Album: Shooting Rubberbands At The Stars (1988)
Charted: 31 7
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Songfacts®:

  • One of the more unusual hits of the '80s, "What I Am" deals with the need for simplicity in expression. In the lyric, Edie Brickell was poking fun of folks who overshare their spiritual beliefs, expounding their thoughts on the universe to anyone who will listen. Thus the lines:

    Philosophy is a talk on cereal box
    Religion is a smile on a dog


    These are the kind of things these deep thinkers would say, and some people would even fall for it. Brickell makes it clear she doesn't have the answers, and even if she did, she'd keep it to herself:

    I'm not aware of too many things
    I know what I know if you know what I mean
  • Edie Brickell was not an original member of the New Bohemians, which started life as a ska band in Dallas, Texas with Brad Houser on bass, Eric Presswood on guitar, and Brandon Aly on drums. They all met at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts - Edie Brickell also attended there, but she didn't hook up with them until much later. In 1985, Brickell, then an art student at Southern Methodist University, saw them perform at an after-hours club, and after working up her courage with some help from a persistant friend and some shots of Jack Daniel's, came on stage to sing with them. Not long after, they made her their lead singer.

    The group built a following in Dallas and signed with Geffen Records in 1986. They struggled to record their first album, Shooting Rubberbands At The Stars, often butting heads with producer Pat Moran, but when it was released in 1988 it captured their intimate live sound, with Brickell's distinctive voice up front in the mix.

    This was an era of hair metal and dance music, so "What I Am," released as the first single, was a tough sell. They got a break when they got booked as musical guests on the November 5, 1988 episode of Saturday Night Live, which was the highest-rated episode of the year thanks to an appearance by the abrasive, chain-smoking talk show host Morton Downey Jr. They performed the song on the show and it started getting airplay on radio and MTV, sending it to #7 in March 1989. That SNL appearance is also where Brickell met Paul Simon. They married in May 1992 and had the first of their three children in December.
  • Brickell wrote this song with Kenny Withrow, a guitarist in the group.
  • This song got Edie Brickell & the New Bohemians a spot in VH1's Greatest One-Hit Wonders, even though their second single, "Circle," was a minor hit, going to #48 in America. The band's next album, Ghost Of A Dog in 1990, got little attention, and they went on a long hiatus. Brickell released a solo album in 1994 and raised a family; the group reconvened in 1998 to record new songs for a greatest hits compilation, and released albums in 2006, 2018, and 2021. Remarkably, the same five members who performed on "What I Am" were still with the band in the 2020s.
  • Brickell never got sick of this song. "I'm very grateful for that song because it allowed me to see the world," she said in a 2021 Songfacts interview. "It allowed me to fulfill my dreams. It allowed me to take care of my family."
  • The music video was directed by Jonas Livingston, an executive at Geffen Records. It's a simple video, showing the band performing the song on a set, with a focus on Brickell. With her casual, natural look and slightly awkward movements, she stood out on MTV the same way Michael Stipe did in R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion."
  • The album title, Shooting Rubberbands At The Stars, is a reference to how the odds against them. There weren't many bands coming out of Dallas and making the big-time, and they thought their chances were slim, like trying to hit a star with a rubberband.
  • This song was used in the movies Loverboy (1989) and Towelhead (2007), and in these TV shows:

    Miami Vice ("Leap of Faith" - 1989)
    Doogie Howser, M.D. ("Frisky Business" - 1989)
    Cold Case ("Who's Your Daddy" - 2004)
  • Beavis and Butt-Head accused Brickell of ripping off Popeye on this song. Popeye's catch phrase is "I yam what I yam."
  • The UK electronic dance music duo Tin Tin Out covered this song in 1999 with Spice Girl Emma Bunton guesting on vocals. Their version peaked at #2 on the UK singles chart, behind Bunton's ex-bandmate Geri Hallowell's "Lift Me Up."

Comments: 4

  • Daniel Deliser from Argentina I love the music for this song, but I seriously loathe the lyrics... I mean, critical and abstract thoughts are just bulls--t? REALLY?
  • Chris from Germany Wow this song is ageless. Never thought it might be from the 80s. Sounds so fresh and made the band a 2 hit wonder band in the US
  • Josh from UsaI like how the comment about Texas and killing raging unwelcome guests has to be made, I guess anywhere else you just allow the intruder to batter you, even to death? It's a shame, but... Some people have no conception of how violence, armed or unarmed, actually works. I guess that's white privilege too. lol
  • Jim from Sf (bay Area), CaEdie Brickell has a CD coming out in January 2011 with her band "The Gaddabouts" with legendary drummer Steve Gadd. More info. at www.woyaho.com
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