Song Series – Iconic Songs – “American Pie” by Don McLean
Allow me to open with a few disclaimers.
I do not deny that “American Pie” is worthy of its iconic status. I don’t think there’s another song out there that so accurately captured the mood of early 1970s America and so accurately predicted the country’s trajectory. I do not begrudge Don McLean his success and I applauded his decision to auction off the original handwritten lyrics for $1.2M to ensure a secure financial future for his wife and kids after he passes into the great beyond. I do not believe that whoever bought the lyrics overpaid for the privilege of ownership, as I believe that the document is an important historical artifact.
On the other hand, I don’t think “American Pie” is all that it’s cracked up to be and I firmly reject the notion that it was one of the greatest songs ever written.
Released in late 1971, the single with the eight-plus minute opus spread over the A and B sides swiftly climbed the charts and reached #1 in early 1972. The song that held the top spot for three weeks prior to that was Melanie’s “Brand New Key.” You may think that little factoid clearly belongs in the category of WHO GIVES A SHIT, but in truth, the variables that led to the success of “Brand New Key” are the same variables that drove the sales of “American Pie.”
Melanie’s song became a monster hit largely because listeners interpreted the song as a delightfully naughty ode to sexual intercourse. Here’s what Melanie had to say about it:
‘Brand New Key’ I wrote in about fifteen minutes one night. I thought it was cute; a kind of old thirties tune. I guess a key and a lock have always been Freudian symbols, and pretty obvious ones at that. There was no deep serious expression behind the song, but people read things into it. They made up incredible stories as to what the lyrics said and what the song meant. In some places, it was even banned from the radio.
My idea about songs is that once you write them, you have very little say in their life afterward. It’s a lot like having a baby. You conceive a song, deliver it, and then give it as good a start as you can. After that, it’s on its own. People will take it any way they want to take it.
And boy, oh boy, the decades-long debate over the meaning of “American Pie” is chock full of people reading things into it and taking it any way they want to take it. The man responsible for its creation has taken notice: “Over the years I’ve dealt with all these stupid questions of ‘Who’s that?’ and ‘Who’s that?’” McLean said. “These are things I never had in my head for a second when I wrote the song. I was trying to capture something very ephemeral and I did, but it took a long time.” (CNN) McLean gave a fuller explanation of how he created “American Pie” and envisioned the album of the same name in an interview on Louder Sound:
“I was conscious of the fact that I was trying to create a rock’n’roll dream sequence,” McLean told me in 1997, of his concept for American Pie. “But it was way more than rock’n’roll. It was about an America that was coming apart at the seams. I was trying to create this American song, but not like This Land Is Your Land or America The Beautiful. I wanted to connect with the parts of America that mattered to me, starting with Buddy Holly. Buddy didn’t matter to anybody when I wrote this song, I have to tell you.”
On the day the music, or Holly, died in 1959, McLean was a 13-year-old paperboy in New Rochelle, NY. “The opening part of the song was born in one piece,” he said. “I wrote it remembering how it was the day I saw the newspaper and the article that said my favorite artist had been killed. That got me started.”
For what grew into an elaborate jigsaw puzzle that joins different sections, characters and emotions, the assembly required patience. McLean said: “A while later, I wrote the chorus and came up with the title. It’s apple pie, parts of the pie. We’re always talking about the economic pie, and pie has sexual significance as well. Then one day, in a blaze of glory, I just wrote the whole rest of the song, and I tied together musical imagery of unspecified meaning with this story about America.”
“There are many interpretations of my lyrics, but none by me,” he said. “It was really funny to me that after the song became famous people started becoming so interested in the lyrics. I was trying to write about America, not Elvis or The Beatles. They were missing the point really by trying to say who’s this and who’s that in the song.”
So . . . we have a “very ephemeral” song with “unspecified meaning.” How disappointing that must be for all the people who engaged in furious debate over whether the “queen” was Joan Baez, Jackie Kennedy or Ann-Margret. McLean rubbed more salt in their wounds in an interview with the Irish Times: “The cultural allusions are, he continues, his own in-jokes, poking fun at some of the big acts of the day. ‘Just the idea of choosing names that people could identify with: different artists, what they were doing, what they’d done. I was making fun of it all.'”
