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 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 malleable 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."
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