Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself after airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.
Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians’s “What I Am”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #7 in March 1989
By 1989, shrewder programming directors sensed rumbles from college radio stations. R.E.M. had had two consecutive platinum albums and a pair of top ten singles. Depeche Mode had sold out the Rose Bowl the year before. Suzanne Vega’s “Luka” and The Church’s “Under the Milky Way” became grocery store standards. The Cure’s #2 success with “Lovesong” peeked beyond a distant corner.
With their hats, curious name, and jam band ethos, Edie Brickell and New Bohemians presaged the Dave Matthews Band and Blues Traveler by five years but surpassed them in genteelness. If New Bohemians jammed, it was for the sake of guests at a “Meet the Honors College Dean!” event on the quad. Their debut album was called Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars and the music did nothing so impolite. But its success was instant and impressive: by the time its chart run ended it had gone double platinum and peaked at #4 on the Billboard album chart, thanks to “What I Am,” which also sashayed up the Hot 100.
Hooks matter for good and bad song alike, and “What I Am” boasts a hook that only a person whose jaw’s been shot off couldn’t karaoke. But I suspect a phenomenon just below the surface ensured its success. In 1988, a majority of the electorate decided George H.W. Bush was a safer bet than the hapless Michael Dukakis. “Safer bet” mattered this decade, for after spending the early eighties frightened of Ronald Reagan’s bellicosity the septuagenarian suddenly emerged as a peacemaker open to talks with the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev saved Reagan, and as his own popularity tumbled at home Reagan and the new president-elect returned the favor by allowing the Soviet general secretary to stand beside them on daises in Governors Island and Malta. The way the electorate read the ’88 election was, Reagan fucked up Iran-Contra, but he’s old, and besides, the world hasn’t blown up and I still have a job; why trust the scowling squirrel in the tank?
I provide this brief lesson in electoral politics because another artist profited from the cultural stand-patness. In fall 1988, Bobby McFerrin took a prodigious experiment in layered vocalizing, grafted it to a moronic hook, and called it “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” The character in Edie Brickell and New Bohemians’ “What I Am” basks in a similar kind of sunny ignorance. “I’m not aware of too many things/ I know what I know if you know what I mean,” the opening goes over a brisk folk-influenced acoustic riff. As a song “What I Am” has craft: verses, bridge, chorus, each bearing a melodic stamp by which to remember it. The craft is the Achilles heel: that bridge contains the indelible lines, “Shove me in the shallow water/Before I get too deep,” and Brickell imbues them with the air of having found a long lost dime under the car seat. Intentional, its author pressed. “‘What I Am’ is a smart-alec’s way out of a deep discussion on the universe as it relates to the self,” Brickell explained in a songbook included with the single.
A homosexual for whom 97 percent of pop songs are not for or about me, I don’t confuse narrative with autobiography. Joni Mitchell’s comments and two generations of rockcrit shibboleths have insisted: Mitchell may have based Blue on the dreadful experience of sleeping with Graham Nash, but the experiences changed the second her fingers found their places on her dulcimer. I don’t confuse the simpleton in “What I Am” for Edie Brickell the same way I don’t confuse Jake LaMotta for Robert De Niro. But from the soda cracker crunch of the arrangement to Brickell’s fluting, deranged stresses (“PHILOSOPHY!”), “What I Am” is a song about complacency sung and played as complacently as possible, and, worse, the obviousness is part of the joke. The Bush campaign employed this strategy at a much greater order of magnitude and cynicism. Reporters knew Bush wasn’t tough, Texan, coherent, or Reagan-esque, and they knew we knew — it just didn’t matter. I know what she knows and I know what she means. The New Bohemians’ accompaniment is as anonymous as a K-Mart t-shirt; they might have joked around with the guys in 10,000 Maniacs at a tour pit stop about who was less maniacal or less bohemian. But co-writer Kenny Withrow gets off one terrifying filip: a guitar solo played through an envelope filter, responsible for a wah-wah sound as spongy as oatmeal in a drain. They couldn’t even evoke ’60s airheadedness right.
As soon as 1990’s Ghost of a Dog proved a commercial disappointment, Brickell released an inevitable solo album co-produced by none other than husband Paul Simon, a songwriter who has been many things but has never played dumb, although he has often sounded dumb acting smart. Meanwhile “What I Am” still gets recurrent play. Be glad it’s that and not their cover of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” recorded for the Born on the Fourth of July soundtrack and my first exposure to the Bob Dylan evergreen. I owe Edie Brickell for making Bryan Ferry’s sound revelatory.