Later on, McLean offered a different take in an interview on NRA Country: “‘American Pie” is my most famous song and the most ambitious. I wanted a big, complex song about America which captured its power and genius. I decided that politics and music would influence each other moving forward.'”
Hmm. Putting aside the misuse of “which” when he should have said “that,” I don’t hear anything in “American Pie” that captures America’s power and genius . . . at least in the way that I would define power and genius. That claim certainly doesn’t square with his earlier explanation that “It was about an America that was coming apart at the seams” nor does it jive with the funereal mood of the last verse. And if “American Pie” is about America’s power and genius, why does he spend so much time and energy ragging on Mick Jagger?
Since he was talking to the NRA, maybe he wanted to market “American Pie” as an anthem for the Make America Great Again crowd . . . a take on the song that is much closer to the truth than most of the incredibly loony interpretations I’ve read.
“American Pie” is all about the nostalgic belief that life was better under Eisenhower when white people ruled America and non-white people kept their mouths shut. It’s about a glorified, mythical era when women were allegedly happy homemakers and the United States was undeniably the most powerful country in the world. That mythology began to crumble when black people started to get uppity about civil rights and collapsed entirely over the divisions wrought by the Vietnam War. During that period, American youth elevated rock ‘n’ roll heroes to godlike status, replacing the father, son and holy ghost with what McLean would consider false idols. Most of the reviews of “American Pie” describe the song as an ode to a time of innocence, which it certainly was for all the white kids in burgeoning burbs like New Rochelle, NY, where McLean grew up.
McLean was actually late to the nostalgia game. American music had already made a sharp turn away from psychedelia by embracing music closer to American roots. The Byrds were the most striking example of that shift, but Credence Clearwater Revival emphatically verified the American desire for down-to-earth music with a string of bayou hits. However, neither The Byrds nor John Fogerty offered listeners an anthem that fully captured the hearts and minds of the millions of people who yearned for a return to simpler times because they were exhausted by polarized politics, demonstrations, race riots, assassinations and an unwinnable war. Don McLean provided that anthem.
It’s important to note that in the period immediately preceding this moment in history, most Americans had embraced progress and tended to look forward instead of backward. Americans of the early 60s were excited about a future with unlimited possibilities and celebrated that orientation at two highly futuristic world fairs in Seattle and New York. Even JFK’s assassination did not immediately derail the belief in American progress. The Civil Rights Act passed by significant margins in both the House and Senate and the nation’s voters emphatically chose the more progressive LBJ over the reactionary Barry Goldwater. As late as May 1966, the percentage of Americans in favor of the death penalty had plummeted to an all-time low of 42%.
The social chaos that followed frightened Americans all across the country. Only four years after LBJ’s landslide, two “law-and-order” candidates who promised (in one form or another) a return to the good old days earned 57% of the vote. By the time “American Pie” made it to the top of the charts, 57% of Americans endorsed the death penalty and later that year handed the distinctly old-fashioned Richard Nixon a 49-state landslide. The pattern would repeat itself in the 80s with two whopping endorsements for Ronald Reagan’s nostalgic “Morning in America,” and at the end of his two terms, support for the death penalty rose to 79%. The endurability of this collective wish to return to a white-dominated past has been validated in the current century with the advent of the Tea Party and the Voldemort clone who wanted to Make America Great Again by denying climate change, getting rid of those pesky environmental regulations and adopting evangelical-influenced policies to ensure that Americans had plenty of access to guns and restricted access to abortions.
The shift from confidence in a bright future to wanting to stop all this shit and bring back The Beaver went beyond politics, as many Americans seem to have developed a deep suspicion of anything that smacks of originality. This trend is most obvious in American movies: remake after remake, sequel after sequel, franchise after franchise. Many American films are loaded with violence, often in the form of “frontier justice,” as if Hollywood decided that the ethos of the Wild West (updated to include assault rifles) was a sure bet to rake in the dollars with a backward-facing audience.
It’s getting harder to tell if the golden age Americans long for is the Eisenhower Era or Tombstone, Arizona.
