I can’t remember, did I cry when I heard about Madonna’s “Pie”? To claim I did would be a lie, in fact I likely smiled. A dance-pop version of one of the great rock totems, by an artist on a creative roll, teamed with one of the most sympathetic producers of her career? How could it possibly fail to enrage my foes and gladden my friends? In my head existed a version of “American Pie” that had a shot at being a great single, and would at least end up a marvellous joke. Yet neither outcome came true.
The question of whether or not Madonna screws up “American Pie” is easily answered: yes. How it goes wrong for her is a bit more interesting. But most intriguing of all is what she saw in it to make her want to try. Yes, Rupert Everett put her up to it. But Madonna’s discography is not otherwise chock-ful of bad singles recorded as favours to actor mates. She is 41 at this point, a remarkably shrewd individual at a career high in terms of creative control: even if this is a complete whim, it’s a whim she carried through. Why?
To find out I need to dig into what, exactly, the original “American Pie” was. Don McLean’s lament for the death in 1958 of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper, most simply. (And it does a touching, clumsy job at that: “Bad news on the doorstep / I couldn’t take one more step.”) Of course that’s only the beginning. He turns that inciting incident into a kind of myth-cycle for the entire 1960s, told through a series of riddles and coded references to the era’s pop artistocracy. Which led to the song’s enduring appeal to some people who’d lived through that decade (or wished they had): not just a validation, but a puzzle-book, a thing to be “interpreted”. And by the same token, “American Pie” became widely hated by many born after that, whose response to eight minutes of jesters and quartets and whisky and rye was, roughly, “Why do I care about this shit?”
Looked at now, “American Pie”’s status as a boomer rosetta stone is a little embarrassing, but also fascinating. Even by the CD era, let alone the Spotify one, the references seemed dreadfully on the nose: “The birds flew off with a fallout shelter / Eight miles high and falling fast”. What can the answer be, O Sphinx? But in 1972 these might have played as genuine riddles, triggers for memory and reinforcements of the importance of what had happened: the sense that rock could be – deserved to be! – treated as legend. Even so the pile-up of call-backs is overwhelming, drowning most of the song’s sense. There’s a term from comics and sci-fi fandom for this particular impulse to lard a work with continuity references, determinedly excluding the not-we from the party: fanwank. And “American Pie” is sixties fanwank of the purest kind.
But every fan also has an agenda. Between the too-many lines of “American Pie” are buried schisms and debates. We’re listening, after all, to a history of the 60s in which the music is already dead, killed not when the Beatles broke up but around the time they met. “American Pie” is as much a ghost story as a celebration, and there’s a vengeful purism to McLean’s take on rock music and its decade. In some ways he toes baby boomer orthodoxy – the sixties end at Altamont – but in others he’s a heretic: the most visceral part of the song comes when he watches, furious and bitter, as Mick Jagger dances onstage, and names him Satan. Buried here is an earlier question – what has happened to the magic of rock’n’roll? – a split among the fifties and sixties generation themselves, which the party of “American Pie” seemed to be losing by the time the song was recorded. The song’s side of the schism, I’d say, holds that rock’n’roll hit teenage perfection in the mid-50s, and the sixties saw its decadence and decline. “American Pie” loves the sixties, breathes the sixties, but in this one crucial way has more in common with its haters than its fans.
Madonna, in a theological dispute between Buddy Holly and Mick Jagger, is surely of the devil’s party. But despite my initial excitement, I don’t think she was exactly trolling when she made it (and McLean gushed over her version anyway). I doubt she had much respect for “American Pie”’s meandering retread of sixties pop history, but she certainly had a use for it. In 1999 she’d enjoyed a large, worldwide hit with “Beautiful Stranger”, another Orbit production from the second Austin Powers movie. “Stranger” was a triumph – Orbit’s production managed to capture and update a swirling essence of sixties pop and clubland without actually sounding much like anything from those days. In a stroke she’d done what years of dogged Britrock effort had failed to: successfully modernise the 1960s.
So why not try and hit that spot a second time, with a song absolutely steeped in the era? William Orbit’s arrangement on “American Pie” isn’t as dense as the techno-psychedelic pop sheen he gave “Beautiful Stranger”, but its gyrating keyboard line, occasional hints of fuzz bass, and synthesised Rickenbackers suggest he’s going for a similar hit of lightly retrofied bliss. But it doesn’t work: “American Pie” is comparatively lifeless, and the instrumental touches that seemed like delightful presents to the listener on “Stranger” feel like awkward marking time here, waiting for a misguided song to end.
Does the problem lie in Madonna’s editing? She strips out most of the blind-item content – a wise move – to leave stuff about music and dancing and a bit of religion: her chosen territories. That isn’t a bad way to cut the song – especially as it positions her as the keeper of music’s flame within the record – but even trimmed a lot of McLean’s lyrics are still too idiosyncratic for another singer to get much grip on. What can Madonna do with “I was a lonely teenage broncin’-buck / With a pink carnation and a pick-up truck”? Her best, but the singer and the song don’t fit.
The wider issue, though, is the translation of folk-rock into dance-pop. McLean’s lines are long and rangy, and an acoustic accompaniment gives him space to stretch, play with the cadences, tell a story, even if it is a dumb story full of smarmy riddles. William Orbit’s elegant, clockwork productions are inimical to that, pushing McLean’s words back into line and tempting Madonna into the regulated, autocue reading she gives. Even the song’s very good lines – “I know that you’re in love with him / Cos I saw you dancing in the gym” – get swallowed up by the metre, and Madonna barely bothers to lend them any expression. The restrained, trained singing voice she used on “Frozen” and “Substitute For Love” lets her down badly here. Ultimately, “American Pie” works – for good or bad – as a shaggy dog tale its singer believes in. If this was the only version that existed, nobody would even hate it.
There’s a final mistake, too, in following “Stranger” with this. “American Pie” is a song based on the idea that the sixties mattered – that the details of their story and struggles were vital. “Beautiful Stranger”, and Austin Powers for that matter, are assertions that the sixties now matter only as an aesthetic. They treat the decade the way the hippies treated the Victorian and Edwardian era: a look, a texture, little more. It was an inevitable shift, and a relief. Covering “American Pie” – reducing the ultimate sixties-as-content record to a sixties-as-aesthetic one – might have been a smart way of underlining that, but the song beats her, forcing her to relive a fight she really has no interest in. She knew it, too – “American Pie” was left off the next Greatest Hits record, and even her successful partnership with Orbit wouldn’t last much longer. Time, once again, to move forward.