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'What's Up?' is a protest song about nothing [July 4, 1993]
Plus: AC/DC, Jesus & Mary Chain, and The Verve
Hey, Time Traveller! 👋 Welcome back to July 4th, 1993!
📰 A grim week in music history as The Gits’ singer Mia Zapata is murdered in Seattle. Her killer was identified with DNA in 2003 and died in prison in 2021.
📽️ Bob Hoskins goes down the tubes in the first Super Mario Bros. movie.
📺 And a sad day on TV as BBC cancel their misfit soap opera, Eldorado.
🎶 Number One song in the UK Top 40 is ‘Dreams’ by Gabrielle, but let’s turn our attention to this week’s Number 8…
4 Non Blondes, ’What’s Up’
Spring of 2017 was a tense time. Trump was settling into the White House, Brexit was going full steam ahead, and the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements were at a crucial inflection point.
There were no bystanders anymore. Everyone had picked a side, everyone was angry, and it felt as if we were on the brink of full-scale societal collapse.
And then, Pepsi released an ad with Kendall Jenner.
The ad shows a group of young, beautiful, ethnically diverse people marching in a big street protest. The focus of the protest isn’t clear—all of the banners say things like PEACE and RESPECT and #JoinTheConversation—but a big, meaty wall of cops is still prepared to shut this down.
Our hero, Kendall Jenner, is in the middle of a fashion shoot when she sees the protester. Jenner rips off her wig, joins the crowd, and instantly becomes their leader.
Did Kendall throw the first brick? No. Instead, she takes a delicious can of Pepsi and offers it to one of the cops. He takes a sip and smiles. The other cops smile at him. The protestors high-five each other. World peace is achieved.
The internet’s reaction to this ad was…not positive.
There’s a lot to unpack here, but one egregious detail was the vague nature of the protest:
In 2017, people were protesting about well-defined issues: racism, sexism, institutional violence, the resurging far-right, impending climate catastrophe. Social media was full of people eloquently explaining what they were angry about.
So what’s the point of an ad that shows people protesting about… nothing?
25 years and my life is still
Anyway, the way people felt about that Pepsi ad is how I’ve always felt about ‘What’s Up?’.
By 1993, grunge was deeply entrenched in the mainstream. Grunge had a loose political energy that was part punk (anti-establishment and anti-capitalism) and a little hippy (eco-conscious and socially progressive), but there was no clear Grunge Political Ideology, apart from a vague resentment of The Corporations.
4 Non Blondes were not quite grunge, but they were grunge-adjacent enough to fit into the zeitgeist. And their styling was certainly the kind of thing that was only acceptable during grunge (especially those dreadlocks).
When ‘What’s Up?’ blasted onto the airwaves in 1993, it felt like more of the grunge-ey political discontent, but delivered by someone who can actually sing.
Linda Perry’s voice is huge. On ‘What’s Up?’, she sounds like Eddie Vedder if Eddie Vedder had spent twenty years getting singing lessons from Whitney Houston. Perry’s voice dips and dives throughout ‘What’s Up?’, soaring across the “hey-yay-yey-yeah”s of the chorus, cracking like lightning when she asks “what’s going on?”, and summoning a hurricane when she screams “REVOLUTION!”
But a revolution against what?
‘What’s Up?’ lyrics themselves have a strangely non-specific quality to them, as insubstantial as something written by ChatGPT:
Plus, they’re written in this narrow first-person perspective, with almost every line beginning with “I”. The song doesn’t mention anyone or anything in the exterior world, or even name any specific concepts. It’s a song about feeling angry about, y’know, stuff or whatever.
This is not inherently a bad thing—there are plenty of great songs about abstract ennui. However, the anthemic quality of ‘What’s Up?’ makes it feel like a big state-of-the-nation protest song, like there should be some kind of manifesto here.
Things aren’t helped by the fact that the chorus mentions perhaps the greatest state-of-the-nation protest song of all time, Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’.
Maybe it’s unfair to compare these songs. ‘What’s Going On’ was created in the context of fraught political tensions and a violent battle for civil rights—everyone already knew what was going on.
To judge ‘What’s Up?’, we have to put it in a 90s context and the politics of grunge.
For whatever that means
Grunge, like a lot of youth-oriented cultural movements, was mostly about being angry at your parents.
In the early 90s, American Gen Xers were furious at the generation before them. Boomers had spent their teens and 20s enjoying peace, love, drugs and casual sex; when Boomers turned middle-aged, they voted for Reagan and pulled up the ladder behind them.
In his seminal 90s novel, Generation X, Douglas Coupland wrote:
"Sometimes, I'd just like to mace them. I want to tell them that I envy their upbringings that were so clean, so free of futurelessness. And I want to throttle them for blithely handing over the world to us like so much skid-marked underwear.”
The 90s were The End of History, a new age of neoliberal, post-Cold War peace and prosperity. But that soon felt oppressive to Gen X, who saw nothing ahead except a monotonous life as a drone in the capitalist machine.
In the paper Bleached Resistance: The Politics of Grunge, Thomas C Shevory argues that this was fundamentally reactionary. He says:
That the older generation stole the future and saddled X-ers with what are left of the crumbs was the central theme of Coupland's book. [Coupland] largely ignores the specificities of class, race, and gender. As Andrew Cohen has observed, "What Coupland's young people . . . share is a peculiarly conservative and middle-class disappointment—a sense of entitlement gone sour"
Basically, you can’t feel horrified by middle-class life unless you yourself are middle-class. Grunge politics only spoke to a certain group of people, most of whom were white, male, and from financially stable backgrounds. People from outside those groups did not share grunge’s concerns.