So, it’s no wonder that with so many Americans insistent on returning to a mythical past that “American Pie” would still be celebrated as a defining moment in popular music history. “American Pie” validated the deep but short-sighted and completely unfulfillable desire to turn back the clock and re-create an America without funny-looking immigrants and broads who talk back.
Having read several interviews with Don McLean, I don’t get the sense that he shares the vitriol espoused by the MAGA crowd. He’s never come close to saying he wanted to kill all the liberals. McLean claims to be apolitical but that pesky quote (“I decided that politics and music would influence each other moving forward”) casts doubt on that assertion. My take is that he’s an incredibly naive human being who doesn’t think things through and happened to be lucky enough to release his biggest hit at a time when the majority of Americans ached for a return to the so-called good old days.
The Most Idiotic Interpretations of American Pie
I really don’t like arguing with idiots, so I’ll just leave a few links here with some brief comments to demonstrate “how people made up incredible stories” as to what the lyrics of “American Pie” really meant. Unsurprisingly, some of the biggest whoppers come from hardcore Catholics delighted with McLean’s mention of the father, son and holy ghost. Since Catholics rarely get a shout-out these days thanks to priestly pedophilia, I can understand their enthusiasm, but distorting the meaning of “Sympathy for the Devil” and twisting the truth about what went down at Altamont is . . . downright sinful.
- Taste the Catholic Morsels in American Pie
- The Hidden Catholic Meaning of Don McLean’s Cryptic “American Pie” Extra points for creativity here, as the author managed to throw in John Lennon’s “We Are Bigger than Jesus” quote (not mentioned in the song) and blamed the Beatles “Helter Skelter” for Manson’s misinterpretation of “Helter Skelter,” thereby sending him on his murderous path.
- Meaning of “American Pie” Lyrics 50 Years After Hitting #1: I lost all respect for American Songwriter for running this horribly written piece of garbage. One brief example of literary detritus: “John Lennon was reading from the book of Marx, as The Beatles released songs invoking revolution and even referencing China’s Mao.” OH FOR FUCKS SAKE!!! Lennon never came close to calling for a revolution in that song—but he did reject violence, hatred and CHAIRMAN FUCKING MAO!
“American Pie” is a very well-structured song with sufficient chordal, rhythmic and dynamic variation to keep things interesting. The song consists of three dominant chord patterns: one for the quiet, slower opening and closing verses that bookend the composition, one for the upbeat verses where the “ephemeral narrative” is played out, and one for the chorus. The chords are garden-variety pop but McLean is to be commended for his balanced and sensitive use of major and minor chords. I do find the chorus rather tiresome after about the fourth go-round, but all things considered, I think the composition is quite strong—diverse enough to hold the interest but not so diverse that the music detracts from the story he wants to relate. The lack of any kind of instrumental break is understandable and appreciated—I mean, what would have been the point in adding a guitar solo?
McLean makes the most of the opportunities embedded in his composition with an outstanding vocal that captures the shifting moods through sincerely-expressed emotion: grief, light-heartedness, anger, confusion and regret. He has a very pleasant voice, stronger on the sweet side than when he tries to rock out, but he manages not to embarrass himself when he steps out of his typically folkish character.
As for the lyrics . . . well, that’s where things get a little squishy.
- Verse One: Easily the most lucid passage in the song, this touching reminiscence of the tragic death of Buddy Holly is heartfelt and sincere. “I can’t remember if I cried/When I read about his widowed bride” is the line that hits me the hardest (and I deeply resent the idiots who claimed that the widowed bride was Jacqueline Kennedy). This is an exceptionally strong opener that defines the term “attention-grabber.”
- Chorus: The chorus is hardly a tribute to American power and genius– the levee is dry and some good ol’ boys are getting drunk and singing “this will be the day that I die.” The portmanteau “Miss American pie” seems to translate into “Miss America’s vagina” (McLean said “pie” had a sexual connotation) so the phrase “Bye, bye Miss American Pie” means nobody’s getting laid tonight. The chorus is either really dumb, really depressing or just some euphonious gibberish McLean threw together . . . or all three.
