“What’s Up?”: The Worst Song Of The ’90s

Twntyfiveyrs And This Song Is Still…Irritating.

Watch, if you dare.  Note that I didn’t say one word about the video.

What, you thought I was only going to write about songs I liked?  Where’s the fun in that?

What Is The Worst Song Of The ‘90s?

Hands down, it’s “What’s Up?” by 4 (not Four, mind you) Non Blondes.

I’m not alone in this assessment, either. I first posted some of the thoughts in this blog on the Facebook thread of a veteran San Diego songwriter who posed this same question. What followed was a gleeful piling on by myriad commenters until it occurred to someone that Linda Perry, the singer and songwriter of “What’s Up?” was a FB friend of the OP and might see the thread, at which point it was swiftly deleted.

Earlier today, when I posed this same question on MY Facebook – blatantly trolling for eyeballs for this here post – “What’s Up?” was the song that got the most, and most vociferous, responses. I mean, it wasn’t even close (see below). It got seven times more votes than the runner-up “The Macarena,” which at least motivated dorky white people to dance (and which I myself heard about one-tenth as many times as “What’s Up?”).

It ain’t just me. People hate this song.

“What’s Up?” is the shittiest song of the ‘90s. It bears repeating. So I will. “What’s Up?” is the shittiest song of the ‘90s. Mm, that felt good. In general though, just saying you don’t like a song is not worth spending any further time on. Music’s a highly subjective thing. I prefer the Outfield to U2, so there you go. I can’t defend that. It’s just what I like.

There are exceptions, however. When you can diagram, in excruciating detail, the exact ways and reasons a song goes horribly wrong, it should be documented for future generations of singer/songwriters. And I’m just the guy to do it, and this is just the song for it, because “What’s Up?” is like a textbook example of how not to write and record a song.

Respect where it’s due: After inflicting “What’s Up?” on the world, 4 Non Blondes singer Linda Perry went on to have a hugely successful career as a songwriter and producer. Photo courtesy Songwriter’s Hall of Fame; photo by Kristin Burns.

This is particularly amazing because let’s acknowledge right here that after she got this tune out of her system, Linda Perry went on to have an impressive – nay, outstanding – career as a writer and producer, coming up with hits for Christina Aguilera, Gwen Stefani, and the iconic “Get The Party Started” by Pink. She’s written songs for both Celine Dion and Cheap Trick for chrissakes, not to mention Robbie Williams, Melissa Etheridge, Britney Spears, Alicia Keyes, KT Tunstall…there’s a list as long as my arm. She’s practically the Diane Warren of the new Millennium…and I’m not even getting into her production work. Her resumé as a successful songwriter is undeniable. Full stop.

We also have a few friends in common, so if a comrade or supporter of Ms. Perry would like to claim that this blog is just the bitter and jealous rantings of a marginal singer/songwriter who never made it, I say:  “hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, I say hey…go for it.”  Because it will then allow me to get on with the business of eviscerating this song, which I’ve waited twentyfiveyearsofmy life to do…and while it’s very true that I too made horrible music in my ‘20s, millions of people were never forced to listen to it, particularly not screamed into one’s ear by a pack of drunk sorority girls at a sports bar. So there’s that.

And thus, let’s start in on “What’s Up?’, shall we?

Oh, The Humanity

People really, really hate this song. In an informal survey of the worst songs of the ’90s on Facebook, “What’s Up?” got 7 times more votes than the nearest competition, “The Macarena.” This is a not-at-all exhaustive sampling of comments.

Gah…when I conceived this blog it didn’t occur to me I’d have to listen to this song again. I guess I just figured it was gouged into my head and I could somehow avoid that. Oh well, here we go. Off to youtube. The things I’ll do for Patreon pledges

Now, when I was writing this post in my head, here’s what I had in mind for the beginning: “The song starts out innocuously enough, with an acoustic guitar strumming up a mellow loping groove…”

My memory apparently filled in something that wasn’t there, however, because the acoustic guitar that opens the song doesn’t groove at all – it’s stiff and awkward (DING DING A DING DING A DING A DING DING GA DA DAH). It doesn’t break time, exactly, but it’s the kind of playing you hear around the middle slot of open mic night, and putting it front and center off the bat puts us in a much more unsettled place than I think the song is going for.

