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This was the first Top-40 hit by an openly lesbian group (somehow the Indigo Girls never got higher than #52). 4 Non Blondes started in San Francisco in 1989 and gained traction at a time when record companies were looking for authentic female rockers who could translate to the Pop realm. Their bass player Christa Hillhouse told us: "We did really well in San Francisco, we got a lot of press and we were selling out all our shows. With the labels, once one of them looks at you, they all jump in line. A&R people are so brainless - if you're getting attention because people are coming to your shows, they'll check you out, but once one of them approaches you, they all approach you. We ended up signing with Interscope in June 1991. We had a shot with a couple of other labels, but we kind of freaked them out because we were kind of weird. At the time, we were all women, we were all gay - that was the time before it was the cool thing to do, I don't even think k.d. lang was out of the closet yet. I think the marketing thing threw a lot of labels off because they're always looking at marketing. Even by the end of the '80s, the record companies had really switched to where they were looking for that band that had that one hit. They wanted one hit, and then who knows after that - they didn't really develop acts anymore. When we got signed, they knew 'What's Up' sounded like a hit."
Linda Perry was the group's lead singer and primary songwriter. In 2001, she produced Pink's album Missundaztood
and co-wrote many of the songs, including the hit "Get The Party Started
." She also wrote "Beautiful
" for Christina Aguilera, and has become very in-demand as a songwriter. Christa explains how Linda came up with this:
"For a short time, Linda had quit her job and she was living with me in this little 2-bedroom flat in San Francisco. She wrote the song when she was in a room down the hall. I was in my bedroom having sex, and I stopped because I heard her playing that song. I remember running down the hall and saying, 'Dude, what are you playing? I like that.' We had a lot of Rock, thrashy stuff back then, but Linda always would pull her ballads out. I remember being struck by it. She kept looking at me, going, 'Does this sound like something? Am I plagiarizing someone?" I said, 'Finish the song, it's beautiful.' It caught on at our shows right away, people really liked it."
Recounting to origins of this song, Christa Hillhouse told us: "Any song people are going to try to read deliberate meaning into, but when Linda wrote the song, she was just sitting down the hall. We played guitar all the time, that's all we ever did. We practiced every day. I know people who think about formulas when they write a song or they think about structure - Linda has never lived that way. Linda's pretty organic in that way, she just sits down and starts singing what she's feeling. There is a difference between the songs she wrote then and the songs she writes now. She got to a point now where I think she is thinking about them structurally, but back then, she played acoustic guitar and all the songs she wrote she'd just sit there and here they'd come. A lot of people write like that. I write like that - a song is kind of there already and you're like the speakers. All of the sudden there's a song in my head and I don't know where it came from. I remember when she was writing the verses to What's Up, she knew it so well, she thought she heard it before. I think that's why the song connects with so many people. What she was feeling she was able to translate. If you look at the lyrics, they don't mean anything. It's the way the song makes certain people feel. In Europe, they're not speaking English, but they know every broken-English word, and that song makes them feel something. I knew right when we played it, the song made the whole room feel this thing. It's a connection to humanity. Certain simple songs, that's what they do. There's an honesty there that breaks through that people can relate to. Then of course they played that song to death and a lot of people are really sick of it.
It also had to deal with, 'We're living, we're broke, all we do is play music.' It was a weird time, the late-'80s. We were living pretty raw, but when you're an artist and you're living that raw existence, you're so much more open and exposed with your feelings. We definitely weren't poseur types, we've always been pretty honest as individuals. The song was an expression of something she was feeling, and it ended up being a pretty universal experience. There's just something there that's pure, that you almost can't define, and that's the thing. We were just living as honest a life as we could, and I think the music that came out of it had heart."
The title is not in the lyrics. The chorus refrain is "What's Going On," but that's the name of a 1971 Marvin Gaye R&B classic, so they always called the song "What's Up."
Some 4 Non Blondes trivia: their first rehearsal was supposed to be on October 17, 1989, but they had to cancel practice because of the the San Francisco earthquake.
An industry mastermind helped save this song from over production. Said Hillhouse: "Recording that song was interesting. We recorded it with the rest of our album in Calabasas in Southern California with this producer, and Jimmy Iovine at Interscope heard the version we recorded with Interscope and then he heard the version we did on our demo take, and Jimmy Iovine liked the demo better. It was a cassette. He and Linda met, and then Linda came and said, 'We're going to re-record it.' I was like, 'Good,' because it got a little too foofed up in major production land - it softened it up and took something out of it. We went to Sausalito and recorded it separately in one day, raw, because Jimmy Iovine knew the demo version was better than the one we did with the producer and all the fancy equipment."
