge Seattle, while not even being close to contemporary with any of them, chronologically or even geographically.
Chances are close to 100 percent that you’re familiar with at least one Gregg Alexander song, and that’s his Top-40 pop hit with the New Radicals (a band so dominated by Alexander as to essentially serve as a solo project), 1998’s “You Get What You Give.” If Alexander were only to be remembered for one song, “Give” certainly isn’t a bad one, or even a misrepresentative one: It’s basically an entire Brat Pack movie stuffed into a perfect four-minute pop song, rallying a generation to rise up against their faceless adult oppressors so they can be free to roam the mall and make out in peace. It threatened Marilyn Manson, it popularized the term “frenemies,” and it briefly made the bucket hat a thing, even for non-douchebags. Most ambitiously, it tried to squeeze the chorus “Don’t let go / You got the music in you” into rock radio in between “I did it all for the nookie” and “Nobody likes you when you’re 23.” And it succeeded.
“You Get What You Give” has rightfully endured to this day as an insta-late-’90s callback, a soundtrack stuffer and a last-ditch karaoke crowd-pleaser. Sadly, it’s the only such song on New Radicals’ one album, Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too, to do so. The rest of the album is filled with similarly heartbursting pop-rock, Alexander’s vocals and guitars soaring over nearly every track, packing all the desperation of a final grab at the big time from a guy who’d already been languishing in music-biz solo obscurity for a decade before the Radicals’ breakout. “Mother, We Just Can’t Get Enough,” “Someday We’ll Know” and “I Don’t Wanna Die Anymore” were on the same plane of melodramatic connectivity as “Give,” but none were successful as a follow-up, and both group and songwriter were branded as one-hit wonders.
For most music listeners, that’s where the story ends with Alexander. But chances are also better than 50 percent that “Give” isn’t the last Alexander song you’ve heard, as he slipped out of the limelight and into a successful secondary career as a songwriter for others. Most notably, his contribution to Santana’s Supernatural follow-up album Shaman, the Michelle Branch-featuring “The Game of Love,” went to the top five on Billboard‘s Hot 100 and won the songwriter a Grammy for Best Pop Collaboration with vocals. It’s unmistakable as an Alexander jam — the sublime piano shuffle and multi-tracked vocal harmonies of the chorus are pure Brainwashed, and the high notes Branch hits on the pre-chorus are virtually identical to the ones the New Radical hits in the “Fllyyyyyyyy” bridge to “Give.”
“Game” was the biggest songwriting hit that Alexander had Stateside, but across the pond, he found even greater succes as the go-to scribe for early 21st-century U.K. pop megastar Sophie Ellis-Bextor. His two top-ten smashes for her, 2001’s “Murder on the Dancefloor” and 2003’s “Mixed-Up World,” are less obvious with their trademarking — disco-tinged and largely synth-based in nature, both would’ve stuck out like glittery sore thumbs on Brainwashed. The sense of classic songcraft is still obvious in the massive, era-spanning hooks, though, and the lyrical themes of staying a believer in a cynical world (“Mixed-Up”) and of music being the world’s most powerful force (“Murder”) are clear Alexander hallmarks.
Perhaps the crown jewel of Alexander’s discography, though, is a song that was a hit precisely nowhere. Carly Smithson, née Hennessy, is best-remembered today as the sixth-place finalist on season seven of American Idol, but she had already had a mostly unsuccessful recording career under her belt at that point, with a full-length album (Ultimate High, which Wikipedia lists as selling a very specific 378 copies) that featured the Alexander-penned single “I’m Gonna Blow Your Mind.” The swirling, open-aired number was as hook-infested as anything the hatted phenom wrote for New Radicals — just try to get those “really, really” backing vocals out of your head, ever — and filtered through Smithson’s powerhouse wail, the whole thing is as love-drunk and intoxicating as that other super-catchy pop come-on performed by a TV reality competition vet named Carly.
So why don’t more people know about this guy? Well, a lot of that is Gregg Alexander’s own doing. After the mega-success of “You Get What You Give,” Alexander received a ton of press for the song, and not all of it was positive — he came under fire for the callout-heavy outro, picking a fight with the teenage brothers Hanson and the normally genial Beck (as well as Manson, who offered to fight back). After follow-up “Someday We’ll Know” stiffed on the charts, Alexander dropped out of the spotlight altogether — from 1999 on, he didn’t grant a single press interview, until resurfacing in 2014 with a Hollywood Reporter profile to promote Begin Again, whose soundtrack is almost entirely Alexander co-written. For that decade and a half, it was pretty easy to miss Alexander, as he stayed quiet, stuck largely to writing for U.K. artists, and kept his fashion choices largely out of view. (He might’ve taken a page from the book of co-writer Danielle Brisebois on that one, who was famous long before Alexander for her kid-star acting roles in All in the Family and the original Annie, before disappearing from acting altogether for the majority of the ’90s.)
With Begin Again and its Oscar nod, Alexander is finally back in the news (if a couple paragraphs down from the lede), and it’s for a soundtrack that keeps the warm guitar chords, timeless tunefulness, and unapologetic sentimentality of the Radicals of yore. He probably won’t win — Common and John Legend’s “Glory” from Selma won the Golden Globe and is the clear front-runner for the trophy, while “Lost Stars” wasn’t even Globe-nominated — but that’s Gregg Alexander’s 21st-century career in a nutshell, the guy behind the guy, influential but just out of view. Hopefully we can at least get a reaction shot during Levine’s “Stars” performance, to see Alexander lip-synching his hit in the audience, still wearing his signature chapeau to represent for all his True Radicals out there.