But there will be far worse rhythmic sins to follow very shortly, so let’s move on. By the way, if you want to learn to play this song, once you’ve mastered these four chords (three, actually; the last one is the same as the first), you’re done.

A discreet rim shot and generic, but lazily appropriate, electric guitar line joins in on the second go-‘round, and we get within striking distance of a nice, neo-hippie campfire vibe. OK, you think. I’m chill. This isn’t so bad.

And then…the singing starts. And one line in, the song is on my bad side.

The First Verse

Twentyfiveyearsandmy laf is still…

I’m sorry, what?  You had all the time in the world to start singing the song, 16 bars in fact, but you let beat one, bar one, of the verse go right by you and then cram in an unnecessarily specific mouthful of difficult-to-sing syllables to get to the end of the bar on time?

That’s not how you start out a song you wrote yourself and already demoed once before coming to the studio. That’s how you sing when you’ve blown your cue. I can visualize this exchange in the studio:

Producer:  OK, we’ll just roll it back and you can sing it again.

Linda Perry:  What? Why? I liked that take.

Producer:  It was great, Linda, you just missed your cue at the beginning there.

Linda Perry:  No, that’s how it’s supposed to be.

Producer:  What? Really? Um, uh, OK, rolling…

Trying to getup that…great big hill of hope…for a destination…

OK, so let’s allow that this is something we all feel. Sure. But she’s been looking for “twntyfve [sic] years?”  Linda Perry was 27 when this song was released. So, when she’s in her diapers crapping her pants, she’s already feeling the ennui, which carries through to kindergarten, third grade…”What am I going to do with my life?”  Dang. Now that’s a rough childhood.

Now, lest you think “Adam, come on, she was speaking for a generation, the angst of being in your mid ‘20s, come on man.” Well, Ms. Perry and I are roughly the same age, in fact I’m slightly younger. I WAS the target market. I wasn’t buying it then, either. When you’re 25 you’re not supposed to know where your life is going, and most of us knew that. That freakout is what 29 1/2 is for. We definitely didn’t obsess over it when we were two.

That sense of self-importance, of unnecessary and unwarranted drama, and complaining loudly about nothing specific (not to mention the persistent arhythmia) is at the center of what makes “What’s Up?” so profoundly irritating… it’s all right there in the first line. And as it happens, it’s one of the most trenchant lyrics in the song. It only goes downhill from here.

I realized quickly when I knew I should that the wooowuuuw….

Whoa, what happened there?  Tape got hung up on the reel?

…rld was meant for this brotherhood of man…

OK, cool! So there’s a specific point here, All right, I can get behind that…

…for whatever that means.

Whoops, nope. Never mind. Forget it.

First Pre-Chorus

And here comes the pre-chorus. Now let’s give some props here: this is quite a good melody, covering a lot of ground, and we start to see where Ms. Perry is going to have the songwriting chops to write a funky dance hit one day. But on this particular day, Ms. Perry negotiates the difficult melody by introducing us to four different vocal personas that exist in an uneasy alliance with one another – an alliance that will break down completely in verse two; more on that later. Let’s for now focus once more on the spastic rhythmic delivery:

And I -dramatic pause- I am feeling!
A little peculiar…

What the heck is THAT?  That kind of scansion, of that lyric, isn’t rock ‘n’ roll. That is a ‘30s dance hall diva with a case of the vapors about to have a fainting spell.

Erm, anyhows, moving on…again, difficult as it may be for now I’m going to ignore the schizophrenic singing (we’ll get to it) to focus again on the beats of the reading as it were:

I get real high and I (big pause) scremfrmthtopofmylungs…

Wait, what?  WHAT? WHO PHRASES A LYRIC LIKE THAT?  The person who wrote the song, cutting their first make-or-break album?  No!  Someone inebriated who doesn’t know the song reading the lyrics off a karaoke screen, that’s who. For Pete’s sake…

What’s going on?

Damned if I know! But now that we’ve pivoted to the chorus it’s not what’s up, you see. Because even when it comes to the title and presumably main point of the song, we can’t even choose between two vague meaningless questions. It’s a mystery wrapped within an enigma with a fine patina of bullshit masquerading as philosophy.

