Well it’s one-hit wonder time here at We’re Number 2, but one-hit wonders aren’t simply, erm, one thing. They come in many different shapes and sizes, and there’s little to define or connect them. They can be novelty hits, one-and-done albums that briefly find public favour (as is very much the case here), groups will long careers that briefly intersect with the public before fading back to their previous status, they can be inspired by a specific events (sports covering a lot of ground here), and so on. The magnificently-named 4 Non Blondes fall into the second category, releasing just one album in their brief career, a lone single from which managed to garner chart success.
That single – “What’s Up?” – will forever be their defining moment in the spotlight. The album, Bigger Better Faster More!, had four singles released from it but it’s fair to say there’s only one anyone stands the slightest chance of recognising. It’s the one that got to Number 1 in eleven (eleven!) different countries. And although it only reached Number 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 and Number 2 in the UK, held off Number 1 by Take That, this has in no way slowed down the song’s momentum. It would be overstating things to call it ubiquitous but somehow the adjective “inescapable” doesn’t seem entirely inappropriate either. It’s a drunk-in-a-bar song. A singalong-on-the-radio song. A playlist-for-a-road-trip song. A gay-anthem song. A sing-in-the-shower song. And many, many more. What is is, in other words, is a flexible song.
That doesn’t necessarily make it actually any good though, and there’s a pretty strong line between those who adore its drunk-singalong chorus and those who think it’s a crime against music. Not that these two stances are especially opposed to each other, but still. It can be terrible because of its drunk singalong chorus and it can be great for precisely the same reason. One thing, however, that cannot be called into question, is the sheer raw power of Linda Perry’s voice. She’s got a set of leatherlungs that could drown out the crashing of the Hindenberg. This is in no way meant as an insult – one of the things that “What’s Up?” has going for it is the unfettered power of her lead vocal. It dominates over absolutely everything here. “What’s Up” is an undeniably catchy song but without that powerhouse lead it would be lacking something, as basically every cover version of it shows.
The song was written by Perry, an out-and-proud lesbian during a time when that was very much Not A Thing, and she’s a fascinating character in her own right. She’s written a bunch of absurdly successful songs for other artists, including “Beautiful” for Christina Aguilera, and “Get The Party Started” for Pink. She’s founded two record labels. She’s worked with a list of artists as long as your arm, including Alicia Keys, Robbie Williams, Celine Dion, James Blunt and Courtney Love (among many, many more). But “What’s Up?” was her one indelible moment of chart success under her own steam rather than writing for someone else. Which is not to dismiss the rest of the band out of hand, but it is Perry’s writing and lead vocal that makes the song so striking. But this being the 90’s, a girl rock band hailing from California is something that makes sense in the pop landscape. An all-female, grungy, fuck-you band is absolutely something that can sit alongside Nirvana or Pearl Jam and not look remotely out of context, and coming from California they were definitely striking out against the stereotypes of bands from that area. That’s where the name comes from, in fact – most California bands looked like they were an interchangeable collection of blonde Barbie dolls which, it is fair to say, is not something that could be said of 4 Non Blondes. Hence the sarcastic drawl of a name, but again that perfectly fits the attitude of the band.
And attitude is definitely something which can be prescribed towards “What’s Up?” Linda Perry is bellowing the lyric and, like it or not, you are going to damned well sit up and take notice when she starts singing. It is, in fact, quite interesting to have such an aggressively substantial lead vocal being hollered over a lyric that doesn’t automatically seem to demand that sort of performance. Well, the “scream from the top of my lungs” line does, but the rest of it not so much. Yet a more restrained vocal wouldn’t really suit the style of the song either – it’s very much an all or nothing proposal, which is pretty much true for Perry as well. The lyric itself is a fairly free-form collection of phrases that sound good when being sung along with but don’t substantively amount to much. Indeed, the song pretty much admits that about itself with the line “for whatever that means” both applying to the previous line (“the wold is made up of this brotherhood of man”) and as a self-confessed “what?” to the rest of the lyric.
And yet it works for what it is. If you’re going to write a catchy song you need to have something memorable in it, and while the music is bog-standard chords (basically a hefty round of G, Am and C sandwiches with no further filling to snack on) it’s those little, almost gnomic, phrases that stand out. “Get it all out, what’s in my head”. “Hope of a destination”. And so on. They’re easy to remember, catchy as hell, and get stuck in the listeners head whether they want them to or not. It seems vaguely about finding one’s place in the world but it’s more on the “vague” side than the “finding” side. And that Lucky Strike vocal anchors all the disparate parts of the song together in a single, unifying… well “concept” is probably a big word for it.
But whatever it is, that’s the element that really draws everything together. And you can’t really go wrong with a big singalong yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah chorus, and right enough, that’s exactly what “What’s Up?” has – and it’s kind of magical the way it all combines. Mind you, even that song title is slightly off-kilter – it’s not a phrase that appears anywhere in the song, nor one that really makes much sense for the lyric as it stands, but instead was chosen because there’s already a rather better-known song called “What’s Going On?” and Marvin Gaye’s lawyers are not shy of standing up and being counted when they think there might be a little bit of cash to be made. And yet even that odd title befits the song – it’s not logical, or sensible even, but it works.
