Since the release of “What’s Up?” in 1993, the 4 Non Blondes hit has solidified its place as a call-to-action as well as an anthem of hope. Now, in a time of great uncertainty and isolation brought on by coronavirus, 16-year-old singer-songwriter Willa Amai has framed the song for a new generation as the question posed in the chorus rings louder than ever: “What’s going on?”
Written by former 4 Non Blondes lead singer Linda Perry, “What’s Up?” quickly climbed the charts worldwide, peaking at No. 14 in the U.S. and reaching No. 1 in 13 other countries. Its music video became just as prolific — counting over 830 million views on YouTube — and the band’s debut album, “Bigger, Better, Faster, More!” sold six million copies worldwide.
When Amai decided that she wanted to cover the iconic ballad, she had the ultimate confidant — Perry also happens to be her mentor of four years and the co-owner of the record label to which Amai is signed, We Are Hear. In fact, Amai was initially attracted to performing the song in order to get to know Perry better.
“I knew from the first time I heard it that it was a really important song to [Linda],” Amai tells Variety. “I feel like every artist has a song once in a blue moon where they grow as an artist writing it, and I could hear that [“What’s Up?”] was that for her.”
Amai made a couple of notable changes; the instrumentals are stripped down and her voice is softer and more subdued. In contrast to the original’s booming, belting rock essence, Amai’s cover strikes a desolate, haunting chord. Watch the video below.
Despite the joy she found in performing her version for Perry, Amai had no plans to record it until Perry insisted. Says Amai, who came onto the scene with another cover — Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” (used to great effect in a 2017 Quickbooks campaign): “I was sort of taken aback, but I am so grateful that she let me be a part of this song because it’s bigger than her and it’s bigger than me.”
Amai knew that she wanted to use the song to spread a message and that the music video would be a key part of that. Earlier this year, she enlisted director Tyler Brown, son of We Are Hear partner Kerry Brown, and producer Dexter Demme, son of late director Ted Demme, both 18, to help find a cause that represents their generation.
At first, Brown and Demme planned to use the clip to spotlight the problem of gun violence in the U.S. Before COVID-19 struck, they shot an entire music video centered around it. But then, as Brown sent Amai the first cut, “the world shut down.”
“I realized that [gun violence] is just a problem for America, so we ended up changing the video so it could represent everyone in the entire world,” Brown says. “This is a global struggle that everyone is going through at the same time, and it’s insane because nothing like this has happened in the modern day.”
Using footage of Amai from the original video, Brown and Demme added lip-syncing faces of people of all ages from all over the world — Slovakia, the Dominican Republic, Argentina, India, Germany, the Netherlands, South Korea and more — singing along with Amai, inspiring a feeling of virtual togetherness amongst self-isolation.
“Music is the glue that holds us together because music is in all different languages, and even if you don’t know the language it can still affect you,” Amai says. “In this time, when everybody is alone, we need something to make us feel closer to one another. That’s what I wanted the song to do for people, and I think the video sends that message.”
By including clips of people from all over the world, Brown hoped to incite that the virus is something humans can overcome through solidarity. With over one million views in the 10 days it’s been online, others seem to agree.
“Even in the darkest times, people are still finding ways to do their normal routines and live their lives, even though it’s hard,” Brown says. “It’s about human perseverance.”