"American Pie" is a song by American singer and songwriter Don McLean. Recorded and released on the American Pie album in 1971, the single was the number-one US hit for four weeks in 1972 starting January 15 after just eight weeks on the Billboard charts (where it entered at number 69). The song also topped the charts in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. In the UK, the single reached number 2, where it stayed for 3 weeks, on its original 1971 release and a reissue in 1991 reached No. 12. The song was listed as the No. 5 song on the RIAA project Songs of the Century. A truncated version of the song was covered by Madonna in 2000 and reached No. 1 in several countries, including the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. McLean's combined version is the fourth longest song to enter the Billboard Hot 100 (at the time of release it was the longest), in addition to being the longest song to reach number one.
The repeatedly mentioned phrase "the day the music died" refers to the plane crash in 1959 that killed early rock and roll performers Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens. (McLean's description eventually became the popular name for the plane crash.) The meaning of the other lyrics has long been debated, and for decades, McLean declined to explain the symbolism behind the many characters and events mentioned; he eventually released his songwriting notes in 2015, explaining many of the symbols in the lyrics. The overall theme of the song is the loss of innocence of the early rock and roll generation as symbolized by the plane crash that claimed the lives of three of its heroes and various other events over the course of the 1960s.
In 2017, McLean's original recording was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or artistically significant".
It has been claimed that Don McLean began writing the song in upstate Saratoga Springs, New York, at Caffè Lena. But a 2011 New York Times article quotes Don McLean as disputing this claim. Some employees at Caffè Lena claim that he started writing the song there, and then continued to write the song in both Cold Spring, New York, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. McLean claims that the song was only written in Cold Spring and Philadelphia. Tin & Lint, a bar on Caroline Street in Saratoga Springs, claims the song was written there, and a plaque marks the table. While some have claimed other places, such as Saint Joseph's University, as where the song was first performed, McLean insists that the song made its debut in Philadelphia at Temple University when he opened for Laura Nyro on March 14, 1971.
The song has nostalgic themes, stretching from the late 1950s until the late 1960s. Except to acknowledge that he first learned about Buddy Holly's death on February 3, 1959—McLean was age 13—when he was folding newspapers for his paper route on the morning of February 4, 1959 (hence the line "February made me shiver/with every paper I'd deliver"), McLean has generally avoided responding to direct questions about the song's lyrics; he has said: "They're beyond analysis. They're poetry." He also stated in an editorial published in 2009, on the 50th anniversary of the crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson (who are alluded to in the final verse in a comparison with the Christian Holy Trinity), that writing the first verse of the song exorcised his long-running grief over Holly's death and that he considers the song to be "a big song ... that summed up the world known as America". McLean dedicated the American Pie album to Holly.
It was also speculated that the song contains numerous references to post-World War II American events (such as the murders of civil rights workers Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner), and elements of culture, including 1960s culture (e.g. sock hops, cruising, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Charles Manson, and much more).
When asked what "American Pie" meant, McLean jokingly replied, "It means I don't ever have to work again if I don't want to." Later, he stated, "You will find many interpretations of my lyrics but none of them by me ... Sorry to leave you all on your own like this but long ago I realized that songwriters should make their statements and move on, maintaining a dignified silence." He also commented on the popularity of his music, "I didn't write songs that were just catchy, but with a point of view, or songs about the environment."
In February 2015, however, McLean announced he would reveal the meaning of the lyrics to the song when the original manuscript went for auction in New York City, in April 2015. The lyrics and notes were auctioned on April 7, and sold for $1.2 million. In the sale catalogue notes, McLean revealed the meaning in the song's lyrics: "Basically in American Pie things are heading in the wrong direction. ... It [life] is becoming less idyllic. I don't know whether you consider that wrong or right but it is a morality song in a sense." The catalogue confirmed some of the better-known references in the song's lyrics, including mentions of Elvis Presley ("the king") and Bob Dylan ("the jester"), and confirmed that the song culminates with a description of the death of Meredith Hunter at the Altamont Free Concert, ten years after the plane crash that killed Holly, Valens, and Richardson.