The Hook, Oh That Hook…

“Adam, how many hit songs have YOU written? [answer: none, less than none in fact. Negative none.] A lot of people loved that song, it was a huge hit. If it’s so bad, how could that happen?”

Simple. The song has an incredibly infectious, anthemic, monster hook. Absolutely undeniable. It’s one of the great hooks of all time. I submit that any song, properly promoted by a major label, singing any lyrics whatsoever (the drink menu at Boardner’s would suffice), with this gargantuan slice of sing-a-long hook-o-rama would have become a hit in 1992 or probably any other time. Full props for that.

Such an incredible gift of inspiration having come to Ms. Perry, a hook guaranteed to resonate everywhere, what message does she choose to link to that earworm of mass connection?

And I say/said/sayin’ (I can’t tell, it sounds like “sem”)…

Yes, we presumed it was you talking. One of your four unrelated vocal personas, at least…

Hey, yay, yay, yeh-hay…

Yes, OK, you have my attention.

Hey, yay, yay…

Yes, WHAT?

I said HEY!

Yes, I heard you the first seven times. What do you want?

What’s going on?

That’s IT?!?

How the hell should I know?  Lady, I’m BUSY!

There’s an old Gary Larsen cartoon where a guy invents a machine that translates what dog barks mean, and they all translate to “Hey! Hey! Hey!” I have to wonder if that wasn’t the inspiration for this song – but consider then that the actual meaning (or lack thereof) of this chorus is thus exactly the same as dogs barking.  Incidentally, there’s a white dog named Mowgli that lives downstairs from my apartment and he barks at me all the time, even though I’ve lived here nearly six weeks. And Mowgli manages to communicate far more — and is more pleasing to the ear — than the chorus of “What’s Up?”.

To be fair, besides having a monster hook, this chorus does do one other thing a chorus should do. It sums up the overall “point” of the song – which is to insistently tug on your sleeve, demand your attention because there’s presumably something important and profound to say, and when it finally can no longer be ignored…*shrug*.  Nothin’.

Now that’s universal.

Good heavens, there’s still three minutes to go?  I have to take a break. Be right back.

Adam Goes To The Beach

Ah, that was nice. Beautiful sunny day, waves rolling in…a flat white (ok, two), breakfast burrito, allowed myself a slice of black forest cake for dessert. The young barrista flirted with me paying the bill. Ah, life is good. Now I’m back at my place. What was I doing again?

GAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!

OK I’m fine now.  Hitting unpause as the first chorus ends…

THE SECOND V…

Wait, there’s ANOTHER chorus?  With zero development, just more heys, less stridently sung this time? We’re already 1:45 into the song, do we really need this drilled into our heads again? We’re going to radio with this, right? Shouldn’t it be under five minutes long? Please?

Repeat chorus over, the lazily generic but entirely appropriate lead guitar comes back in, Ms. Perry graces us with a few blessedly relaxed sounding “oohs”, and there’s some relief from the toxic onslaught. OK, I’m cool. Just keep it right here, gang, and I think I can make it through the next…there’s STILL nearly three minutes left?  How is that POSSIBLE?

REALLY, THE SECOND V…

No, when I said “keep it right there” I didn’t mean repeat the whole lazy guitar ooh thing again for another 8 bars, pointlessly, repetitively. I just meant keep it relaxed and appropriate and it won’t harsh my buzz so m…

OMG, THE SECOND VERSE…

“What’s Up?” aurally conjures up this scene from the Cecil B. DeMille film “The Greatest Show On Earth” which at least inspired Stephen Spielberg to become a filmmaker. So there’s that.

…is where it REALLY falls apart. Holy hell.

So I had mentioned before that Ms. Perry employs at least four different vocal personas navigating the admittedly wide melodic range of this song. The only thing they have in common with one another is they’re all affected and histrionic, totally undercutting the mood of post-hippie emotional honesty and universal brotherhood that the song (I think – with the range of vague platitudes offered thus far it’s so hard to tell) is going for.

