The hit song “What’s Up?” rings as true today as it did in 1993.
4 Non Blondes lasted only a short while, but they left an enduring mark on 90s music. They expressed through their lyrics what people were feeling at the time. And it’s not unlike the feelings we’re experiencing in our current times.
Let’s find out what’s happening with “What’s Up?” and how it still speaks to many of us.
Who Originally Wrote “What’s Up?”
Formed in 1989, 4 Non Blondes blasted onto the music scene from their home base in San Francisco, California.
The original formation included four dark-haired female members – Linda Perry (lead singer), Christa Hillhouse (bass), Shaunna Hall (guitar), and Wanda Day (drums).
Hillhouse, Hall, and Day played together as a trio initially. When they heard Perry sing at a solo show, they asked her to join their band.
The band’s name comes from an experience on a San Francisco street. An all-blonde family walked past them. One of the kids noticed a piece of pizza on top of a trash bin. Seeing the child reach for it, the mom said, “No, it’s probably dirty, what with the pigeons and people.” The woman said this as she stared directly at the four non-blonde band members.
From 1989 to 1991, they mainly played local clubs around the San Francisco Bay Area. As an all-female band with an openly lesbian lead singer, they often played gay clubs around the city.
4 Non Blondes opened for Primus, another prominent Bay Area band, on Valentine’s Day 1991. Later that year, they signed with Interscope Records to record their first album.
The band fired their original guitarist and drummer while producing their first (and only) album Bigger, Better, Faster, More! Guitarist Louis Metoyer replaced Shaunna Hall, and drummer Dawn Richardson replaced Wanda Day. They were no longer an all-female band but remained four non-blondes.
4 Non Blondes released their debut album in October 1992. It topped music charts worldwide, reaching #13 on the US Billboard Top 200 chart. Bigger, Better, Faster, More! went on to sell 1.5 million copies in the US and six million worldwide.
They replaced Louis Metoyer with Roger Rocha, who remained the band’s guitarist until they disbanded in 1994.
The group released “What’s Up?” as a single in June 1993. Like the album, it became an instant success in the US and 18 other countries.
4 Non Blondes would remain together for only another year. During that time, they performed on Late Night with David Letterman and the Billboard Music Award show. Singer Linda Perry prominently displayed a sticker that said “dyke” on her guitar in both performances.
While the other female members were also lesbian, Perry was the most public about her sexuality. Her openness caused tension between her, Hillhouse, and Richardson, who weren’t as comfortable being publicly vocal about their sexuality.
The band was in the process of recording a second album but disbanded before completing it.
Linda Perry has openly stated she was never happy with the production of Bigger, Better, Faster, More! She went on to do solo projects, and the other members continued playing music in separate bands.
What Was 4 Non Blondes Creative Process for “What’s Up?”
While the lyrics to What’s Up aren’t overtly political, they can be seen as a commentary on social ills. Written during the early days of George H.W. Bush’s presidency, the song became an anthem of the times.
And so I cry sometimes when I'm lying in bed Just to get it all out what's in my head And I, I am feeling a little peculiar
According to bassist Christa Hillhouse, it’s more about how people feel hearing “What’s Up?”, not necessarily the meaning of the words. In an interview with Songfacts.com, Hillhouse said, “If you look at the lyrics, they don’t mean anything. It’s the way the song makes certain people feel.”
Hillhouse mentioned in the interview that the lyrics also pertain to singer Linda Perry’s experiences at the time. However, these words ring true for many, even in today’s tumultuous times.
And I try Oh my God, do I try I try all the time In this institution And I pray Oh my God, do I pray I pray every single day For revolution
Whether thinking about a personal situation or world events, who hasn’t at one time or another had these thoughts?
And so I wake in the morning and I step outside And I take a deep breath and I get real high And I scream from the top of my lungs "What's going on?"
Many of us are feeling these words pretty strongly these days.
Linda Perry often ad-libbed her way through songs during the creative process. In the case of “What’s Up?” she repeatedly used the words “hey, hey, hey” as a filler, intending to write something with more meaning. She and the band decided the song sounded good the way it was and never changed those lyrics.
Producer David Tickle, hired to work on their 1992 album Bigger, Better, Faster, More!, added more instrumentation to “What’s Up?”. Unhappy with this overly-produced version, Perry re-recorded the song to sound more like the original demo recording.
While Tickle received credit as producer on the album, Perry’s listed as producer for “What’s Up?”
Did 4 Non Blondes Ever Reunite?
The band reunited in 2014 for the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center’s “An Evening For Women” fundraiser. 4 Non Blondes performed “What’s Up?” that night for the first time in over 20 years. Linda Perry sang the song with as much emotion as she had in 1992 when the band first performed it.
What is Linda Perry Doing Now?
After 4 Non Blondes disbanded, Linda Perry developed a solo career. From there, she formed two record labels and wrote songs for Pink, Gwen Stephani, and Christina Aguilera. She was also a contributor on albums released by Adele, Alicia Keys, and Courtney Love.
The music industry continues to recognize Perry for her songwriting talents. In 2015, she was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
In 2020, Perry co-wrote A Beautiful Noise with other popular female songwriters. Co-collaborators included Alicia Keys, Brandi Carlile, Lori McKenna, and Hillary Lindsey. The tune is up for Song of the Year in the upcoming 64th Annual Grammy Awards.
How Is What’s Up Relevant Today?
The words to “What’s Up?” drive home the point that we all go through difficult times. Sometimes we go through them individually, but lately, we’ve been going through them together as a society.
The next time you feel the urge, go ahead and scream from the top of your lungs, “what’s going on?!” You won’t be the only one asking that question!