The 4 Non Blondes’ 1992 Hit ‘What’s Up?’ Has Since Become a Queer Anthem
In 1992, the American rock group 4 Non Blondes released “What’s Up?,” a song that has since become a sort of queer anthem. Since its release 30 years ago, the track has popped up unexpectedly in LGBTQ films, TV series and a viral video or two. But let’s take a quick look at how “What’s Up?” went from ‘90s rock hit to anthem for LGBTQ everywhere.
1992 – “What’s Up?” Debuts as a Rock Hit from an All-Lesbian Band
Naturally, the song was already kind of queer from its initial creation because 4 Non Blondes was an all-lesbian band. Frontwoman Linda Perry, bassist Christa Hillhouse, guitarist Shaunna Hall and drummer Wanda Day all identified as lesbians when the song came out. Day and Hall had previously been members of a band called The Lesbian Snake Charmers before joining 4 Non Blondes.
The song appeared on 4 Non Blondes’ first album Bigger, Better, Faster, More! And even though most people refer to the song as “What’s Going On?,” the band deliberately titled it “What’s Up?” to avoid being confused with Marvin Gaye’s 1971 song “What’s Going On.”
The song itself is about trying to feel OK in an oppressive society. Here’s a sample of the lyrics:
25 years and my life is still / trying to get up that great big hill of hope / for a destination…. / I try all the time in this institution … / I pray every single day for a revolution / And so I cry sometimes when I’m lying bed / just to get it all out, what’s in my head. / And I, I’m feeling a little peculiar. / And so I wake in the morning and I step outside / and I take a deep breath and I get real high / and I scream from the top of my lungs, ‘What’s going on?’
As LGBTQ people experience greater amounts of oppression and mental illness than the average person, 4 Non Blondes’ song immediately became an anthem for self-love, sanity (and a little screaming) in a repressive age.
Here’s the original music video for 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?”:
2005 – He-Man goes viral with a campy electro-pop cover
Nearly 10 years later, “What’s Up?” became popular in gay and geek circles when two animators at Slackcircus Studios synced up animation from the ‘80s-era He-Man cartoons with a campy electro-dance cover of “What’s Up?”
The music video features muscular superhero Prince Adam dancing on a ballroom floor, trading flirty texts with his buddy and singing in an exaggerated falsetto while rainbow sparkles fly rapidly in the background.
The video’s brief intro also has He-Man introducing himself and his “kitty, Mr. Cringer-Pants, the most cutest kitty in the universe” before mentioning his own “fabulous secret powers.” At that point, he bursts into a slow, melancholy rendition of the song’s opening before the beat drops.
Even though the video laughs at He-Man’s exaggerated effeminacy, He-Man was already a very homoerotic cartoon series, and many gay men shared the video for its campy, over-the-top sensibility.
Here’s that electro-dance He-Man cover of 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?”:
2015 – Sense8 reclaims the song as an anthem for struggling outsiders
When the Wachowski sisters first released Sense8 in June 2015, it took a while for viewers to realize it was the most queer sci-fi series of all time. It became most clear in Season 1, Episode 6, when most of the show’s telepathic characters participate in a sexually fluid, free-for-all orgy.
But in Season 1, Episode 4, the Wachowskis helped solidify the mental and emotional bond between their eight telepathically linked protagonists through a musical interlude in which all eight characters start singing “What’s Up?”
While an Icelandic DJ involved with drug dealers listens to the song on headphones, a German thief sings it at karaoke bar and all of the other characters start singing along, even though they’re all located in different countries and not yet completely aware of each others’ existence.
During the musical montage, a straight Indian woman sings the song on a rooftop while contemplating her arranged marriage with a man she doesn’t love, a closeted Mexican actor sings the song while in bed with his gay lover and their female best friend and a trans woman sing the lyrics while awaiting a surgical lobotomy requested by her transphobic mother.
The scene became one of the series’ best known moments. In Season 2, Episode 5, the aforementioned Icelandic DJ plays a remix of the song in a dance club. And while the song never appeared in the series again, Perry herself performed the song at a live-screening of the series finale on June 7, 2018.
Here’s the group singalong of 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?” from Sense8, Season 1:
2018 – The teens of The Miseducation of Cameron Post wonder “What’s Up?”
Adolescence is already confusing enough without religious zealots forcing you to say that your “same-sex attraction” is a mental illness caused by “lack of physical affection from my father” and “too much bonding with mom over feminine activities.” But that’s exactly what happens to the teenagers portrayed in the dramatic conversion therapy flick The Miseducation of Cameron Post.
In the film, the titular character’s guardian sends her to an ex-gay boarding school after she’s discovered kissing a girl. The children are then monitored round the clock as they’re forced to participate in mandatory group therapy, encouraged to do “gender neutral” activities like hiking and are made to explain the roots of their same-sex attraction in hopes of “curing” it.
The film is surprisingly funny and nuanced with wry gender-fluid teenagers undermining the adults’ unrelenting attempts to control their sexual feelings and self-expression — but then you realize that such ex-gay programs remain legal in a huge percentage of U.S. states.
Nevertheless, at one point, when the teens are told to peel potatoes in the school’s kitchen for dinner, Miss Post grabs a potato masher, climbs on top of a table and starts singing along to, you guessed it, 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?”
The moment is short-lived, but the brief scene of rebellion re-establishes the song’s thematic resonance of queer resistance in the face of overwhelming oppression. It also provides a moment of rapturous joy for LGBTQ characters stuck in a world where they’re told to rid themselves of their natural desires for their own good.
Faced with an un-winnable situations, imprisoned for merely liking people of the same-sex, these kids take a moment to scream at the top of their lungs, “What’s going on?!!”
When will the track next pop up in pop culture? Who’s to say, really, but we’d bet on any day now.
What do you think of 4 Non Blondes’ ‘What’s Up?’ as a queer anthem?
This story was originally published on Aug. 11, 2018. It has since been updated.