What's Up

Album: Bigger, Better, Faster, More (1992)
Charted: 2 14

Songfacts®:

  • There are times when we just need to take a deep breath and scream from the top of our lungs, "What's going on!?"

    That's how 4 Non Blondes frontwoman Linda Perry felt when she wrote this very cathartic song. "It's like, 'Why does it always seem like either I'm struggling, or there's some f--king political mess happening? Why is this all happening in the world?'" she said on the the Backstory Song podcast.
  • The phrase "what's up" doesn't appear in the lyric. The chorus refrain is "what's going on," but that's the name of a 1971 Marvin Gaye R&B classic.
  • The song was influenced by the political climate of the time (George H. W. Bush was president), but there are no political references in the lyric, which makes it maleable and gives it staying power. "If you look at the lyrics, they don't mean anything," 4 Non Blondes bass player Christa Hillhouse told Songfacts. "It's the way the song makes certain people feel. In Europe where they're not speaking English, 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,'" she added. "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 [Linda Perry] 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."
  • 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. Christa Hillhouse told Songfacts the story: "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 24 when she wrote the song, not 25 as she states in the opening line:

    Twenty-five years and my life is still
    Trying to get up that great big hill of hope


    "25" sounded better, so she went with it.
  • Perry ad-libbed the lyrics instead of writing them down. They flowed out of her in about 30 minutes. Hillhouse recalled: "For a short time, Linda had quit her job and she was living with me in this little two-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."
  • After the "And I scream at the top of my lungs, what's going on?" line in the chorus, Linda Perry sings "Hey hey hey hey..." She put this part in as filler, planning to insert lyrics, but the song sounded so good that way she left it in.
  • This was the second single from 4 Non Blondes' debut album, Bigger, Better, Faster, More. 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 without ever recording another album. 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."
  • With over a billion YouTube views, "What's Up" is one of the most popular songs of the '90s, but it wasn't a huge hit as the time, peaking at #14 in the US.
  • 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 overproduction. Said Hillhouse: "Recording that song was interesting. We recorded it with the rest of our album in Calabasas in Southern California with this producer [David Tickle], 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."

    David Tickle got the production credit even though his version wasn't used, which didn't sit well with Perry. From that point forward, she was vigilant about claiming her producer credits.
  • A dance remix by Dj Miko was released in 1993, reaching #58 in the US.
  • The music video, directed by Morgan Lawley, got a lot of play on MTV, which was still playing videos at the time. Linda Perry, with dreadlocks, a nose ring, and the best top-hat this side of Slash, made a great focal point. Lawley went on to direct the videos for "I Kissed A Girl" by Jill Sobule and "Rebirth Of Slick" by Digable Planets.
  • After 4 Non Blondes broke up, Linda Perry released a solo album in 1996 called In Flight, and another in 1999 called After Hours. Neither did very well, but she found her groove as a songwriter starting with Pink's 2001 hit "Get The Party Started" and followed by Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful."

    In 1999, she toured as an opening act for Bryan Adams, accompanied by her former bandmate Christa Hillhouse. "It was just us two, we had no crew, nothing," Hillhouse told Songfacts. "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 three 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."
  • Pink put "What's Up" in her setlist for her 2002 Party Tour and has often played it live since. Growing up, she often sang it with her friends.
  • In 2005, animators from Slackcircus Studios created a video called "Fabulous Secret Powers" with He-Man, the animated superhero of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, singing the tune. It became a popular internet meme and was often used as a bait-and-switch joke in the manner of Rickrolling (where people are tricked into clicking a relevant link only to be led to the video).
  • This was used in three episodes of Sense 8: "What's Going On?" (2015), "Fear Never Fixed Anything" (2017), and "Isolated Above, Connected Below" (2017).

    It was also used in these TV shows:

    Defiance ("Painted From Memory" - 2014)
    My Mad Fat Diary ("It's A Wonderful Rae: Part 2" - 2013)
    Being Erica ("What I Am Is What I Am" - 2009)
    Cold Case ("Late Returns" - 2004)

    And in these movies:

    Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (2014)
    Wild (2014)
    Best Night Ever (2013)
    Young Adult (2011)

