In We’re No. 1, The A.V. Club examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be popular in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, we cover Don McLean’s American Pie, which went to No. 1 on January 22, 1972, where it stayed for seven weeks.
Don McLean will forever be remembered for the title track of his 1972 chart-topping album American Pie. It’s a canny musical epitaph for the ’60s that ties the era’s social unrest to the changing tenor of the music, in the process expressing a collective sense of lost innocence.
“American Pie” sits alongside fellow tour-de-forces “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (1965) by Bob Dylan and “Alice’s Restaurant” (1967) by Arlo Guthrie as the era’s greatest story-songs, each completely transforming the artists’ careers. McLean’s song in particular signals the close of the prior period of socio-political engagement, as festivals and flower children gave way to arena rock and “me generation” adults.
Though typically received as a wistful tribute—in part due to the choral reference to Buddy Holly’s death—it’s also something of a bitter rebuke of music’s failed promise. (The opening line is about how “music used to make me smile,” a long, long time ago.) This aspect frequently gets lost in McLean’s clever ciphers and (admirable) unwillingness to offer a definitive interpretation.
There is an intro and outro framing the song at a slower dirge-like tempo, signaling that McLean has not come to praise rock ’n’ roll so much as to bury it. As this occurs outside the very punchy main course of the song, the downbeat aspect is somewhat minimized. But make no mistake: Disillusionment is the hangover for the ’60s’ bubbly idealism, and it undoubtedly played a role in how strongly the song resonated.
As the song courses from the ’50s race-records and sock hops to the leather-jacketed Jester that many presume is Bob Dylan, it distills a sense of rock’s possibility. McLean sings how it brings boys and girls together ( “And can you teach me how to dance real slow?”) and compares its power to the gospel.
Coming out of a folk tradition, McLean had obvious sympathies for Dylan. In the song, the Jester’s voice “came from you and me,” which presumably is why McLean feels betrayed when, after stealing the king’s crown, the Jester winds up “on the sidelines in a cast.” Indeed, Dylan suffered a motorcycle accident near Woodstock in July 1966, a little over a year after shocking the world with his electric performance at the Newport Folk Festival. In the wake of the accident Dylan retreated, making only select live performances and not touring for the next eight years. His next two albums were 1967’s sparse acoustic John Wesley Harding and 1969’s country-minded Nashville Skyline. He truly left rock to fend for itself.
In Dylan’s stead, rock lurched into psychedelic art-rock, more indulgent “heady” music that didn’t inspire connection so much as introspection. McLean presumably references The Byrds’ tune “Eight Miles High,” banned from radio for its perceived pot references, which he snarks “landed foul on the grass.” The other music he found out-of-bounds was The Beatles’ art-rock trailblazer Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. “We all got up to dance,” he whinges, “but we never got the chance.” Making music to be appreciated more like paintings seemed to the 26-years-young McLean as a betrayal of rock’s impetus.
It’s a fair enough criticism insofar as progressive rock produced increasingly rarified music distanced from the “folk” it was once about. Perhaps McLean could sense the growing cult of personality around rock performers and how elevating them served to diminish the rest of us—the idea that birthed punk. Or maybe he just felt his generation turning inward after the dashed hopes and disappointment of the ’60s, from Altamont to the police violence outside the 1968 National Democratic Convention.
By the close of the song, the bitterness over missed agency is palpable: “There we were all in one place / A generation lost in space / With no time left to start again.” Whether referencing the shlocky TV serial Lost In Space or just his generation’s drug-induced stupor, the indictment’s clear. Perhaps that, too, hit a chord; we all enjoy a scapegoat, especially when it’s not us. Five months after American Pie hit number one, the Watergate break-in occurred, ultimately converting any remaining American innocence into either cynicism or naïveté.
It’s obviously melodramatic on McLean’s part to even attribute a “day the music died.” Of course, nearly every generation feels their historical moment is one where something significant happened or changed. This idea that “we’ve been screwed” is quite the rallying cry, and in the wake of the ’60s it made a lot more sense to pour a little beer out on the curb in memoriam than to toast the underground’s health.
So even though the people in the chorus are getting loud and drunk on whiskey (in Rye, New York—a common misperception), this is in truth an epic “sad bastard” song—a style popularized in later decades by psychiatric waiting rooms stuffed full of fragile, despondent singer-songwriters. It’s a song about what was and might have been, sung as if it were the end of the world: “But not a word was spoken / The church bells all were broken.”
American Pie is McLean’s hidden legacy, and naysayers need look no further than the album’s effortlessly pretty second single, “Vincent.” Not to disparage the elegant poetry with which McLean weaves his tale, but it’s sympathetic to the artist’s (hypothetical) suicide for essentially failing to be appreciated: “Now I understand,” sings McLean. “They would not listen / They’re not listening still / Perhaps they never will.”
It’s a credit to McLean and his crystalline tenor that he could make such grim material work so well. Unlike so many of his fellow mopers, he doesn’t overreach for dramatic effect, preferring the understated narrative rhythms of folk storytellers. He’s capable of elegance without being grand, and the music echoes this as much as the lyrics. That straightforwardness and simplicity tends to soften the occasional brashness of the sentiments.
Of course, time and countless iterations of “American Pie”—from the Chipmunks to Madonna—have worn away the darker aspects of the tone, turning it into a bit of jingoistic nostalgia, sort of like Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The U.S.A.”
The song’s overwhelming popularity threw fire on the still growing singer-songwriter movement, encouraging the commercial prospects of the Laurel Canyon crew and folky storytellers like Gordon Lightfoot and Harry Chapin. The level of success didn’t sit so well with McLean, who’s said it initially upset him and prompted him to act “petulantly,” which included him refusing to play the song, though he’s embraced it more as time went on. He’s certainly not the first or last to find the Klieg lights of unexpected fame blinding.
Though a fine lyricist and singer, whatever modest subsequent success McLean has enjoyed was always shadowed by that mammoth hit. It’s been said that music careers are like the lotto—you can get it all at once or spaced out in small installments for the rest of your life. You get the sense that McLean was thinking the latter when the former broadsided him. Though if the song meant he’s been critically shortchanged, he certainly hasn’t suffered financially. He even gets residuals for teen high jinks franchise American Pie’s use of the name.
While “American Pie” might once have boasted a literary weight comparable to Dylan or Woody Guthrie, the indomitable catchiness of the tune and its metaphoric inscrutability has reduced it to a sort of nostalgic novelty. That doesn’t do McLean enough justice, but it does other things for him. Asked what “American Pie” means, he’s told reporters, “It means I don’t ever have to work again.”