On the straightforward and more subtle sides to a beloved ballad.
Like I imagine many teenage boys in the four decades since its release, I memorized the lyrics to Don McLean’s “American Pie” (1971) during my high school years. Partly that had to do with one very particular moment in the song, and just how much every teenage boy can associate with watching that certain someone dance with a certain someone else in the gym and “know[ing] that you’re in love with him”—and how much we thus all felt at times like “a lonely teenage bronckin’ buck.” But partly it seems to me that McLean’s song captures and allegorizes a more general part of teenage life, the life and death significance that we place on music, relationships, friendships, social status, all those potentially fleeting things we care about and worry about and love and hate with such force.
As this piece on McLean’s official website indicates, McLean intended the song as a tribute both to his own turbulent teenage years and to the even more turbulent American moment with which they coincided—a moment that began (for McLean and in the song) with the February 1959 death of Buddy Holly (among other popular artists) in a plane crash and would conclude a decade or so later with American society and culture in one of our most fractured states. His song thus became an anthem for two seemingly unrelated but often conjoined narratives: “The Day the Music Died,” the story of one of the most tragic days in American cultural history; and the decade-long loss of innocence that is often associated with the 1960s and all the decade’s tragedies and fissions. These aspects of McLean’s song are contained in every section: the February 1959-set introduction, the increasingly allegorical verses, and the far more straightforward chorus.
But there’s another, and to my mind far more ambiguous, side to that chorus and to McLean’s song. The question, to boil it down, is this: why do the chorus and song focus so fully on Buddy Holly, rather than (for example) on his fallen peer Ritchie Valens? Holly is generally cited as far more influential in rock and roll history, but at the time of the crash he had only been prominent for a year and a half (since his first single, “That’ll be the Day” ); Valens, while five years younger, was on a very similar trajectory, having recorded his first few hits in the year before the crash. Moreover, while Holly’s sound paralleled that of contemporaries such as Bill Haley, Valens’ Latino American additions distinguished him from his rock and roll peers. So it’s difficult not to think that an Anglo-centric vision of America has something to do with McLean’s association of “Miss American Pie” and “good old boys” with Holly rather than Valens—an association that, aided no doubt by McLean’s song (if complicated a bit by the hit film La Bamba ), American narratives too often continue to make.
Next ambiguous hit tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Takes on this song, or other American hits?
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