And that’s how it is with musical alchemy. You throw together different bits and take all that lead and spin it into gold. And that’s really what “What’s Up?” does. Individually all the components of the song don’t really stand out – big power-ballad style vocal, small handful of chords et al – but combined the magic works and the result is a song that will be on the radio from now until the final star in the universe eventually winks out. It will be played in the last bar to ever serve a round. The last drunken singalong round a fire on a beach somewhere on distant alien shores. Because that’s the thing with “What’s Up?” – that’s what it’s for. Of course it’s a song that’s going to annoy some people (as if that’s any kind of demerit). And yes, it’s 4 Non Blonde’s only interaction with success of any kind. And sure, it’s as corny as corny can be. But somewhere there will be a need for a silly singalonganonsense and this song will be there, waiting for that moment.
And when that moment arrives, well, someone’s gonna scream from the top of their lungs. What’s. Going. On.
What Else Happened in 1993?
Michael Jackson starts the year well but doesn’t exactly finish it covered in glory – he plays the Super Bowl half-time show in January (kicking off the trend of having big-name acts do that) and is interviewed by Opera Winfrey in February in what is one of the most-watched TV interviews ever. But come the end of the year he’s accused of child molestation and, via a videotaped address, is forced to deny them. These and subsequent claims will forever haunt him and his legacy. Nirvana release In Utero and play their MTV Unplugged show – in fact it’s very much the year of acoustic, with Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, 10,000 Maniacs and Neil Young all releasing Unplugged albums. The big news of the year is Whitney Houston – “I Will Always Love You” tops the US charts for a total of fourteen weeks, and The Bodyguard soundtrack is the biggest album of the year. But “I Will Always Love You” isn’t the biggest single of the year (it’s chart-topping run is divided between 1992 and 1993) so brace for Meat Loaf’s “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)”, closely followed by UB40’s painfully bad cover of “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You”. Radiohead and Suede release their debut albums, and so does country star Shania Twain and whatever-genre-that-is Jamiroquai. Ru Paul releases her first album – not quite what she’ll be known for – and Bjork Debut’s. Billy Joel releases his final studio album, the so-so River Of Dreams, and Pet Shop Boys are Very. Kd lang finds huge success with Even Cowgirls Get The Blues and Kate Bush releases the last in her “original” run of albums, The Red Shoes. The Wu-Tang Clan arrive with Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and so does Snoop (Doggy) Dog with Doggystyle. He’s also arrested for, and subsequently cleared of, murder. One of the guiding lights of jazz, Dizzy Gillespie passes away at 76 as does Frank Zappa and, at the age of 97, Léon Theremin floats ethereally off this world. You can probably guess his contribution.
What Did We Nearly End Up Discussing?
If we say things are slightly better than 1992, that’s only because – as far as the UK goes – Pet Shop Boys got to Number 2 with “Go West”. It’s not their best, but considering what else is about you have to take what you can get. Bryan Adams (the insufferably self-pitying “Please Forgive Me”) and both Janet and Michael Jackson make their presence known. Vaguely remembered dance acts also make their mark, with both the Urban Cookie Collective’s “The Key The Secret” and M People’s (at least memorable) “Moving On Up”. It’s still mostly dreadful though. Can America do any better? Well, “A Whole New World (Aladdin’s Theme)” by Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle makes it to Number 2 for four weeks before briefly ascending to Number 1 for one week, then falling back to Number 2 again. So if you like cartoon musicals, that’s something I guess. But far more importantly “Whoomp! (There Is Is)” by Tag Team gets to Number 2 in August and secures its place in popular culture. And Ace Of Bass get to Number 2 a couple of times with “All That She Wants”. Mmm. Not much better.
1. The Beatles – “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane”
2. Stevie Wonder – “Sir Duke”
3. The Kinks – “Lola”
4. Jean Knight – “Mr Big Stuff”
5. Eurythmics – “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)”
6. Ultravox – “Vienna”
7. Elvis Costello – “Oliver’s Army”
8. The Animals – “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”
9. Sly And The Family Stone – “Everyday People”
10. Pet Shop Boys with Dusty Springfield – “What Have I Done To Deserve This?”
11. The Beautiful South – “Song For Whoever”
12. The B-52’s – “Love Shack”
13. Luciano Pavarotti – “Nessun Dorma”
14. Adam And The Ants – “Antmusic”
15. The KLF with Tammy Wynette – “Justified And Ancient (Stand By The JAMs)”
16. James – “Sit Down”
17. The Sweet, “Ballroom Blitz”
18. Suzanne Vega-DNA – “Tom’s Diner”
19. The Bangles – “Manic Monday”
20. Petula Clark – “Downtown”
21. 4 Non Blondes – “What’s Up?”
22. Queen, “Killer Queen”
23. Blondie, “Denis”
24. Dire Straits – “Private Investigations”
25. Elton John – “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time)”
26. Tom Jones – “Delilah”
27. Gloria Gaynor – “Never Can Say Goodbye”
28. Cyndi Lauper – “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”
29. Eddie Cochrane – “Three Steps To Heaven”
30. Bonnie Tyler – “Holding Out For A Hero”
31. Wings – “Let ‘Em In”
32. The Troggs – “Wild Thing”
33. Jimmy Dean – “Big Bad John”
34. Terence Trent D’Arby – “Sign Your Name”
35. Chubby Checker – “Let’s Twist Again”
36. Billy J Kramer And The Dakotas – “Do You Want To Know A Secret”