I’m just going to get this out of the way before I get to the song: 4 Non Blondes is a lousy name for a band even if it delivers what it promises (though it also appears that at the time all four members of the band had died hair). Of course, in the end what is most important is that a band sounds good, but if you have a ridiculous or otherwise poor quality band name, it can easily act as a blockade to people who might like your music. I believe in a simple approach to naming a band. There’s no need to be clever or witty, especially if it takes you over five words to do so. I’m a big fan of one word band names such as Pavement or Radiohead or Warrant (hey, it’s a good name for a band even if the band isn’t good).
Okay, I’ve got one more thing to discuss before actually getting to the song “What’s Up?” and surprisingly it isn’t the fact the titular phrase is nowhere to be found in the song itself. It’s the music video, which is so ridiculous it can only be described as utterly ridiculous. The lead singer is wearing a big top hat with what appears to be old timey aviator goggles (the kind Howard Hughes would have worn) on them. She looks like she should be in the Will Smith flop Wild Wild West, or she would if she didn’t appear to be wearing comedy boxer shorts in lieu of pants or, you know, regular shorts.
I’m not a fan of the dreads or the nose ring, but those things are at least within reason. Her other accessories though just look idiotic. I have to presume she is wearing them ironically or for some sort of comedic effect. I’d honestly rather prefer she actually things these absurd accoutrements actually look good because at least then she would be being earnest. I’ve heard that’s important. The rest of the band, the other three non blondes, are all decked out in “grunge” style clothing, forever linking them to their era.
The video, aside from seeing them playing the song in a room with strange paintings on the wall, sees them cavorting, swinging on a playground swing, playing with a yo-yo, riding a carousel, and yelling aggressively at what appears to be a crystal ball. All the kind of things adults should probably have grown out of enjoying, but presumably used here to show the bands wacky and care free attitude. Would a blond ever ride in circles on a fake horse? I think not!
I bring these things up not just to disparage them, though they certainly deserve it, but because they lead me to ponder this; Does the band’s name and style play into people’s dislike of the song? Do people watch the music video and let that lead them into proclaiming they don’t like the song? Do they have a problem separating the two? Personally, I think the video is much worse than the song itself, but while it makes me like the band less it doesn’t make me like the song less. Perhaps some people have trouble making that distinction? It wouldn’t be the first time somebody’s biases bled into other related territories.
Now, as for the song itself… it has one thing going for it: The music sounds good. It starts with a nice acoustic intro and then the other instruments come in nicely. All is going well, and then… Linda Perry starts singing. This appears to be where people’s problem begins with the song itself. “Yodeling” is a word often bandied about to describe her singing style and while I saw enough episodes of Doug in my youth to know she isn’t quite yodeling, you can definitely say she warbles, and some of it seems to be by choice. I wouldn’t say I like Perry’s voice, but I can tolerate it.
The first sort of stanza of this song goes like this: “25 years and my life is still/Trying to get up that great big hill of hope/For a destination.” Now, if you are anything like me you have this thought: What the hell does that mean? I think she is trying to say that she’s 25 and she’s still struggling in life to try and get somewhere, but I can’t be more specific than that, and apparently neither can she. The grammar of that statement is mind boggling, and does not bode well for these dark haired folks. Want to hear a stunner? The lyrics actually get worse for there. Honestly, I never listened to the lyrics when I heard this song in my youth. All I remembered was the chorus, and that was a more tenable position it would appear. Perry’s next lyrical assault: “I realized quickly when I knew I should/That this world was made up of this brotherhood of man/For whatever that means.” Well, Linda, I don’t know what that means and if you don’t why did you bring it up, particularly while saying that you realized something about it quickly. Also, what do you mean you realized this when you knew you should? Is this like the TV show Heroes?
Now, Linda Perry is going to bring us down by telling us that sometimes she cries when lying in bed. You know, “just to get it all out/what’s in my head,” and also, she is feeling a little peculiar. Again, she keeps things really vague. This song is starting to feel like a horoscope. It’s just detailed enough to have some substance, but vague enough to not actually mean anything and thus it allows people to read into it what they want. If the next verse tells me that I’ll face challenges today, I’ll be pissed.
Fortunately, she doesn’t. She instead tells us that in the morning she steps outside, takes a deep breath, gets real high, and then screams (from the top of her lungs, no less), “What’s going on?” What stands out to be here is that she gets not just high but real high merely from taking a deep breath. Am I to assume, then, that she’s high on life? Or that she lives in a neighborhood plagued with some sort of marijuana laced smog? I’m going to assume the former. However, that doesn’t really seem to jive with screaming, “What’s going on?” out to a cold, uncaring universe. At least, based on the way Perry sings, or rather, yells, this lyric I assume she’s upset with the state of things, though once again she refuses to be specific. She certainly sounds concerned, at least, since she repeats the phrase over and over in the chorus and she does it with vigor if not the most pleasant sounding singing voice in the world. You know, Marvin Gaye once asked us what’s going on as well. Were 4 Non Blondes the “Grunge” era’s answer to Gaye? Did they ever suggest that we get it on?
Perry doesn’t lower the ire in her voice after the first chorus, as she continues to yell in her warbling, half singing voice about how she tries, oh my God how she tries, why she tries all the time, in this institution which, as usual with this song, just raises more questions. What is she trying to do? And what is this institution she speaks of? Is it some sort of literal thing, or just about the institution of society, so to speak?
She then proceeds to tell us that she prays every single day for a revolution. So clearly, she wants change, but not just any old change, a revolution. Perhaps that is what she is trying to do in this institution she told us about. You know, The Beatles (or at least John Lennon) wanted a revolution once. Clearly, 4 Non Blondes are The Beatles and Marvin Gaye put together.
However, I’m just happy Perry is finally actually providing lyrics that aren’t egregiously cryptic, if not downright nonsensical. I have no problem with lyrics that don’t mean anything, I love Pavement, but they also don’t sing impassioned songs that clearly sound like they are supposed to be about something. The portion of the song where she sings about praying for a revolution, while vague, is the only part of the song where the lyrics don’t really act as a detriment to the song. Unfortunately, by then I was already bothered by her vocal style.
That’s about it for new words to the song. Perry asks us some more about what’s going on and then repeats the first verse as the song breaks back down into just an acoustic guitar strumming away, which provides a nice bookend. Clearly, the music isn’t the problem here, at least from my perspective. If this song were an instrumental, I’d enjoy it. However, Perry’s singing style, particularly when she raises her voice into a yell (which occasionally turns into a guttural howl) does get a bit irritating and the lyrics have a “poetry slam in Des Moines” vibe to them. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t call this a “bad” song, and certainly not one of the worst songs ever. 4 Non Blondes probably should have just disappeared into the ether, but yet here they are on multiple worst song ever lists.
This brings me back to pondering whether or not their name and their music video have something to do with the bad reputation of this song. Marshall McLuhan, as anybody (and probably only anybody) who saw Annie Hall can tell you, said that the medium is the message. Granted, I’m about to mangle what he meant momentarily but hear me out. The medium for this song is a band with a ridiculous name and an even more ridiculous music video with a lead singer dressed, somehow, to an even more ridiculous level. Maybe the song gained its bad reputation simply because people wanted an excuse to keep lampooning the band’s name and/or the music video. Or, perhaps, the song has simply been overshadowed by the medium. This mediocre song has become inexorably tied to the awful music video for it, and thus it is doomed to an unfair reputation of awfulness. Or maybe people just really couldn’t stand Linda Perry’s voice.