Feb 15

MADONNA – “American Pie”

Popular83 comments • 7,535 views

#850, 11th March 2000

madonnapie 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.



1 2 3 All
  1. 61
    Ed on 17 Feb 2015 #

    @59 The 60s counter-culture was notorious for not paying much attention to women’s interests and opinions, so I think it’s quite possible that many Stones fans were uncritical supporters of UMT and the like.

    There was definitely some feminist criticism at the time, though. As described here: https://books.google.com/books?id=4pXsV06JjY8C&pg=PA161&lpg=PA161&dq=feminist+rolling+stones+under+my+thumb&source=bl&ots=njGlAoyGlF&sig=0mma7pAD_RrbeTJpQSkRYvzro8M&hl=en&sa=X&ei=9cviVLCRJ-vfsASU3ILoBw&ved=0CCwQ6AEwBjgU#v=onepage&q=feminist%20rolling%20stones%20under%20my%20thumb&f=false

    Charles Shaar Murray’s fantastic book Crosstown Traffic has a great chapter on sexual politics, arguing that while Jimi Hendrix may have been rooted in the blues, he managed to transcend its traditional misogynistic streak, in a way that the Stones did not.

    Joining the dots back to Tom’s My Own Private Record Club post, I guess that may be why Liz Phair thought Exile on Main Street needed an answer record.

  2. 62
    Martin F. on 17 Feb 2015 #

    #2 – Hard lines. I was rooting for your team this series even before I knew you were you. If you know what I mean.

  3. 63
    Tommy Mack on 17 Feb 2015 #

    Re: 61 Tori Amos did an answer record of a different sort: a dozen or so songs written by men about women, revoiced to give a female perspective but without changing the actual lyrics. I remember playlisting her version of The Stranger’s Strange Little Girl for my college radio station because I am a feminist crusader*. Most striking was a chilling version of Eminem’s Bonnie and Clyde 97 but as Tom says, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

    *it must have had an impact on me because I wrote a half remembered rip off that became an early General Khaki song but then we’re really getting ahead of ourselves there.

  4. 64
    Tommy Mack on 17 Feb 2015 #

    Addendum: Tori Amos’ covers album was called Strange Little Girls, nearly after the Stranglers cover that was it’s lead single (double A side with the Eminem cover iirc)

  5. 65
    Mark M on 17 Feb 2015 #

    Re2/62: Yes, hard luck. At least (as regards your credibility here), your pop knowledge was sharp enough.

  6. 66
    Cumbrian on 18 Feb 2015 #

    I find it interesting that the DM AP is “widely hated” – I obviously do not hang around with the cool kids. In my provincial backwater of a town, when I was a teenager in the mid-late 90s, there were a number of my contemporaries who really liked it, though generally more because of the tune and the singability of the thing, especially the edited version that excises all that stuff about jesters and fallout shelters. Then I went to university and a totally different set of people, from different parts of the country and different backgrounds, also seemed to really enjoy it when it got played at student club nights or what have you – again, the singability and the communal aspect of that part of it played well. Subsequently, I have found myself in a pub in Newport, South Wales, that used the DM version as the last song of the night and every one sang along to that too – a third group of people, not connected with the other two groups I had come across, also seeming to get along well with it.

    The connecting tissues seem to be that no one was that bothered about the message of what was being sung (and if they were it was the broken hearted teenager standing at the side of the gym looking on that they were probably connecting with, rather than some sort of slanted symbolic history of 60s rock music) and that all of the groups were made up of people from “uncool” parts of the country. Thinking about it, it chimes back with something I remember talking about on one of the Manics threads about their metal influences – kids in the provinces latch on to whatever, coolness doesn’t seem to come into it. If this is “widely hated” it certainly wasn’t by large groups of people who were my age.

    DM’s AP is thus, I think, alright. It’s catchy and melodic and easy to sing along to. I don’t much like the heavy handed historical parts of it and think it could have been a much better cinematic song about a sad sack kid who had the worst early February of his life (his heroes die, he loses the girl, presumably he loses his paper round too if he’s frozen to the door step and doesn’t deliver the rest of his bag) and left at that. But it does roll along well, just loose enough to rollick when required.

    All this by way then of saying that I totally agree with Tom’s review of the Madonna version, encapsulated in his penultimate graph. This is too mannered, too precise, doesn’t roll along enough to inspire the sing along moment. It’s just not loose enough and, perhaps weirdly given this criticism, it’s all a bit listless.

