The Ornery American     Print   |   Back  

American Masterpiece - A Defense of American Pie as the Greatest Pop Song in Music History - The Ornery American


American Masterpiece
A Defense of American Pie as the Greatest Pop Song in Music History
By Adam Masterman August 23, 2004

Born at the close of the 2nd World War, Don McLean quit school and began his musical career in the early sixties, solidly in the rock/folk tradition and drawing influence from the likes of Buddy Holly and Woody Guthrie. His career, up to the present day, has garnered a modest but respectable following at home and in Europe, and his sales, undergoing understandable waxing and waning, have also been respectable but modest. As a singer-songwriter, he is overshadowed by the iconic Bob Dylan, the more prolific Van Morrison, and the virtuoso Elvis Costello, but his contribution has been both noteworthy and influential in its own right. His career is saved from the ranks of cultured obscurity, though, by one important overriding fact: He wrote the single greatest pop song in the history of American music.

The genius of American Pie is universally recognized, though critical attention too often focuses of the poetic content of the lyrics which, while remarkable (and we will get to them) only function in concert with a near perfection of the popular musical idiom of the fifties and sixties. American Pie is not as formally diverse as, say, Suite: Judy Blue Eyes, whose exquisite harmonies reach an almost sublime perfection (consider the spine-tingling final verse where Stephen Stills sings an ode to Cuba in Spanish while the remaining trio sound that unforgettable melodic harmony). And neither is it as exquisitely orchestrated as the slightly later Stairway to Heaven, which builds a haunting, Celtic melody into a crescendo of the early metal rock idiom. American Pie, on the surface, has none of the musical complexity of either of these ballads (both arguable contenders for the title of greatest pop song). What it does have, however, is an unprecedented dexterity in the delivery of a classically simple musical expression. It is this ability to shift tone so subtly that makes the song so emotionally potent. Consider how just the chorus, which is repeated numerous times, is able to embody such diverse emotional keys. The first time it is sung follows the opening, first person account of hearing about Buddy Holly's death. Here, McLean moves into the chorus with exquisite slowness, using a subdued tempo and longing voice to capture the sorrow and despair of the song's nominal theme. Yet, in the very next verse, the mood becomes upbeat, almost raucous. The 2nd singing of the chorus exemplifies the classic, feel good rock of the fifties era, providing ironic counterpoint to the darkness implied in the lyrics (which is also a rock tradition). A careful listening of the song reveals how the mood of the chorus changes to fit with each verse, sometimes dramatically so. In the second to last chorus, a slow but driving beat and multiple voices make for a nostalgic, almost melancholic mood, very distinct from the first chorus, whose tempo, at least, is almost the same. An interesting experiment is to tape just the choruses from this song and listen to them out of order, to see if you can identify their location in the song. Doing this will make clear how expertly they are woven into the emotional narrative of the song.

McLean achieves this because his great strength is infusing simple musical expressions with a lot of emotional information. Consider the mood of the verse "and I dig those rhythm and blues," or the very different epiphany in that brief silence succeeding " the church bells all were broken". In this, McLean is very much in the tradition of American Rock, which derives its language from the highly inflected lyrical blues of the old Mississippi delta. But McLean's song is a pop song, and its genius and great appeal lie firmly within the purview of the pop song, namely the ability to articulate and embody a collective social emotion. Much has been written about the hidden meaning of the lyrics, most of which misses the point that poetic lyrics are deliberately vague. American Pie is obviously a semi-historical overview of American popular music through the fifties and sixties. It is told mostly from a first person point of view, from a narrator who lived though the events and is responding to them emotionally. In part, the poetic nature of the lyrics underscore the idiosyncratic nature of the account, as in the first verse, where McLean gives a straightforward account of his personal reaction to Buddy Holly's death without mentioning any specifics. More importantly, however, the universality of the lyrics serves to create multiple simultaneous meanings within a single phrase. While references like "the jester" and the "girl who sang the blues" are obvious (Dylan and Joplin, respectively), what is referenced as by the line "the players tried to take the field, The marching band refused to yield,"? Indeed, the whole extended football metaphor functions both as musical and socio-political narrative. In the musical analogy, the players could be the American musical tradition, which was denied access to its public by the continued dominance of the British invasion groups. But the phrase just as easily fits as a reference to the contentious political events of the time, such as Kent State or the '68 Democratic convention, where public spaces became battlegrounds for clashes of ideologies. Earlier in the song, we hear "the courtroom was adjourned, no verdict was returned," which, while aptly describing the unresolved nature of the changing dynamic of American music from Elvis to Dylan, also references the same nature of the Kennedy assassination and the subsequent lack of convincing resolution.

As we can see, the full import of the song is closely connected to how intertwined music and politics became during the sixties in this country, making it a nearly unrepeatable cultural event. In perhaps the most powerful section of the narrative, McLean describes the event where popular music and the darker tendencies of civil unrest made a tragic collision. With "And as I watched him on the stage, my hands were clenched in fists of rage," McLean makes clear his distaste for Mick Jagger, who, perhaps in violation of the spirit of the event, announced to the press the Stones' intention to play a free concert at the Altamont Speedway in 1968, creating a fan frenzy to attend. "No angel born in hell, could break that Satan's spell," refers to the Stones' decision to hire the Altamont chapter of the Hell's Angels as security for the event, which tragically led to confrontations and the violent death of a fan, Meredith Hunter. McLean goes on "And as the flames climbed high into the night, to light the sacrificial rite, I saw Satan laughing with delight," describing the (perceived) disregard of the musicians to this atrocity, a horrid counterpoint to the social optimism that marked music in the early sixties. Here is where McLean's greater theme on the loss of innocence in music and political and social life is expressed, and it achieves the resonance of great art.

McLean ends his song telling of the "three men I admire most The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, they caught the last train for the coast;" on the surface about the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper in the plane crash on Feb. 3. This was referred to in the press as the "day the music died," which is the source of this line in the song. Here, however, McLean is giving a wider and more figurative meaning to the phrase. No listener in 1971 could have heard these lines, for example, without thinking of the momentous political assassinations of JFK, Dr. King, and RFK. And of course the literal meaning of the phrase could not have been lost on McLean, who attended several catholic schools. With this closing, he successfully universalizes his themes of decline and the loss of innocence, making American Pie a work of tremendous depth. It transcends the specifics of its emotional chords to become a timeless ballad whose appeal is not limited to one historical moment, but instead continues to reach new audiences (evident from its continuing popularity, more than thirty years later). Its artistry is so intertwined with McLean's talent and personal vision that it has received remarkable few cover treatments. Madonna notable recent attempt is forced to become a very different statement about patriotism in a complex world, omitting much of the subtle content of the song. In the end, like all great art, American Pie cannot be repeated or recreated. It stands instead as the pinnacle achievement of modern pop music: intricate, subtle, poignant, masterful. It eclipses the great efforts by better-known artists; the Beatles "Hey Jude", "Hotel California" by the Eagles, Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody", and others, with its unprecedented ability to emotionally define a whole decade of life and music. If ever art, if ever music achieves the state of grace Thomas Eliot described as "heard so deeply that it is not heard at all, but you are the music while the music lasts," that example, then, must be measured against American Pie.

Copyright © 2004 by Adam Masterman

http://www.ornery.org/essays/2004-08-23-1.html

Copyright © Hatrack River Enterprises Inc. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.
 
 Web Site Hosted and Designed by  WebBoulevard.com