January 29, 2009
Hate to Admit it But… “What’s Up?”
HATE TO ADMIT IT, BUT…
4 Non Blondes
Bigger, Better, Faster, More!
1992 | Interscope
You’re in a medium-sized town in the Midwest. Not a big enough town that you can reference it by saying the city’s name without also saying the state, but big enough that you aren’t met with blank faces. It’s a college town, but one that’s no more or less remarkable than any other college town. There’s no major sports team or teeming musical hotbed. For brevity’s sake, we’ll call this town…Urbana, IL. There’s stuff going on in Urbana, but not a lot of stuff. There’s kids there, but they’re largely inactive. If you find yourself in Urbana, IL, spend an hour standing on any street corner. During that hour, two hundred cars will drive past. One out of every seven of those cars will be stuffed with between two and four twenty-something girls, blasting the easy-to-dismiss 4 Non Blondes’ only single, 1993’s “What’s Up?”
Formed by bassist Christa Hillhouse, guitarist Shauna Hall and drummer Wanda Day in 1989, the group were joined later by lead vocalist Linda Perry, whom the other three found performing in a San Francisco nightclub. I wish it were a coffeehouse they found her in. How 90s would that have been? The band had a pretty uneventful rise, brief flirtation with stardom, then broke up in 1995 to little fanfare, after Perry left to pursue a solo career (also to little fanfare). That should have been it: unremarkable early career, one huge hit, no follow up, uneventful breakup, etc. No one mourned 4 Non Blondes, the same way no one mourned The Outfield or Taco in the 80’s and the same way no one mourned Surfing Brides or Superfriendz in the 90’s. (Name The Outfield’s hit single. Without looking it up. I can’t.)
“What’s Up?” is structurally boring. The one-two-four chord progression never varies, and plods along at a pace that makes early 60’s Johnny Cash sound like late 70’s Johnny Thunders. The lead guitar, provided on record by Roger Rocha (Hall and Day were replaced by Rocha and Dawn Richardson during the recording of Bigger, Better, Faster, More!) is alt-rock simple but sort of pop-country clean, predating Noel Gallagher’s glorious success with that formula by a couple of years. Richardson and Hillhouse never pick up the pace past a slow crawl. Linda Perry does not sing so much as she hollers, which is where the similarities between 4 Non Blondes and Janis Joplin begin and end. I wish pop singers today looked like Linda Perry, all alien in that Mad Hatter gear in the video, but at the time, I changed the channel, because only Richardson looked like any woman I’d seen on TV before. You can’t dance to “What’s Up?” at a club, but you also can’t slow dance to it in your apartment. The lyrics are pablum, the music is pedestrian.
But 4 Non Blondes have enjoyed a longer shelf life than many of their contemporaries. Among the first wave of bands manufactured to approximate the “alternative” sound Nirvana blew wide open, “What’s Up?” is dated, like pogs, Rent and Bob Dole jokes, but it’s charmingly dated, a snapshot of possibly the first sign of trouble for the record industry’s rule book (trouble that industry has only fully begun to feel over the last couple of years). Look at that video now. The simplistic beauty: alternating shots between the band rocking out on what looks like the set of The Real World Los Angeles and the band doing “hang out” activities in a park, immediately after a rainstorm. Marvel at an era when a lyric like, “I realized quickly when I knew I would that the whole world is made of this Brotherhood of men. Or whatever that means,” was profound. Then try to resist approximating Linda Perry’s throaty bellow on the chorus. Not an easy task.
Listening to 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?” is a lot like watching old serials about the dangers of marijuana from back when marijuana was spelled with an H: it’s dated to a point that its initial merits have worn off, been outdated, then warped into a relic that evenly straddles irony and reverence. “What’s Up?” is an unironic nostalgia piece: it makes the listener think, “Remember when I was into this?” and then scream along to that silly, stupid, gorgeous chorus.
by Brook Pridemore