    Beautiful Stranger is excellent. Would have been far happier with that at #1 than this. Austin Powers operated to solidly diminishing returns though – there’s a good argument that Beautiful Stranger is the best thing about the series after the first film (indeed, it may even give that first film a run for its money).

  7. 67
    Mark M on 18 Feb 2015 #

    Re66: Must admit I thought I had almost no memory of The Spy Who Shagged Me – but it’s the one in which Mini-Me is introduced, so I suspect the first two films blur in my mind. Anyway, there was decent music throughout the series – I like the two (very different from each other) (unbunnied) Neptunes-produced singles from the third film: Beyoncé’s Work It Out and Britney’s Boys. And I remember when I saw the International Man Of Mystery enjoying the closing credits song, BBC, which is Myers singing with his expert ’60s pastiching mates (Matthew Sweet, Susanna Hoffs). Maybe it’s just Hoffs back in ’60s gear w/a Rickenbacker like very early Bangles that I’m a sucker for.

  8. 68
    wichitalineman on 19 Feb 2015 #

    Other new entries this week which Madonna kept at bay included N’Sync’s Bye Bye Bye at 3 (which is one place higher than it went in the US); Lene Marlin’s Sitting Down Here at no.6 (a very different Scandi production which is featherlight singer/songwriter pop but I’ve always been fond of, big Radio 2 favourite); and Honeyz’ Won’t Take It Lying Down at no.7, which sounds pretty good to me these days as adult UK R&B , passed me by at the time.

  9. 69
    Kinitawowi on 19 Feb 2015 #

    Always preferred Unforgivable Sinner to Sitting Down Here, myself. (And Finally Found – and End Of The Line – to Won’t Take It Lying Down.)

  10. 70
    weej on 20 Feb 2015 #

    I also grew up with DM’s version, and while I’m not going to defend it as some landmark in popular music, there are certainly good reasons that so many people liked it then and like it now, very few of which are captured in any textual analysis I’ve seen. Madonna’s version is pointless, an uninspired vocal over a collection of overused William Orbit scraps, not sacrilege but aimless recycling without any sort of spark. I can sort of see why they tried making it, but really not sure why they thought it was worth releasing as a single.

  11. 71
    Inanimate Carbon God on 20 Feb 2015 #

    “They Didn’t Read Books”

    1968 came too early for some, all the trendies feeling empowered
    1976 was a passage of rites, but we blossomed, we weren’t deflowered
    1984? Yeah, there were a few good people who wouldn’t drown in a Pina Colada sea
    1997? “Great, good fantastic Tony”, and Eurovision victory

    But was it something he said?
    Things only got better in the “funky” people carrier that was serenading you in the head

    They told the fortysomethings they’d be wild and free again
    How many years of hurt had passed since way back then?
    But how does Champagne Charlie spark the revival
    Of what they used to know and what used to be vital?

    Matt LeBlanc killed the greasy spoon café
    Vernon Kaye, our poet laureate
    But don’t go around blaming us
    We were told never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever to read books
    Never, never, never, never, never, never, to read books
    Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever to read books
    Never, never, never, never, never, never to read books

    Remember that song playing on the radio, “best footy anthem in the world ever”
    It’ll take you to heaven in a pint of Bombardier, but isn’t someone else saying “Gotcha?”
    We’ll never mind, we’ll come straight from behind like we did against the Armada
    But you’ll never win this war like your forefathers did, there ain’t no Nelson or Magna Carta

    But was it something that night?
    Three Lions on a shirt rubs me well into the dirt and flirt with ideas we’re always right
    (And would Churchill ever appear in a pizza ad?)

    Next year Teflon man makes someone’s dreams come true in Tickertape
    Doesn’t it remind you slightly of something from the pages of “Sugar Ape?”
    But hey, they were sure this bloke had swing and style to employ
    Like a kid let loose in a sweet shop who’s free to play with all these new toys

    But what if you’re one of the boys
    Who’s got the apparatus but can’t do the experiment because your soul’s been long-term unemployed?