Shevory goes on to write:
“While Kurt Cobain wasn't middle-class, his internal conflicts spoke to a generation of middle-class youth who have found their reduced economic prospects to be intolerable. In response, grunge offered what Sarah Ferguson has labeled the "politics of damage…being damaged is a hedge against the illusory promises of consumer culture.” At the same time it "offers a defense against the claims of gangsta rappers and punk rock feminists". Damage entitles one to a claim of dispossession. At the same time it sanctions an emotional space beyond both resistance and apathy. Early punks knew who the enemy was: authority, order, power, and just about everything else. In the ideology of grunge, the enemy turns out to be the self.”
Living in capitalism is tricky. You might hate capitalism, hate what it does to you, hate what it does to those outside the system. But you also don’t want to leave the system, because capitalism has McDonald’s and Funko Pops.
And so you end up in the eternal liberal paradox, praying for revolution but terrified of change. The unresolved tension becomes internalised, an anxious battle inside your head. You’re always at war with yourself for some undefined reason. You’re angry about… nothing.
Just to get it all out what's in my head
And it’s not like things were all that rosy in 1993.
As mentioned above, this was the week that Mia Zapata was murdered. It was also a year after the LA riots in response to racist police violence. Events likes these would, in 2017, bring popular support to movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, but early 90s grunge kids weren’t that interested.
You can’t really blame 4 Non Blondes for this. As a group of mostly queer women, they were no only aware of the political stakes, but they sang and wrote about it. Songs like ‘Dear Mr. President’ have unambiguous lyrics like:
What kind of father would take his own daughter's rights away?
And what kind of father might hate his own daughter if she were gay?
But that song wasn’t a hit.
Now, it’s always been hard to sell songs with strong political messages. People will tolerate something with twee platitudes like ‘Imagine’, but they pull back when they hear ‘Working Class Hero’. Even Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’ avoids having too many specific details.
However, this specific 90s moment is stuck in a strange kind of anti-politics. We’re angry, but not about anything in particular. We can’t figure out what’s bothering us. We’re on the streets, protesting about nothing.
For this moment, ‘What’s Up?’ is the perfect anthem.
Elsewhere in the charts
[Number 23, new ] AC/DC, ‘Big Gun’
Last Action Hero was a surprise flop, especially considering its dream team of director John McTiernan (Die Hard), screenwriter Shane Black (Lethal Weapon), and a lead performance of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was top of the A-list after Terminator 2.
It’s an okay movie, but people didn’t vibe with its blend of action, comedy, satire and classic rock. AC/DC had the big single from this soundtrack, which also features Def Leppard, Queensryche, Megadeth and Aerosmith
[Number 28 ↓] Deborah Harry, ‘I Can See Clearly’
Judging by the video, the strategy here was to position Debbie Harry as Belinda Carlisle 2.0.
You don’t need to do that. She’s Debbie Harry. Just let her be Debbie Harry.
‘I Can See Clearly’ isn’t a great song, but it does contain a hint of Blondie’s big comeback song, ‘Maria’, and that is a great song.
[Number 30, new] Jesus & Mary Chain, Sound of Speed EP
A slightly confusing tie-in with the Sound of Speed LP, which was a compilation of B-sides and rarities. Anyway, ‘Snakedriver’ is a terrific single, gruffly paying tribute to The Ramones during their Phil Spector era.
[Number 36 ↓] Sting, ‘Fields of Gold’
The fourth single from adult-contemporary juggernaut, Ten Summoner’s Tales. This one vaguely sounds like an Irish trad ballad, except with extremely slick production.
[Number 37, new] David Morales and the Bad Yard Club, ‘Gimme Luv (Eenie Meenie Miny Mo)’
Another pop-reggae song. Personally, I like this more than some of 1993’s bigger hits. It’s fun.
Album of the Week
Verve, A Storm In Heaven
Verve (later known as The Verve) experienced one of the most fascinating evolutions in the 90s.
Most people probably know the story backwards, Memento-style. Their third album, Urban Hymns, was one of the monster megahits of the Britpop era, establishing Richard Ashcroft as one of the last great rock stars.
That caused a lot of people to go back to their second album, A Northern Soul, which contains some incredible hooks, but also has more experimental stuff with big echoey guitars. Ashcroft is still the star here, but the music feels bigger than just him.
Brave souls might then try the debut, A Storm In Heaven, and discover the shocking truth…The Verve are a band. Richard, Nick, Simon and Peter need each other to create these massive, ornate sound structures.
A Storm In Heaven is somewhat genre-defying: a bit prog, a bit psychedelic, touches of country and classic rock.
But if we’re telling the story of the 90s in order, it’s probably best understood as a post-shoegaze album. Like Loveless and Souvlaki, this is designed to be consumed as a single suite of music, ideally on stereo headphones while you sit alone and disassociate.
But there are also hints of what The Verve (and British indie music) will soon become. It’s almost like there’s a classic rock’n’roll album under the surface of A Storm In Heaven, bursting to get out.
All of these conflicting ideas and unresolved tensions are what make this record so special. It’s the sound of people who are very young and almost too talented. They never sounded like this again. I’m not sure they could.
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