“American Pie” Is a Reactionary Political Whine

American PieIn the first band I was ever in, the first song we did was “American Pie.” I’m not sure why. It wasn’t a song I was particularly fond of. It was probably because it was easy, although certainly “Wild Thing” would have been easier. It is a song that has largely been given a free ride over the years with his jumbled lyrics about the history of rock music. It is an okay song, but overall tedious and too long.

Earlier this year, Don McLean auctioned off the original lyric sheet for the song. He got over a million dollars for it. But he also claimed that the notes would reveal all there was to reveal. And what they revealed were really obvious things like the “the king” being Elvis and “the jester” being Dylan. I’ve never found the song particularly mysterious. It seems designed to make listeners feel good about themselves for figuring out its transparent metaphors.

Something else “revealed” by McLean was that the song was about the death of the rock-n-roll that he loved as a kid. He said, “[Life] is becoming less idyllic.” You know what that’s called: growing up. Everyone thinks “life” was more idyllic when they were kids because, you know, they were kids — life was more idyllic. Nothing had happened to the music other than what had always happened: it continued to grow and evolve.

The other night, I was thinking about the song and the obvious hit me: it’s a reactionary political song. It’s the pop music equivalent of “Okie from Muskogee.” It’s one big — eight and a half minute — whine about how the hippies had ruined everything. The song makes continual reference to Christianity. This has generally been interpreted as the spiritual side of music, “Can music, save your mortal soul? And can you teach me how to dance real slow?” But that isn’t really what he seems to be getting at.

The motivation behind “American Pie” is McLean’s complaint about growing up and the loss of innocence. So he’s just grabbed onto the cultural signifiers of the time that allow him to say “Now is bad, then was good.” And give the sad sap content of the album — with songs like “Empty Chairs” and “Vincent” — we get a clear picture of adolescent discontent. (Yes, I know he was 25 at the time.) And he reached for a convenient excuse for his displeasure — his parents and that “stuck-up girl in history class” no longer fitting the bill.

It’s ironic that McLean’s big whine would turn out to be exactly what he was complaining about: rock-n-roll with an over-serious, pseudo-intellectual gloss, ultimately stripped of its power. And the rest of his career is one of easy listening pop and country. There were people around who were doing the kind of rock music that he claimed to miss: The Troggs and Velvet Underground to name just two. But “American Pie” is not about the music. His discontent was with life. And he’s way off target. “American Pie” could have been written in 1957 as a complaint about how Buddy Holly had destroyed music.

26 thoughts on ““American Pie” Is a Reactionary Political Whine

  1. Yeah — it’s one thing to write about how much you loved Buddy Holly and Richie Valens (even the Bopper) — they were huge talents. Even to say you haven’t listened to much music since. When I was emotionally very connected to music, as many young people are, the loss of a favorite act can turn you off music for a while. But it’s silly to say everything that came after was crap. I don’t listen to as much new music as I used to, simply a function of having less time on my hands. I’m sure there’s good stuff being done in every genre.

    I don’t read the Onion’s “AV Club” anymore — it’s become very into hipster taste-making. But they used to do a wonderful thing, assigning fans of a particular genre to review new albums/movies in that genre. So a metal record was reviewed by metal fans, a horror movie by horror fans, etc. The only way criticism should be done, IMO. Since there’s no concrete standard of “good” art it needs to be taken on its own terms, as you’ve mentioned before.

    • The thing is, I don’t think McLean really knew what he was doing. It’s kind of a naive whine. He didn’t go on to be some cultural warrior — which is what I would have expected given the song. Lester Bangs saw the song in a different way: as the constant destruction and rebirth of rock music. I don’t think he’s right about that, but that is the best take on the song. If it didn’t have so much Christian symbolism, I’d probably have a better opinion of the song. If only McLean had been born Buddhist!

      I didn’t know AV Club was part of The Onion. I use it to check if they are right about the latest episode of Bob’s Burgers. These days they are, because they really like the show.

