In 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.