CSFTD#41: 4 Non Blondes – What’s Up?

The archetypal one hit wonders, 4 Non Blondes are the band behind the latest Classic Track, partly for the presence of vocalist/guitarist and songwriter/producer Linda Perry, who achieved much more in a stellar writing and production career after the band broke up. Also partly because the video you see here has achieved almost 200 million YouTube hits, which is some going by any measure although that might be at least partly down to the fact that the song has been used in several TV series.

4 Non Blondes was formed in San Francisco in 1989 by Perry and bassist Christa Hillhouse, guitarist Shaunna Hall, and drummer Wanda Day, although just prior to the release of their first album, Hall was replaced by Roger Rocha on guitar while Dawn Richardson replaced Day on drums. They only recorded one album, Bigger, Better, Faster, More! (1992), as they broke up during the recording of the second, in 1994, which was never titled or released.

The album did well, going platinum in the US and making #1 in the charts in six countries (#4 in the UK). In total they released seven singles but after What’s Up (1993) the highest chart position for any of them was #18 for Spaceman, in Sweden. In contrast, What’s Up? was #1 in seven countries (#2 in the UK) and was particularly popular in Brazil (Linda Perry’s mother is Brazilian, her father Portuguese).

It is an outwardly political female emancipation song, from a band led by an overtly LGBT writer – Linda Perry, to whom the song is credited solely (In fact, she wrote or co-wrote all but one of the album’s 11 songs). Not that I’m confusing the two. It’s just that (a) she was, and is, a proud lesbian; and (b) that’s what the song is about; emancipation. Come to think of it I’m a week or so late with this review, it should really have been written in time for International Women’s Day. No surprise perhaps that its most recent performance was at a May, 2014 reunion concert in Los Angeles at a fundraiser entitled “An Evening for Women.”

“25 years and my life is still
Trying to get up that great big hill of hope
For a destination
I realised quickly when I knew I should
That the world was made up of this brotherhood, of man
For whatever that means…

 …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 a revolution”

The song is also noteworthy, like Rod Stewart’s Young Turks (there aren’t many examples), for not having the title in the lyrics. The words ‘What’s going on?’ though are repeated on several occasions in the chorus and that would have been its title except that it would have clashed with Marvin Gaye’s song of that same title which was released in 1971. Gaye’s song has a story to it as well of course; it was one of the first Motown songs which, just like this one, attempted to make a political statement, and which came from an album which was notable for (again, possibly the first time) tackling subjects such as the environment and poverty. What’s Going On? really should be a CSFTD too, I guess.

Perry left the band in 1994 to begin a solo career, and the remaining members disbanded shortly thereafter.

And that is really where her story begins as she went on to become a Grammy-nominated, singer-songwriter and producer with two record companies of her own. Along the way she has, inter alia, written for, or co-written with, Gwen Stefani, P!nk, Adele, Alicia Keys, Courtney Love, K T Tunstall, Britney Spears, Faith Hill, Celine Dion, Sugababes, Robbie Williams, and even Enrique Iglesias as well as signing and distributing James Blunt in the U.S. Well, nobody’s perfect I suppose.

She makes Sia look like an out-of-left-field chancer.

But in any case, such indiscretions as James Blunt are forgiven simply because Perry was responsible for writing and producing Christina Aguilera’s Beautiful. I’ll lay my cards on the table here. I think that song is sensational. It was one of a tiny handful which kept me going in the first half of the 2000s when I’d pretty much lost faith in the contemporary music scene (I won’t bore you with the others) and is another I’m mentally filing away for a CSFTD.

Perry was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2015. She’s dabbled with solo albums of her own (often closing her shows with Beautiful as if it might be an entrée back into the musical swirl) and produced a film. She’s still working. But ultimately, unless she comes up with another blockbuster, she will be remembered mainly for What’s Up? (And for Beautiful, of course).

©D J Bentley, 2017

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