      • They’re best when they’re enthusiastic about stuff. When I got into watching “Deadwood” I enjoyed looking at their reviews. Their sum-up of that show’s ending is very good, and made me buy the box set just to see the Milch thing where he walks around the set talking about what the fourth season might have been.

        • Yeah, you have to be seriously into the show want to take that deep a dive into what is, after all, just a silly comedy.

          Some of the commentaries on the third season of DW talk about the two films that HOB was going to make. It’s heartbreaking. I still don’t know why that all fell apart. I hate where the series ended.

          • Those were some of the best commentaries I’ve ever read on AV.

            If I’d been watching the show when it came out, I probably would be more disappointed by the ending. But as it was, I could stand it. The presentation of Hearst was a perfect encapsulation of all the themes — raw capitalism versus the need to rein selfishness in if societies can function. And that talent show episode makes me cry with happiness. The shots of Swearengen, alone in his bar, too stubborn to participate, singing an Irish ballad softly — that’s just as great as anything ever on TV.

            I think the show cost a lot. It looked amazing. The nighttime cinematography in particular was beautiful, and that is not easy to do. It’s a pretty remarkable achievement that not only did Milch get his vision up on the screen, with virtually no compromises, but he included the actors in the process. Several cast members got their first writing credits on episodes. It’s easy for people with a passionate idea to not be collaborative. That show was. It’s kinda like what Altman often pulled off. And you’ll recall he always had problems getting financing, too.

            • But Hearst just cut Swearengen’s finger off! That’s no way to leave such a great character. Oh well.

              That’s an interesting comparison: Milch and Altman. I think you are right. They are similar.

    • [T]he loss of a favorite act can turn you off music for a while.

      I’ve long wondered about that in my own case. I was a big, big Beatles and John Lennon fan (and still am although I don’t listen to their music as frequently). When John Lennon was killed in 1980, I was 24, felt somewhat of a loss, but kept on listening to his music. Perhaps it was because he hadn’t released any albums in a few years. [Except for the recently released Double Fantasy, which I’ve never listened to; his later albums were somewhat uneven. Probably the albums I listened to the most: Live Peace in Toronto, Plastic Ono Band, Imagine, and Sometime in New York City.)

      On the other hand, when Stevie Ray Vaughan was killed in 1990, I couldn’t listen to any of his music for the next two years; I finally began listening again.

      Regarding Don McLean, I never really cared much about the meaning of the lyrics to “American Pie”; it was just a catchy song. In high school, a sensitive, deeply serious girl, Yvonne, did a presentation on “Vincent”. After high school, I saw in the news that she was working for a group that was doing secular prison outreach, so I was proud of her putting her seriousness to good use.

      • And if McLean helped inspire that one person to do that terrific prison work, his music was useful.

        I was very close to rock music in my early 20s. I kinda felt like it was speaking for me as I was really socially broken and incapable of speaking for myself. I know most people don’t connect to music in this way but there are many who do. So when favorite acts broke up/died, I took it really hard. Of course it’s really silly to think artists are speaking for you, instead of expressing their own take on the world which you can enjoy if you wish. The creepy thing is I believe both Manson and Chapman actually thought Lennon was speaking to them! Aak! I’m a psycho! Fortunately I never have wanted to meet celebrities.

        (OK, maybe Gore Vidal. But only stone drunk. I have a feeling Vidal would have been a really amazingly fun guy to know when he was boozed to the gills. I’m sort of a Vidal nerd, and he wrote that he regretted never meeting Mishima, who was supposedly a great person to drink with and check out hotties with. Imagine being in that nightclub!)

  2. Of course you were in a band. I am not sure why that is like “of course” but it is. I am highly amused at it.

    I love “Vincent.” But then I also know I have the worst taste in music so it is not a surprise other people who know stuff about music think it is not a great song. However at this point I tend to think of “American Pie” as the “Weird Al” song “The Saga Begins.”

    • That’s terrific! I can’t believe what a career Weird Al has had. He’s gotten better-looking with age, and his MacLean impression is pretty spot-on.