Up until the first chorus if we’re generous we can squint our eyes and excuse this because it’s a tough melody to sing and it was the ‘90s and everyone was so emo, y’all. But the uneasy rapprochement of Ms. Perry’s Jekyll-and-Hyde-and-Edith Piaf-and-Jerry Lewis schizophrenic vocal stylings completely breaks down into open warfare in the second verse, where she doubles down on each overly dramatic vocal persona, lurching from one to another repeatedly mid-stanza…

Right from the get-go, the nails are on the blackboard:

And I tr(choke)iee…

Seriously, you do have to triieee to get a break in your voice that audible, sounds that unpleasant, and throws your pitch off so much. I’m not even joking; you’re pushing a lot of air down into your throat for that. No matter how deeply felt, it comes off sounding totally inauthentic.

Oh my GOD do I…

Owww!  And suddenly it’s that annoying person sitting next to you at Starbucks who is complaining loudly to their bestie that they got the wrong number of pumps of cinnamon dolce syrup in their latte.

Trieeeee…

Thankfully no break this time, just that throaty vibrato we’ve already enjoyed so much and so frequently earlier on, more suggestive of (bad) opera than rock ‘n’ roll.

I try (gasp) all the tiyeeeemm….

OK, decent grab at the first half of the line, less offensive warbly vibrato. Keep it right there!  Don’t lose that vibe!

Nope, five words have been sung…must turn completely into another singer now…

In this in-sti-tu-SHUUHUNNN!

Sorry, I got so caught up in the bad singing I forgot to comment that all of this needlessly dramatic affectation is in service of absolutely nothing but its own navel. I’m seeing no indication online that Ms. Perry was ever in a mental hospital (indeed, she seems to be a very canny and together person), so I have to assume that she’s talking about *gasp* the world we live in. It’s a madhouse, you see!  A madhouse!  And she’s trying all the time, oh my God does she!

Remember, this was 1992, not 2018, when a 20-something American could still get a good paying job right out of college, the European Union was forming, the Soviet bloc was opening up to democracy, and climate change and environmental degradation was something people were warning could kill us 30 years down the road, not three. And we complain Millennials are spoiled! But even then, I can vouch as a fellow member of Gen-X, this wasn’t speaking to us, or for us. This just came off as some random person being petulant and demanding.

Speaking of demanding…on we go:

And I pr(choke)ayeee…

Me too. I’m praying soo hard right now.

Oh my GOD do I…

Oh my God, indeed.

…prayeeee

About a quarter tone flat but…gah, who cares at this point.

I PRAY FOR SINKS ALL DAY!

And suddenly we’re Sleater-Kinney. OK, I guess, if you want to get all aggro this late in the game, fine, be my guest, it’s the ‘90s.

And yes, I would imagine she’s actually praying for strength – because of course the whole point of the song is how the singer is oppressed and hassled by, well, something, oh my GAWD is she – but if she really was praying for sinks, I’d at least be charmed by how random that is…and right about now I do feel like I need a good wash.

FOR A REVO-LU-SHA-UUUHHHN!

And now the vocal blows right past Sleater-Kinney into full-blown Lemmy, once again pushing the emotional temperature from where it momentarily feels authentic into something that feels more like a bludgeoning.

And of course, the aggro vocal persona which suddenly appears on this line and nowhere else up to this point (and only a few times later) is in service of clamoring for A REVOLUTION.

*Yawn*  Seriously?

Against what, for what, exactly?  For an incoherent set of histrionic, self-centered vague complaints articulating basically nothing but its own sense of grievance?  (Some would say much later we did wind up with exactly that, so mission accomplished I guess. Thanks a lot, 4 Non Blondes!)

With due respect to Tracy Chapman (who at least knew that it sounds like a whisper), when talking about revolutions, John Lennon was the only one who got right to the point:  “We’d all love to see the PLAN.”  Planning requires forethought, the idea that you’re going to build something after you’re done tearing down what others have built that is not to your satisfaction. Perhaps now that a revolution has been proposed, we’ll hear some specifics in the second pre-chorus:

Second Pre-Chorus, Worse Than The First

Ah, nope, I see we’re going with “repeat what we did the first time, just more annoying.”

And sew I criey sumTYMES when I’m lying in BED just tew get it all out while it’s in my head and ah…

To save time, I shall color-code the various Linda Perrys that show up to sing these two lines:
red = semi-normal rock singer voice, normal volume
green = opera sweet falsetto voice, usually under pitch, quiet
blue = nasty nasal rock voice, roughly in tune, loud
grey = throaty overmodulated opera singer, very loud.

