Five or six years ago, I made a pretty big mistake in a Houston Press music article, an assignment several writers teamed for titled “The 10 Lamest Bands of the ‘90s.” Never mind that such an article seems sort of mean-spirited, but my totally off-base choice was the one-hit wonder, 4 Non Blondes. I based some of my “criticism” on my disdain for their one big hit, “What’s Up?” The video for the song was an MTV staple in the early 1990s. It inundated the network’s airwaves at roughly the same time MTV debuted its video-killing reality TV show, The Real World.
I really didn’t take to the song on a first listen, so imagine how much less I enjoyed it with each of the dozens of times I came across it while channel surfing past MTV. That’s the attitude I carried about the song for a couple of decades, right up to the day I wrote an unnecessarily snarky paragraph about it and the band for this very space.
Since then, I’ve heard the song lots. It happens to be a favorite sing-along for my wife, sister-in-law and some girlfriends on karaoke nights. Whenever they sing it, it’s with glee and verve, the sort it obviously provided listeners all those years ago. After all, it was a Billboard Top 20 charter in the United States and even more successful overseas. It was written by Linda Perry, one of pop music’s great writers, a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
So, I started paying more attention to “What’s Up?” Besides the fact that the tune is (always has been) an earworm that grows on repeated listens, its lyrics speak simply yet resonantly about the confusion of the world and how easy it might be for people, particularly younger folks, to lose hope in one another or themselves. Its signature line, “What’s going on?” acknowledges we’re all perplexed about life, which is unifying and comforting in its own way, and the song ultimately is hopeful.
A song’s greatness is often marked by its timelessness. If there’s a song that better reflects how people must feel these days, I can’t think of it. I was wrong about “What’s Up?” It’s a classic and it offers us a chance to shout together on karaoke night about how perplexing this modern American life is, and to reassure one another that somehow things will be okay. That’s a great payoff from a five-minute tune. I asked some music folks to share some songs they were once wrong about and they graciously played along. After all, no one is perfect, but maybe a few songs are:
Nick Zaccaria, “Old Town Road”
Nick Zaccaria is pretty busy these days preparing for an album release and planning a West Coast tour. The singer-songwriter’s tunes are catchy and often humorous and his live show is seriously entertaining. He’s been described as “a degenerate charmer,” by Altercation Punk Comedy's JT Habersaat. Zaccaria took a few moments from a stacked schedule to reflect on Lil Nas X’s massive hit, “Old Town Road.”
“I was ready to hate this song. It's a radio hit, my friends tell me it plays a hundred times a day, and something about Billy Ray Cyrus rapping,” said Zaccaria. “Recently, I felt like I may have been the only person that hadn't heard this song, and I wasn’t going out of my way to do so. At least until I heard about the momentum this song was catching.
“It was kicked off the country charts, returned with a Billy Ray Cyrus remix, remained on course to break the record for the longest-standing Number One hit in the country, a bunch of great artists put their own spin on it, and Lil Nas X came out as queer somewhere along the way. This sounds like a win for genre-crossovers, LGBT-inclusivity and a fun poke at new and old country and hip-hop along the way. And when I finally heard the song - that 808 beat and the hook are just way too catchy.”
Half-Drunk, Zaccaria’s new album with Scott Karliner, is due in September and will be available for purchase and streaming on most major platforms.
Dayna Steele, any song by classic rockers Rush
Frequently, the reversal on a song (or many songs in this case) goes from favored to disliked. We might enjoy a tune, but personal connections we attach to songs can make us feel differently about them when things go awry. A bad break-up means lovers hate the song they once cherished as their own, or maybe you can no longer enjoy a song because a rival sports team adopted it as its anthem. That sort of thing.
Houston’s “First Lady of Rock,” Dayna Steele, has such a story. The former KLOL Rock 101 radio personality is one of the hardest working people in this city. She’s a writer whose 101 Ways To Rock Online Dating just dropped, the latest in her ongoing series of motivational books. She’s a motivational speaker, has ventured into politics and her positive influence on fans and followers comes every weekday via Your Daily Success Tip.
Because she values hard work, the worm turned for her when a band, known in part for a song called “Working Man,” disrespected those very folks.
“Anything by Rush. It will always be Rush,” Steele said of her choice. “I took winners from the radio station to see the band one night at The Summit with an opportunity to meet them after the show. The band kept the winners for over two hours. These were working class, hard workers, who needed to be at work early the next morning. Not only did the band keep them waiting, but then they were rude to them when they finally met face-to-face. They forgot who got them where they were at the top. I’ve never forgotten that.”
Kurt Armstrong, “Livin’ La Vida Loca”
Armstrong is the multi-talented, multi-instrumentalist who plays trombone for Austin ska-reggae band Los Kurados and bass for the manic wonder band Hans Gruber and the Die Hards.
“1999, I was barely in middle school. 'Livin’ La Vida Loca' was on the airwaves non-stop. Girls swooned over Ricky Martin, the Latin beats filled every station - and I hated it,” Armstrong admitted. “Flash forward 15-odd years and someone I was hanging out with brought up the song. I watched the music video and laughed as I realized how fun the song is. The horn line alone is one of the catchiest melodies. The song is filled with a fascinating mixture of wannabe Salsa, alt-rock, pop and, crazy to say, some ska guitar.”
Armstrong and the rest of the Die Hards are hard at work this fall, thanks to this week’s Paper + Plastick release of their latest album, Hans Gruber and the Die Hards 2. A couple of tunes from the album have released as singles, including the infectious “Furbaby,” the story of a girlfriend who “loves her dog more than me.”
“I’ll leave the song on and listen without shame anytime I hear it,” Armstrong says of Ricky Martin’s megahit. “Dumb lyrics and all.”
Maryanna Sokol, “Party in the USA”
Maryanna Sokol is amazing songwriter (check out last year’s album Sea & Scape for yourself) and is also a music therapist. She described her work as using “music as a tool to help address goals specific to people with neurologic disorders.”
“I have a lot of these experiences because of my MT work. I would hear these songs, on the radio or in passing ad nauseam and would roll my eyes at the simplicity, the repetition, the overproduction, the over-saturation and bandwagon popularity,” Sokol shared. “But then I’d have a music therapy client who hadn’t made goal progress in weeks, who would choose that song to sing or dance or jam along to, we would play it together, and they’d have some sort of powerful breakthrough moment.
“’Party in the USA’ sticks out to me,” she continued. “I had one client who struggled to vocalize, and one of their goals was to use their voice appropriately when cued. Maybe three or four sessions went by without any progress toward that goal, but then we tried ‘Party in the USA’ and she was able to get the “A” out every time! It was a monumental session, and now every time I play it or hear it, I can think about that.”
Sokol is a native Houstonian who has lived and worked in New York and elsewhere and she recently announced her work is taking her out of Houston once again. Fans will have a chance to catch her at this Friday’s The Goodbye Party at the Secret Group. Sokol will share the stage with Ryan Adam Wells & The Mornin' Shakes, The Last Human, Howard and the Nosebleeds and DJ Terrace.
“We’ve got four full bands, a DJ, a sonic boom psychedelic light show going all night and three local artists/crafters selling their handmade products,” Sokol said. “It’s the show I’ve always wanted to book but never had enough motivation until now. I’m pretty stoked!”