- Verse Two: The second verse is a barrage of song titles and 50s adolescent behaviors designed to launch the trip down Nostalgia Lane. McLean seems to question the sincerity of those who follow the faith in response to conformity pressure (“And do you have faith in god above?/If the bible tells you so”) and links that attitude to a conflict between traditional religion and the new-fangled “religion” of rock ‘n’ roll (“Do you believe in rock ‘n’ roll?/Can music save your mortal soul?”). McLean will tinker with that theme as the song moves forward, but I do want to answer those two questions:
- Q: “Do you believe in rock ‘n’ roll?” A: The word “belief” is too strong, but I do love the fuck out of rock ‘n’ roll.
- Q: “Can music save your mortal soul?” A: Hell, yes!
- Verse Three: Fast-forwarding ten years places us in 1969, where we meet the King, Queen, Jester, John Lennon and Karl Marx, none of whom carry any particular meaning. If there’s a narrative in this verse, you’d need an electron microscope to find it. Pure gibberish.
- Verse Four: More gibberish awaits as McLean’s game attempt at a football metaphor to explain the music scene is dead on arrival. For another loony interpretation, I turn to my father, (a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley) who insists that the verse predicted the finish of the 1982 Big Game when the Cal marching band took the field before the game was over and facilitated the winning Cal touchdown. I can’t tell if he’s fucking with me or not.
- Verse Five: The most offensive verse by far is the fifth, which offers us a highly skewed narrative of the Altamont Free Concert, centered around the claim that Mick Jagger is Satan personified. The Catholic reviewers of the song make specific reference to “Sympathy for the Devil,” and while McLean avoids a direct link, it’s pretty obvious he had that song in mind when he wrote and sang these very angry lines: “Oh, and as I watched him on the stage/My hands were clenched in fists of rage/No angel born in Hell/Could break that Satan’s spell.” Some of the reviewers claim Mick Jagger was laughing as he boarded the helicopter rescuing him from the shit show, hence the passage, “And as the flames climbed high into the night/To light the sacrificial rite/I saw Satan laughing with delight.” I will now direct my response to Mr. McLean and those Catholic critics.
- Mick Jagger never claimed to be Satan in any song or interview. In “Sympathy for the Devil” he was playing a role. Do you understand what that means? It means “to act the part of a particular character in a play, film or musical narrative.” If you believe Mick Jagger is really Satan, then you believe that William Shatner is really Captain Kirk, and if that’s the case, you’re dumber than I thought.
- When the Stones vacated the premises at Altamont, they had no idea that one of the Hell’s Angels had killed Meredith Hunter, so if Mick was laughing, he certainly wasn’t laughing about something he knew nothing about. A lot of people laugh when they’ve had a narrow escape from a near-disaster, and the Stones were clearly in danger themselves throughout their set. They should have taken a hint from the Dead, who sensed the bad vibes and got the hell out of there before they were scheduled to take the stage.
- You might want to read the lyrics to “Sympathy for the Devil” before responding to superficial stimuli that lead you to the erroneous conclusion that Mick and the Stones are a bunch of devil-worshipping weirdos. Since your minds seem pretty much closed to that possibility, let me quote a more accurate explanation of the lyrics from Wikipedia. I know that Wikipedia is “Catholic-approved” because one of you discovered that Don McLean was raised in the Catholic faith . . . on Wikipedia! Here goes: “The lyrics focus on atrocities in mankind’s history from Satan’s point of view including the trial and death of Jesus Christ (“Made damn sure that Pilate washed his hands to seal his fate”), European wars of religion (“I watched with glee while your kings and queens fought for ten decades for the gods they made”), the violence of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the 1918 execution of the Romanov family during World War I (“I stuck around St. Petersburg when I saw it was a time for a change/Killed the Tsar and his ministers/Anastasia screamed in vain”), and World War II (“I rode a tank, held a general’s rank when the blitzkrieg raged, and the bodies stank”). The song was originally written with the line “I shouted out ‘Who killed Kennedy?'” After Robert F. Kennedy’s death on 6 June 1968, the line was changed to “Who killed the Kennedys?” And the answer is “when after all it was you and me”, which is a way of saying that “the devil is not the other one, but eventually each one of us.”
