Story Behind the Song: “You Get What You Get”

Back when my daughter, Nicole, was a little girl in the mid-1990s, I had a busy career in the computer industry. I’d be working long, often stressful, days, and I’d get home fairly worn out on the energy front. Nicole’s bedtime would roll around, and I was, more often than not, nominated to read her bedtime stories.

Nicole loved books, so much so that she often slept with piles of books in her bed, and she enjoyed her bedtime stories. I enjoyed reading to her, as well. There were times, though, when I was pretty drained after a long day, and I was hoping to get off easy, reading a book I’d more or less committed to heart. You parents will probably recognize the type — you know, like, “the sun did not shine, it was too wet to play…,” from the Dr. Seuss classic The Cat in the Hat.

Occasionally, Nicole would accept my choices. Just as often, though, she’d have her own choice in mind and would walk over to her bookcase and select something like one of those big Disney movie books, like Peter Pan or Beauty and the Beast. Now I absolutely love Disney musicals — Beauty and the Beast is a particular favorite — but those books were quite a bit more meaty than my energy level was hoping for at the time. So I’d try to bargain with her, “how about, ‘that Sam I Am, that Sam I Am; I do not like that Sam I Am,’ instead?” (Yep, you’ve got it, that’s Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham — do you detect a pattern?) Nicole would respond, “you get what you get!”

My memory of dates and ages leaves a lot to be desired, but I’d guess Nicole was somewhere between three and four years old when she first used those words to insist on her choices. “You get what you get,” was a favorite saying of hers for a number of years, though, so much so that in early 1997 I decided to write a song with that title. The second verse of the song was about as literally true as my song lyrics get:

Now I am a father and I’ve got a little girl
She’s cute as a button, and she brightens up my world
When bedtime story rolls around, I’m thinking “Sam I Am”
But she goes to her bookcase, and she pulls out Peter Pan
I try to bargain for The Cat in the Hat
But then she tells me, “Daddy, no, you can’t have that”

“Oh, you get what you get
I think you’re gonna like it
You get what you get
No Dr. Seuss today
You get what you get
I don’t know why you fight it
You get what you get
You’ll see it’s better that way”

When I introduce the song nowadays I mention that it was inspired by a bit of philosophy from a four-year old.

Of course, one verse doesn’t make a song, so I dug back into my own childhood for the first verse:

When I was a little boy, my mama said to me
“You have to eat your vegetables if you want to be
As strong as your daddy and get that piece of pie”
So I gagged each bit of broccoli down until I thought I’d die
My daddy said, “Boy, I feel for you,
But someday when you’re older you will see our point of view”

“Oh, you get what you get
I think you’re gonna like it
You get what you get
You’ll understand someday
You get what you get
I don’t know why you fight it
You get what you get
You’ll see it’s better that way”

That’s actually not so far from the literal truth, either, though the punishment for not eating the things that tasted gross to us as kids (I actually like broccoli now, but I used to gag on it back then, though not as badly as on cabbage, which I’m still prefer to avoid most of the time) also tended to include going straight to bed. I can remember sitting at my plate pushing vegetables, and tough meat, around for what seemed like hours to avoid the “horrible” fate of an early bedtime. It’s funny how such “fates” can sound a whole lot different in adulthood.

For the third verse, I went down the philosophical route:

Sometimes when I’m feeling down ’bout all my overtime
Tryin’ to pay a stack of bills too high for me to climb
I think God must be looking down from somewhere up above
Seeing how I’ve got my health and people that I love
He’s probably saying, “Son, I’ve given you
Everything you really need, so why you look so blue?”

(The chorus of the third verse is the same as the first verse’s chorus.)

It’s a slightly different philosophy than the notion of not always getting what you want but getting what you need. It makes no value judgments on what you get, just that it is what it is, and someday down the road we’ll see how it fits in some big picture. That’s not to suggest that big picture is better or worse than any other possible outcome, only that we can choose to make the best of whatever we “get”, and that doing so contributes to our growth and who we become.

The above might have served as a lead-in to a long overdue follow-up to my “Crossroads” blog entry of February 2011. However, that could easily get to movie-length book proportions; so instead, I thought I’d give you an update on my former four-year old philosopher.

Nicole is now 21 years old. Later this month she’ll be walking at her UC Berkeley College of Engineering commencement with a major in civil engineering. She won’t actually be finished with her undergraduate studies, though she is qualified to graduate. Rather, she’ll be spending her final semester at National University of Singapore, as part of UCB’s Study Abroad program. She’s already got some solid engineering experience as a result of internships, and she’ll be getting even more of that before she heads off to Singapore in late July. She may “get what she gets”, but she’s also got a pretty good track record of getting what she wants.