This was the second single from the Bigger, Better, Faster, More album. The first was a song called "Dear Mr. President." Their third single, "Spaceman," suffered from a lack of promotion and didn't do very well. They recorded songs for some movie soundtracks, but broke up soon after. Says Hillhouse:
"When we broke up we were in the studio working on songs. We were working with Dave Jerden, who did Alice In Chains. The pressure was unbelievable. We had all these songs that we didn't put on the first record that were socially relevant - one was about incest, about Linda's experience with incest. As far as I'm concerned, it's the most powerful thing she's ever written. We were putting songs on the second record like that. We figured we sold 5 million records, we could do what we want, right? Well, wrong. The label was up our butts and were really putting a lot of pressure on us. It's almost like your sophomore record, you have to outdo your first record. After you've sold 5 million for your debut album, it's a little difficult. I would never walk into a recording scenario thinking, 'How many records are we going to sell?' I could totally give a s--t, but I think the success part of being a songwriter is important to Linda. It doesn't make her good, bad or indifferent, we just had different goals at that point. I figured, 'We can do whatever we want now - we've got money, we've got power, let's make the record we want to make.' Linda was the one who was always schmoozed by the record company. I think she was encouraged to break up the band and do her own thing. As a band, we were uncontrollable to the label. Our first record we had creative control over, but we left certain songs off the record because they were really controversial and we figured the record company wouldn't push the record that way. By the second one, it's like, 'Hey, let's do what we want,' but when you have different goals as a band, you're going to fall apart. We're all fire signs, we kicked ass, took names and worked our asses off, but once your goals are split as a band, it's like being married and wanting different things - one person wants kids and the other wants to travel around the world - you're going to fall apart, and that's exactly what happened. It got so stressful, within a couple of weeks the whole mood changed and Linda just wanted out. I said, 'Dude, do what you've got to do.' Kurt Cobain had just blown his head off, and I was like, 'Music is supposed to be fun. If your art is not fun, then f--k it.' It more had to do with the pressure of the labels, the way they treat artists these days. Even if you've made them a bazillian dollars, which we had at that point - 5 million CDs, think about how much money that's generating for Universal - but it doesn't matter. They keep their noses planted firmly up your ass."
This song got a lot of play on MTV, which was still playing videos at the time. The clip helped the album sell over 6 million copies.
This won Best Song at the Bay Area Music Awards. Linda Perry won Best Female Vocalist and the Bigger, Better, Faster, More won Best Album. Said Hillhouse: "We did well, we sold a lot of records, but when we were touring, we did grueling s--t. We toured non stop, which was fine, but we were doing all this TV, we were doing interviews 2 times a day because we were really huge in Europe too. We were working our asses off and they make it seem like if you need a month off, 'Well I don't know if your fans are going to be there when you get back.' It's like being a hamster in a wheel. You figure, you sell some records, it's cool, you put 100% into your music, you make a little bit of a living and it's a beautiful thing. In reality, to be in the music business and to be successful is about other people controlling your life. I have a hard time with that and some people don't. As much as you see somebody on stage and on MTV, in reality when you're really doing well and you're in the public eye, you have no control of your life at all. Someone's telling you what to do 24/7, it's a joke. The freedom of being a writer, musician or artist is something you have to hold on to for yourself, because once you enter into that business, it's really hard to protect. Money is a great distracter. When you're making bank and you're flying first class and staying in 5-star hotels, you start believing you're the big cheese and you want to start sleeping on crackers at night. It was distracting from the reality of what was going on, which was like being a hamster in a wheel. I respect artists like Joni Mitchell who never made a record because of pressure from labels. It sucks to get a 6 album deal because the record company has the option for your next 6 records and you might hate their guts. You're the one that's trapped, not them. That's the way it is when you're struggling - when you've got nothing, you've got nothing to lose. We've gotten sued so many times from managers and lawyers who ultimately didn't have our interests in mind, it's crazy. I would say we signed an average deal, but the record company is the one who has all the power and they're the ones that are protected, never the artist.
You've got the label coming in and poking around and listening to what you're doing, going, 'Where's the What's Up, version 2.' All they care about is making money. It's so anti-art. In the long run, there's one game in town, and you can play it or not. I'm a horrible schmoozer, I think 99.9% of the A&R people who work at record companies are total idiots that know nothing about music. They know marketing statistics and they know, 'Let's push this song, push this band, we'll probably sell blank number of units and make this amount of money.' They don't even look at music anymore. I remember when we were looking for a manager, I was talking to a really nice guy, I think he had been Bonnie Raitt's manager back in the '70s, and I remember him describing the way the music industry used to be, where your first record would come out and you might sell 50,000-100,000 units, enough to pay for itself. Then you make your second record, it does a little better and you start touring. By the time Bonnie Raitt won her Grammy, she'd already make like 12 records. Music companies really worked with artists. They found people they felt were talented and they helped them. Usually people don't make their best albums first. A lot of times these days, someone's best album or most successful album is their first, but any artist is guaranteed to get better in an environment that would nurture them."
Linda Perry released a solo album in 1996 called In Flight
, which she recorded with Bill Bottrell and other members of the Tuesday Night Music Club (they had previously worked with Sheryl Crow). Says Hillhouse: "It was a very different record, it's definitely not a record Four Non-Blondes would have made. The vibe on it was very much about stuff Linda was experimenting with, she had a lot of time in the studio to get it the way she wanted. The record didn't go anywhere. It had some songs on it that had been redone a little bit that were being worked on for the second Four Non-Blondes record. A couple years later, she made a record called After Hours
. I did a tour with her in 1999 to promote it. We went out and had a good time - me and her together, just the two of us. We opened for Bryan Adams. It was just us two, we had no crew, nothing. We followed their tour bus around in a van. Of course, Bryan Adams and his band were flying everywhere. We would finish the show, throw our s--t in the van and I would drive. It was insane. Their crew was always surprised when we would show up. The audience would look at us and forget who we were. I would tell them we were the Indigo Girls and we just got out of rehab. Eventually, Linda would start playing those 3 chords to What's Up and they'd be like, 'Oh, I didn't know that was an Indigo Girls song.' It was fun, but then right after that, I didn't see her and I guess that's when Pink called her up. Pink's a huge Four Non-Blondes fan, a huge Linda Perry fan. She did that, then she did the Christina Aguilera thing." (Thanks to Christa for speaking with us about this song. Christa is a web designer, writer, and is involved with various music and film projects. Her website is chillhousemedia.com
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