    • “Vincent” isn’t a bad song; it’s just so sentimental. You are right about “American Pie”: it’s a novelty song. That’s a great way to think about it.

      • Probably why I like it so much. I have a hard crusty take no prisoners bitchy exterior but a very mushy inside. Liking the thoroughly sappy crap I like is my inside saying to people paying attention “she really is not as mean as she acts.”

        • I’ll remember that if you start flinging insults, “Now I think I know… What you tried to say to me…”

          • I try to keep my withering disdain for Republicans and conservatives. You are neither so even if you write something that seriously ticks me off, I doubt I would insult you. I may do so inadvertently because I can be pretty brutally honest without realizing I am being a jerk.

  3. I am fine with the characterization that American Pie is about “discontent with life”. But I strongly disagree with his assumption that alienation and “discontent with life” is an adolescent phenomenon. Alienation and discontent is a characteristic of everyone’s life. Not just those transitioning between childhood & adulthood. And those who are honest with themselves never lose it. Those who say otherwise, and speak of “growing up” involves acceptance are cold, in denial, and even sadistic. And that goes for other songs on the album, like “Vincent”. A beautiful song, which was about the relationship between creativity and insanity. Specifically in the life and art of Vincent Van Gogh. And our capitalistic life tends to amplify the basic alienation people feel. Only being sadistic, rich and cold can account for such a cynical could account for such a brutal disparaging of such beautiful songs, and a beautiful album.

    • I think you’ve misunderstood my point, which is that the impetus of the song is his hearkening bad to simpler times of childhood. That time was not simpler, it just seemed that way because he was a children.

      As for “Vincent”: it is a song that makes mental illness into a romantic affliction. It is offensive to people who suffer from mental illness and to the very complex man who was Vincent van Gogh.

      But I beg of you, please don’t come around here and claim you know me based upon disagreeing with my analysis of a songs you like.

      • What, you’re not sadistic, rich, and cold! I thought those were attributes you used for self-descriptions on social media sites. (Does social media have poster descriptions? I do not know.)

        I get it when people are defensive of songs they like. It’s very personal. But the proper response is to describe why those songs mean a lot to you, as Josie started to in the first part of the post. Not to make personal attacks on others.

        And speaking of attacks, I just stumbled across this combo platter with Weird Al and Garfunkel & Oates called “Save The Rich”:


        Not the greatest song by either act. I appreciated it, though!

        • Seeing Weird Al next to those two makes me feel so old! I’m glad that they all got together — especially over that.

          Oh, Josie, Josie, Josie. I do understand. I just wish she would tell me I’m an idiot — which an argument can be made for.

        • Social media does let you post a mini-bio sometimes. I usually put in oxygenated human. It describes me accurately at least.

          Although I did not know Frank was sadistic and cold, he seems like a nice enough guy to me. Then again, I am not one of his ex-wives.

          • Not yet, you’re not. I suspect this blog is intended to create a Koresh/Manson-like cult harem. All those names on the sidebar? They’re actually members. Pretty soon Frank is going to get Jonathan Chait to try and assassinate Gerald Ford. Even though Ford’s dead! That’s how crazy it gets.

            • I really doubt that-Chait lacks the gumption to do anything. Plus didn’t Frank say like a zillion times on this blog he is never doing the marriage thing again?

              Much less to a weirdo like me he has never met before.

  4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_U2AwooLEBA&t=18s
    Don’s visit to Tucker Carlson to talk about this “song about America losing its way” is the “Day Don McLean died”. Definitely a reactionary: McLean sucks up to crypto-fascist Fox News nut job Tucker as “Socratic” no less. Don apparently was against Vietnam but you wouldn’t know it from his “big song about America” — any reference to it in the lyrics? All I hear about is Jumpin’ Jack Jagger as Satan, and Dylan the Jester, stealing King Elvis’s crown — so deep?– or is that all a joke like the rest of the song. The song basically suggests, as you say, that hippies destroyed America NOT corrupt politicians and the military. It all makes sense in his political affiliations.

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