To avoid any conflict with the song by Marvin Gaye, Linda Perry and company renamed their beautiful, angsty, anthemic (1993) single to “What’s up?” But it’s all about that question from 1971, and about the knowing confusion, the justifiable frustration and alienation of the young. That’s at least how it sounds. One of the original 4 Non Blondes, Christa Hillhouse, says it’s a mistake to read too much into it. Linda was just playing guitar down the hall from Christa when she wrote it, and it was so good, Christa thought, she stopped having sex and ran down the hall to find her. It happened organically, naturally—the song writing, the questioning about that song. Linda Perry was afraid it had come from somewhere else, and asked Christa if she had borrowed some of it from others. And that’s a key. Good to great art often gives the appearance of pre-existence. That it must have always been, even to the author. This seems especially true with music — even more so with Rock and Pop. And if a song gets someone to stop what they’re doing in the bedroom, chances are pretty good it’s going to be special.
The title “What’s up” sounds entirely too friendly, casual, easy going and it doesn’t fit this song at all. At least to me. Ironically, when the song is covered by others, especially on talent shows, the powers that be seem intent on making it friendly and casual, as they try to remove the angst, the anger and the potential threat inherent in the lyrics and musical variations. The quickest way to do this, of course, is to remove the line that calls for a revolution. That’s a no no on TV. Unless it can be done in such a way that alters the meaning, like a “revolution” in product development, or in the way new content is delivered to consumers.
It’s an old story, already a shadow of itself. Rock used to have revolutionary powers, but was co-opted long ago. We’re several decades past that co-opting, and were already, give or take, two decades past it when “What’s up?” came out. So I listen to it with nostalgia and regret. I listen to it for a host of reasons, one of most important being to catch a spark of something that was once genuinely, authentically in the air. And the listener hears this, hears that spark and more. Catch fire.