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‘60 Songs That Explain the ’90s’: 4 Non Blondes, “What’s Up?”

Is it a neo-hippie classic? The most annoying song of the ’90s? Just a straight-up anthem? What’s going on, anyway? Rob explores.

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60 Songs That Explain the ’90s is back for its final stretch run (and a brand-new book!). Join The Ringer’s Rob Harvilla as he treks through the soundtrack of his youth, one song (and embarrassing anecdote) at a time. Follow and listen for free on Spotify. In Episode 111 of 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s—yep, you read that right—we’re covering 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?” Read an excerpt below.

I want you to picture two people, a guy and a lady, in San Francisco. Early ’90s or maybe late ’80s. They’re both young; they’re both hungry for fame and fortune. She’s a waitress, and he’s—I don’t know what he’s doing at this point. He’s tooting around on his motorcycle and antagonizing people. They meet. They form a connection. This is not a romantic connection; this is a songwriters’ connection. The guy and the lady are both aspiring songwriters, and one time they sit in his bedroom, on his bed, and they’ve got a guitar, and they play their songs for each other. Here’s one of the songs he plays.

Well, look who it is! If it isn’t Stephan Jenkins from Third Eye Blind. Mr. “Semi-Charmed Life.” Mr. Walking Breathing Living Cheese himself! Ain’t nobody inspiring or delivering more discouraging words than Stephan Jenkins. He tells this story about trading songs with a waitress who worked down the street from his apartment in San Francisco. He says to Billboard, “I realized years later that the songs we played each other had sold 17 million records.” The lady was Linda Perry. She played him “What’s Up?”

Linda Perry. Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1965. Her mother’s Brazilian, her father’s Portuguese American. As a toddler, she spends a lot of the time in the hospital with major kidney problems. Her teenage years in San Diego are rough for other reasons. In a 2012 episode of the TV biography series Women on Top—great name for that series, no notes—she says, “I was depressed. I was suicidal. I was sick. I was never good enough. I was invisible. All these feelings come up. And it’s not ‘Pity me,’ because all of it I wouldn’t change for one second.” In her Behind the Music episode, Linda talks about being molested by an older half brother; she’s talked about her family struggling with poverty; she’s talked about abusing drugs; she’s talked about a suicide attempt, about near-death experiences. She pushes through all that. In her teenage years, she also realizes that she’s gay. That she wants to make out with girls, as she puts it. So she starts doing that.

She moves to San Francisco. She finds her voice. I don’t mean finds her voice in the clichéd self-help-type way. One day Linda is singing in her apartment, and this voice comes out of her: huge, loud, brassy, unapologetic. Rude, even. A voice to strike fear in the hearts of men. A voice to antagonize. It makes her cry, her own voice, and her roommate rushes in to see why Linda’s crying, but Linda knows what she is now. She’s a rock star. She starts writing songs. She’s doing solo acoustic performances. She’s waiting tables. She’s working checking coats at coat checks. Et cetera. She meets Stephan Jenkins and doesn’t immediately try to throw him out a window: That’s a promising sign for a young, aspiring rock star. Game recognize game, as it were. Let’s get Linda a band, shall we? Hey, remember when this happened?

Remember when Game 3 of the 1989 World Series, in which the Oakland A’s swept the San Francisco Giants, remember when Game 3 was delayed by literally an earthquake? The 6.9 Loma Prieta earthquake? That earthquake also delayed the first 4 Non Blondes rehearsal, according to 4 Non Blondes. That’s a super encouraging sign. It’s a super encouraging sign if a famous earthquake delayed their first rehearsal and an even more encouraging sign if that’s bullshit and they just told interviewers that, because if they’re lying about the earthquake, that means this is a band that understands the power of Rock Mythology.

4 Non Blondes have quite a bit of internal turmoil for a band that puts out one album. They form in San Francisco in 1989. Early lineup, we got Linda Perry on guitar and vocals, Shaunna Hall on guitar, Christa Hillhouse on bass, and Wanda Day on drums. They tell the Great Earthquake Rehearsal Story in 1991 in an interview with the great punk zine Flipside, an interview with the great critic and writer Gary Indiana. That’s cool. All of that is cool. Gary asks Linda what it’s like to be in a band now, and Linda says, “It’s completely different. It’s so much more because when you’re solo you have just yourself, you have no one to fall on, no one to turn around and see any kind of support. Everybody’s watching you. Mind you, I love that, the attention. But with the band, I don’t feel threatened, I love their support knowing that I could just fall down and someone would be there to catch me. So it’s very different, and it’s more fun because I love to rock out, I’m not a hoagie.” Hoagie apparently being Linda’s slang for a lame folk singer type.

Linda also talks a little trash. Of course she does! She says, “People aren’t that stupid to not know what is phony to what is real, and I don’t think some musicians give those people out there credit. But there are those dumb dipshits out there.” And then she mentions one dumb-dipshit song in particular.

Poison! From 1990’s Flesh & Blood, that is the power ballad “Life Goes On,” and Linda ain’t havin’ it. Quote: “I mean, if you watch them and listen to the words, it’s just completely stupid. It’s totally not them, it’s totally completely phony, whoever wrote the words was trying to write those words, they didn’t just come to them. And that’s what I can’t stand, is that type of writing, that you know, where does that come from? There’s nothing in that person that I can feel, by watching them perform this, that they have experienced this. And by all of us”—Linda is referring now to her own band—“you can honestly feel that you’re not being cheated.” End quote. Rude! Linda Perry dissing Poison while being interviewed by Gary Indiana for Flipside magazine. I’m into it.

This is an important thing to know about Linda, right off the rip: She aims to write songs that you can feel, that you can tell she’s truly experienced, and the words, she doesn’t want to write them; she wants them to just come to her. She’s got principles. 4 Non Blondes make a name for themselves playing around San Francisco. A&Rs start sniffing around. They sign to Interscope Records in 1991—before Nirvana’s Nevermind triggers the major-label alt-rock gold rush, mind you. Christa Hillhouse, the bassist, tells, “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.” (She wasn’t.)

Christa goes on. She says, “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.”

To hear the full episode, click here. Subscribe here and check back every Wednesday for new episodes. And to order Rob’s new book, Songs That Explain the ’90s, visit the Hachette Book Group website.