Mike Mills of R.E.M. reflected: "'American Pie' just made perfect sense to me as a song and that's what impressed me the most. I could say to people this is how to write songs. When you've written at least three songs that can be considered classic that is a very high batting average and if one of those songs happens to be something that a great many people think is one of the greatest songs ever written you've not only hit the top of the mountain but you've stayed high on the mountain for a long time."
In 2017, Bob Dylan was asked about how he was referenced in the song. "A jester? Sure, the jester writes songs like 'Masters of War', 'A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall', 'It's Alright, Ma' – some jester. I have to think he's talking about somebody else. Ask him."
In 1999, "Weird Al" Yankovic wrote and recorded a parody of "American Pie". Titled "The Saga Begins", the song recounts the plot of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace from Obi-Wan Kenobi’s point of view. While McLean gave permission for the parody, he did not make a cameo appearance in its video, despite popular rumor. McLean himself praised the parody, even admitting to almost singing Yankovic's lyrics during his own live performances because his children played the song so often.
The City of Grand Rapids, Michigan, created a lip dub video to "American Pie" in response to a Newsweek article that stated the city was "dying". The video was hailed as a fantastic performance by many including Roger Ebert, who said it was "the greatest music video ever made". On March 14, 2015, the National Museum of Mathematics announced that one of two winners of its songwriting contest was "American Pi" by mathematics education professor Dr. Lawrence M. Lesser. The contest was in honor of "Pi Day of the Century" because "3/14/15" would be the only day in the 21st-century showing the first five digits of π (pi). The song was covered by the cast of the NBC show Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. The scene relates each of the verses to a different character and uses it as a musical finale to close off the season. As is common verses four and five were omitted to shorten the length of the scene.
On January 29, 2021, McLean released a re-recording of "American Pie" featuring lead vocals and instrumentals by country a cappella group Home Free.
American singer Madonna released a cover version of the song in March 2000 to promote the soundtrack of her film The Next Best Thing (2000), with the song being serviced to radio on February 2. Her cover is much shorter than the original (it contains only the beginning of the first verse and all of the second and sixth verses) and was recorded as a dance-pop song. It was co-produced by Madonna and William Orbit and released on the singer's Maverick label, after Rupert Everett (Madonna's co-star in The Next Best Thing) had convinced her to cover the song for the film's soundtrack. It is included as an international bonus track on her eighth studio album, Music.
Released in March 2000, the song was a worldwide hit, reaching No. 1 in many countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia, Iceland, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Finland. The song was the 19th-best-selling single of 2000 in the UK and the ninth best-selling single of 2000 in Sweden. The single was not released commercially in the United States, but it reached No. 29 on the Billboard Hot 100 due to strong radio airplay. NME gave it a negative review, saying that it was "sub-karaoke fluff" and that "it's a blessing she didn't bother recording the whole thing." Chuck Taylor from Billboard, on the other hand, was impressed by the recording and commented, "Applause to Madonna for not pandering to today's temporary trends and for challenging programmers to broaden their playlists. ... In all, a fine preview of the forthcoming soundtrack to The Next Best Thing." Don McLean himself praised the cover, saying it was "a gift from a goddess", and that her version is "mystical and sensual". In 2017, the Official Charts Company stated the song had sold 400,000 copies in the United Kingdom and was her 16th best selling single to date in the nation.
The music video, filmed in the southern United States and in London and directed by Philipp Stölzl, depicts a diverse array of ordinary Americans, including scenes showing same-sex couples kissing. Throughout the music video Madonna, who is wearing a tiara on her head, dances and sings in front of a large American flag. Two official versions of the video were produced, the first of which now appears on Madonna's greatest-hits DVD compilation, Celebration, and was released as the official video worldwide. The second version was issued along with the "Humpty Remix", a more upbeat and dance-friendly version of the song. This video was aired on MTV's dance channel in the United States to promote the film The Next Best Thing, starring Madonna and Rupert Everett; it contains totally different footage and new outtakes of the original and omits the lesbian kiss. Everett, who provides backing vocals in the song, is also featured in the video.
Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.
Date: February 2021.
Photo Credits: (1ff) Don McLean (unknown/website).