But there’s no color for this:

[big dramatic pause] I AM FEELING!

In case you thought that the whole ‘30s grand dame diva routine in the first pre-chorus was just in-the-moment-spontaneity, she doubles down on that too, sounding even more like an overacting Broadway star demanding a bigger dressing room, resolving to…

A little peculiar…

Oh my God, do I pray you’ll keep singing like you did for these three words! Where has THIS singer been this whole time? This is really nice, if a little flat. Your natural voice is nice! I believe this voice! Use this voice, Linda! It draws me in! Use this voice!

Of course, it never returns. The schizophrenic vocal tag team starts right back up again:

And sew I wake in the MAWNING and I step outSIDE and I take a deep breath and I GET REAL HIGH AND I scrmfrmthetpofmylungs WHAT’S GOING ON!!!

I’m out of colors. I guess we’ll make the Lemmy-Kinney cameo purple. The mouthful of marbles that passes for screaming at the top of one’s lungs is at once more articulated and more egregiously jumbled than the first pass. That’s development I guess.

CHORUS, CHORUS, CHORUS, END! END!

A minute and a half left still…  well, at least there’s that big old hook. How many times does it go on?

Um, well a lot. Just keep playing “hey yay-yay-yeh-hah” in the back of your head – yeah, I know, it already is, sorry about that – while I touch on some of the highlights:

More of the heys are in solid tune this time. Well, that’s pleasant to hear. Too bad about the you said heys and what’s going ons.

On the second go ‘round of the chorus, something cool finally happens. The band in the background starts singing the pre-chorus in unison as counterpoint to the endless “hey-yays.”  For the first time I can visualize the all for one, one for all Five Man Electrical Band post-hippie vibe I think this song was shooting for. Most significantly, when they get to that part of the pre-chorus the counterpoint vocals do not attempt to scrmfrmthetpoftheirlungs – why’s that?  Maybe because the rest of the band wisely recognized that cadence to be UNSINGABLE?  Maybe?

And now it’s a third go ‘round for hey-yay-yay. The counterpoint vocals continue their pleasant counterpointing, and Ms. Perry goes for an aggro high note – YAY! YAY! YAY! – because of course we haven’t heard enough heys or yeahs. Coming down off this – “ew what’s going on” – we even get a new character that sounds like Geddy Lee. This whole outburst is reasonably convincing by early ‘90s standards, but the song has now reached its climax by again, saying absolutely nothing, just ever more loudly and insistently than it has already done.

Let count the heys and yays now…40 in all. Yow!  I mean…yay! You sure got my attention. Yup.

Tom Servo speaks for all of us.

END!  PLEASE END!

Ah…OK. Finally done with the heys and yays I guess. Ah now, this is a very convincing shift in dynamics. We’re back to the pleasantly generic hippie guitar and Ms. Perry’s almost soothing (I said almost) “oohs.”  Phew, OK. Namaste. Slowing down to an ending and…

Huh? We finally had a groove, at long last, and an appropriate ending!  Why suddenly switch back to a stiff solo acoustic guitar in a completely different rhythm?  How many different lurching pointless shifts can one song encompass?

The focus shifts back down to Ms. Perry, still throaty but at least less self-consciously affected, repeating again about the twntyfiveyears, the great big hill of hope for a destination…thus ending as we began: wrapped up in an outsized sense of self-importance and desire to make oneself heard without ever telling us what was so god damned important, and what in the world the rest of us are supposed to do about it…except I guess sing along mindlessly.  Life sucks because…well, it just DOES, alright?

What’s going on?  No one knows, I guess. Revolution, yeah. That’s deep, man.

So hey-yay-hay, the song’s over now…”What’s Up?” 

Not much.

4 thoughts on ““What’s Up?”: The Worst Song Of The ’90s

  1. Until I watched the video, I couldn’t have hummed the melody to this classic(?) tune to save my life. I guess the song never bothered me all that much and I’ll admit I think I might have admired the singer’s power and enthusiasm when it first hit the air. DSFDF 😁

  2. Sirius is piped in to the store I manage. I have been tortured with this song numerous times recently. And noticed people around me, people I like, even, singing along.

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