Comments: 28

  • JoshRecently hit a billion views on YouTube
  • Adrian from Joe Mama’sNever heard anybody say they got high and screamed Hey what’s going on? Song is horrible. It’s the only song I heard from them bc of Walmart and don’t want to hear anything else from them
  • Emyr Tomos from CarmarthenFantastic song which I never tire of. Linda's voice is amazing.
  • Seventhmist from 7th HeavenAnd I say, hey hey hey hey, I said hey, what's up with them naming the song "What's Up" when she never sings "what's up?"
  • Chris from VirginiaFirst time I heard this song, I did not pay attention to the first two stanzas, you know just driving along and then boom, Linda is screaming "whats going on?" And I am thinking WTF is that? so I turn up the radio a little bit more, and she is yelling out the word "revolution!" And I am thinking "holy shiit!" And then I am turning it up a bit more. So I am asking myself "what is going on?" Very driving melody and rock riffs driving the song forward. I hope they remaster this album to audiophile quality from the original masters.
  • Camille from Toronto, Oh To YourMom from Here, FL: Alanis Morrisette's "You Ought to Know" is raw and it rocks!
  • Camille from Toronto, OhI will unabashedly proclaim my love of this song. If it comes on the car radio, I love to crank it up and sing very loudly along with it. So, Rebecca from Wolverhampton, England, I can understand why you love it so much as a karaoke tune. I was in my mid-thirties and just becoming a mom when it came out. Twenty years later, I think it still stands the test of time. Love hearing of Linda Perry's songwriting success. The only thing about this song is the title is confusing and somehow, I wish they could have given it a better name. However, "Bigger, Better, Faster, More" has to be one of the very best album titles ever.
  • Yourmom from Here, FlI can understand that art is a matter of taste, but some of the comments being posted here are a bit harsh. Anyone can be a critic, and claim they can play the music and write better lyrics, but can you? Don't tell me you can, do it. This song is very deep. It's about overcoming life's turbulent moments. I remember a lot of the music that was coming out in this period of time, even though I was pretty young... only about 8 when "What's Up?" came out. I remember when Alanis Morrisette came out with "You Oughta Know" a few years later, my parents didn't "Get it". My dad saw the music video on MTV and asked "It's a good song, but why does she have to SCREAM the lyrics?" That's the point. The lyrics are her yelling at someone who made her angry. It doesn't matter to me if Linda doesn't sing like some other singer. She sings like Linda, and that's what's important. She keeps it real, and she's herself.
  • Claude from Kingston, MaThere was some really bad music coming out at this time and this is the best example. An dyslexic dog with autism could play this song after practicing it for 15 minutes.
  • Runcil from Mumbai, India@ Adam: true it reminded me too of dat song wen I first heard it. I always picturize dis song with the visual of a very sad girl reminiscing abt her torrid past while walkin on a beach...
    at the same time, let me tell u, hear dis song wen ur alone on d beach, simply spectacular!
  • Saytunebunnyday from Newport News, VaAlways been a little dense, and after hearing this wonderful song I looked for years without success for the name of the guy who performed it....durr.
  • Adam from Zielona Góra, PolandThe melody reminds me of Bobby MacFerrin`s `Don`t worry be happy`!!! I think every song has unconcious twin melody. :)
  • Charlie from Viña Del Mar, ChileLove this song..I was 25 when it was number 1 back in 1993..."25 Years and my life is stil trying to get ...??" never understood that part
  • Pete from Pleasant Mount, PaThis is one of my favorite albums.Linda has an awesome voice.I always thought she was pretty hot too.
  • Bertrand from Paris, France"What's Up?" seemingly appeared out of nowhere becoming a neo-folkie, hippie hit first on modern rock radio stations and then crossing over to pop. Although it only reached #11 on the pop chart, it has been a fixture on pop radio stations ever since. The group 4 Non Blondes never duplicated the success of this hit, but lead vocalist Linda Perry has become a successful songwriter and producer, particularly in work with Pink.
  • Paul from Detroit, Mia girl i was dateing and i got drunk and had sex to whats up she got on top and sang it to me it was the best sex ever lindas voice the music the alcohol very good combo
  • Chenel from Salamanca, NyBLAH. What's Up with this girl? What was she thinking? My brain hurts every time I hear this song. But I do like singing it to annoy my dad because he equally doesn't like it.
  • Mjn Seifer from Not Listed For Personal Reason, EnglandYou should check out video, just to see what the singer wears...
  • Sue from WonderlandGreat song for slowdancing to at high school disco's... aah the memories :)
  • Amandass from Buckley, Wathis song will always remind me of 7th grade
  • Dee from Indianapolis, InI was listening to this band before anyone really knew of them back when I was in my last year of college. The dance version still is one of my favs!!
  • Rebecca from Wolverhampton, Englandthis song is my favourite karaoke tune
  • Maggie from Austin, TxWHATS GOING ONNNN
  • Jonathan from Natchitoches, LaAppeared in Season 1 Episode 19 of Cold Case on CBS. The name of the episode is "Late Returns."
  • Dave from Cardiff, WalesDJ Miko's dance version of "What's Up?", released just 11 months after 4 Non Blondes' original, was a transatlantic hit, but was an absolutely abysmal cover. How can you make an uplifting version of a song containing lyrics about nightmare experiences in one's life?!
  • Nick from Arlington Heights, IlPerry also wrote Christina Aguilera's hit "Beautiful"
  • Charles from Charlotte, NcIncluded in the Blender/VH1 special "The 50 Most Awesomely Bad Songs".
  • Pete from Nowra, AustraliaLinda Perry great vocal range in this song , another great track from the album is "spaceman" have a listen
see more comments

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