- I know y’all have an agenda centered around “the moral decline of America,” but you don’t help your cause very much when you engage in such obvious truth-stretching.
- p. s. Do you really think a person as pure and strait-laced as Queen Elizabeth would hand out a knighthood to Satan?
- Verse Six: If anything, the closing verse proves that, from a musical perspective, Don McLean was better at the quiet stuff than the loud stuff. His voice is uniquely suited to reflective moments. Nice music, but his implication that the country went to hell because “the church bells all were broken” is not supported by the facts. If anything, the influences of Evangelical Christianity and Opus Dei catholicism have accelerated America’s descent into hell faster than a million Mick Jaggers ever could.
I see that Don McLean decided to cancel his performance at this year’s NRA convention “in light of recent events in Texas.” I’m not impressed, for as Forward noted, this was clearly about the optics and not about rational restrictions on gun sales. Canceling his membership in that disgusting organization would have been much more impressive, but I guess Don didn’t want to completely cut ties with his core audience of good old boys.
I repeat: I agree with the decision by the Library of Congress to preserve “American Pie” as a work that is “culturally, historically, or artistically significant,” though I would emphasize “culturally” and “historically.” As a long-form song, it certainly has more substance than “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” but nostalgia is a big turn-off for me. With that in mind, I’ll close this essay with an extended quote from Jennifer James’ Thinking in the Future Tense (a form of thinking that Americans seem to have abandoned). This quote can be found in the subchapter titled “A Time of Illusion.”
For many of those who grew up in the 1950s, that decade is wrapped in the golden glow of nostalgia. Families lived carefree and happy lives; we know that from TV programs such as Leave It to Beaver, Father Knows Best and The Donna Reed Show. The president was a genuine hero—former general Dwight D. Eisenhower—and everyone trusted him. All those who wanted a job had one, and it was guaranteed for life. Married couples weren’t unfaithful; children weren’t beaten or molested; there was no rape; African-Americans were content with their place. My how times have changed. Or have they?
In her book The Way We Never Were, Stephanie Coontz explodes the 1950s myths. Coontz quotes author Benita Eisler: “As college classmates became close friends, I heard sagas of life at home that were Gothic horror stories. Behind the hedges and the driveways of upper-middle-class suburbia were tragedies of madness, suicide, and—most prevalent of all—chronic and severe alcoholism.” America was a wonderful country in the 1950s. It just wasn’t the placid utopia that a nostalgic nation imagines it to have been.
During this “golden decade” African-Americans in the South faced legally sanctioned segregation and pervasive brutality. In the North, they were virtually excluded from higher education, unions and apprenticeships. When Harvey Clark tried to move into Cicero, Illinois, in 1951, a mob of four thousand whites tore his apartment apart while police stood by and joked with them. Native American men aged twenty-five to thirty-four killed themselves at a higher rate than any other population group.
Women workers, so needed in factories during the war years, found themselves purged from the workforce—especially from the higher paying or traditionally male jobs—after the men returned. Sexual harassment and assault were not uncommon. Homosexuals were classified among the mentally ill. Spouse battering was not considered a real crime. Much of what we now label as child abuse was normal discipline. Incest was described by experts as a one-in-a-million occurrence, and molestation was considered a rare event always perpetrated by strangers, both of which we now know not to have been true.
Everyone had a duty to marry and reproduce. Bachelors were characterized as immature, narcissistic and even deviant. Single motherhood was a disgrace, and women died in illegal back-alley abortions. There was no mandate for absent fathers to pay child support. Sexual double standards flourished. Prostitutes were available for men, but women were not thought to be decent if they had orgasms. Men were almost never allowed custody of their children because it was thought that they didn’t know how to care for them . . .
The enviroment was routinely degraded and polluted . . . Attitudes towards animal life was unfeeling . . . Individuals with physical limitations or impaired intelligence were shunned . . . The mentally ill were warehoused and lobotomized . . . On-the-job accidents were considered the price of doing business or keeping a job.
Huh. I wonder why Don McLean didn’t mention any of those things in “American Pie.”