Sometimes the strangest songs crop up when I set the media player on random. Sometimes, I don't even realize that I had the song anywhere on file, and sometimes I have no idea how I got my hands on it.
Take the MP3 I have of Garth Brooks doing a live, acoustic cover of 'American Pie.'
First I went, "Bwah?"
And then I went, "Hey, this ain't too shabby. Good job, Brooks."
And then I went, "Wait a second. The audience is singing along with the whole song."
Keep in mind, this is a song that is 8-and-a-half minutes long. Think about that a minute. In Brooks's live version of 'American Pie,' you can hear the audience singing along for 8-and-a-half minutes. And not just the undeniably memorable chorus, but the verses, too. And I don't just mean the beginning and the closing verses, but every single verse.
In that moment I had a realization that bordered on an epiphany. 'American Pie' is one of those songs. You know what I mean, right? It's a song that just about everyone knows. Age doesn't really factor into it, neither does level of education, or region of the U.S. you come from. Hell, even people with only a glancing familiarity with American pop music know this song.
If you're American (or if you've been in America for any length of time), if there's someone standing in front of you with a guitar and a good grasp of the lyrics, you can not only sing along with almost the entire song, you also know what the song's about. You might not get every single reference in the lyrics, but you know damn well that the song is about the death of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper in a plane crash. You might not know that the plane crash happened in 1959. You might not know it happened in Iowa. But you definitely know the who and the what happened.
Yet, to say that 'American Pie' is about the death of Holly, Valens, and the Bopper kind of misses the point. 'American Pie' is about growing up, losing your innocence, and realizing that (as Paul Simon once famously wrote in 'American Tune') "you can't be forever blessed."
If 'The Star-Spangled Banner' (our official national anthem) represents what the United States should be, I would argue that here at the dawn of the 21st century, 'American Pie' best illustrates what the United States really is.
This song, which was unleashed on an unsuspecting public in 1971 by Don McLean using his own knowledge of the musical history of the rock 'n roll era, is at its heart a damn cynical song. It starts with hope and slowly sinks into disillusionment. Poppy beat notwithstanding, there is nothing happy about this song. There is no redemption, no moment of coming to terms with loss, no heroic struggle to recapture what was lost.
In short, the saga simply...ends.
And maybe that's the whole point.
'American Pie' merely states what is, couched in terms of popular culture, it's true, but a harsh reality nonetheless. In a way, it makes McLean a prescient kind of bard singing out the history of the United States in the latter half of the 20th century using a very specific conceit.
All 'American Pie' tells us is a history we know (or at least suspect). What we do with that knowledge is ultimately left up to us, the listener. Do we merely accept it? Do we try to turn back the clock to an era that we think is more innocent? Or do we move on, wiser for what we've experienced?
The ultimate irony of 'American Pie' isn't that us notoriously short-attentioned, and short-memoried Americans are familiar with this 36-year-old, 8-and-a-half minute song. The ultimate irony is that even at the time of the song's release, the only person who knew what all of the lyrics meant was McLean himself...and he still ain't talking. As more time lapses between its release on the pop music landscape in October 1971, the more mysterious all those lyrics are to many of us. Yet, we still know at least 90% of those lyrics, we still sing along, and we still get the gist.
'American Pie' is, in short, our Unofficial National Anthem. It'll never be used to open a sporting match, it'll never be played when American athletes win the gold at the Olympics, and it'll never get any kind of official recognition by anyone. Yet, it doesn't make it any less of a national anthem.
Sure, there's room for debate on whether 'American Pie' is or is not such a creature, but what do you call a song that everyone seems to know almost by osmosis?
For a somewhat cobbled-together stab at deciphering the lyrics of 'American Pie,' Wikipedia has a detailed entry.
And while I'm at it, here are a few song downloads: The original studio release of American Pie by Don McLean and the live version American Pie (Acoustic/Live) by Garth Brooks. Note that Brooks's version is missing a a couple of middle verses, but this version still runs 7-and-a-half minutes.
If you're interested in seeing what Madonna did to 'American Pie' when she covered it, here's a video from YouTube. Frankly, I think Madonna kind of missed the whole point of 'American Pie.' As an original song, it would've worked. As a remake? It's iffy at best.
And for the heck of it (and because I can't resist), here's a download of Weird Al Yankovic doing his version of 'American Pie' (with the blessing of McLean, no less) with The Saga Begins (Episode One). Even though the lyrics are about Star Wars, I think Weird Al's version edges out Madonna's by quite a lot.