    And now the fortysomethings are fainting on the telephone
    Someone you never knew met their end on the River Seine
    The Palace walls are paved with old punks and crocodile tears
    Show your real face – this country just makes you the sad Beefeaters
    Of this shiny new country you fear
    This shiny new country you fear

    We were told never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever to read books
    (Gallaghers, charmingly shameless)
    Never, never, never, never, never, never, to read books
    (Damon, sharp wit tourist)
    Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever to read books
    (Jarvis, thanks – you said no to the la-de-dah who wanted to slum it)
    Never, never, never, never, never, never to read books
    (‘Boyfriend’ by Ashlee Simpson? Once had Justine Frischmann. Suffered so much for her pop art)

    Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever to read books
    (50,000 kids can’t hold pencils – are you blameless?)
    Never, never, never, never, never, never, to read books
    (Shamed Charleroi vomit)
    Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever to read books
    (Now we all dress like scumfucks to be sexy and ironic)
    Never, never, never, never, never, never to read books
    (She frowns and views a yuppie flat that killed the Hacienda… aah!)

    Their cupboard contained seven types of pasta
    FIFA Road to World Cup and Encarta
    Winner Tacos, Ben and Jerry’s Phish Food
    A new 4×4 not driven north of Watford
    Girl power lime green T-shirts on your daughter
    But her “cute” pencil case said “Nutty Tart”, yeah
    Five years later, she’s the “Kappa Slapper”
    Wife’s run out of ideas, don’t want to know her
    Son’s failing exams but he don’t care
    Gotta crash ‘n’ burn when you’re going nowhere
    Wearing clothes, oh-so-chic misspelt F-words
    And now David Hasselhoff’s his Geoff Hurst
    Got digital TV, the latest rom-com
    Hugh and Julia in their London toytown
    Hamza, Izzadeen? Just turn the volume down
    And Daddy looked for a ‘niche career’
    Maybe a super freelance interweb designer
    But everyone else line danced or went to ‘gastropubs’
    Smalltown boys made good don’t come from yoga clubs
    Mum logged into Friends Reunited
    “Just catching up, a quick chat, don’t get too excited”
    And son’s home unexpectedly early
    Hears her scream “I wish my husband was this dirty”
    Opens the door, a casual married man
    Who takes away the pain of her oppression
    Of a country and a town that lost its passion
    Getting pissed, clenching its fist with no direction
    Reminds me of a few decades way back when
    A hot hot heatwave to break all the tension
    When the call centres closed, no explanation
    Getting beat up, blown up at the station

    You can always come back to it later

    Can you really come back to it later?

  12. 72
    Inanimate Carbon God on 22 Feb 2015 #

    In case anyone wonders what the hell I’m on about in my last post, they’re the lyrics from one of the songs I wrote for my never-to-be-formed band, “The Cutthroat Razors” back in summer 2006. Something about starting a new career/degree in a new town (Bristol) and thinking I could form the next Led Zeppelin. It didn’t work out. And this song was supposed to be a “Britpop elegy”, an American Pie for the naively optimistic 90s and more sinister 2000s. More background information here:


    For more

  13. 73
    Tommy Mack on 22 Feb 2015 #

    Good band name!

  14. 74
    Inanimate Carbon God on 23 Feb 2015 #

    Aye, cheers, just a shame we never actually formed, it was all just a concept in my own head and pages and pages of scattergun Manics/Clash-esque agit-pop lyrics. But one day, we might come to life.. one day.

    We were originally going to be called Cutthroat Island after the infamous pirate flick (IIRC one of the biggest film flops of all time.)

  15. 75
    ciaran on 27 Feb 2015 #

    American Pie felt like a milestone for me as a teenager in the same way as Stairway To Heaven or Bohemian Rhapsody did. Maybe it was the similar length of it and it’s re-release in 1991 brought it to a new audience again but I’m still baffled by its legacy.The only other thing I would have encountered like DM was James Taylor when he was in the simpsons back in 1994 offering his tuneful support to Homer in space.Even then I found the whole Good Old US of A bar ‘n’ country tinged shtick a bit of a turn off. Music for blokes in pubs with boots/check shirts and 7 or 8 bottles of beer a night.

    Madonna having a go at it was instantly something to be wary of and and just seems like a bit karaoke with Madge just passing the time away.Doesn’t suit her at all but thankfully there was slightly better ahead. I’m leaning towards a 3 myself.I dont mind Mclean as much as others but given the noted dislike of Don Mclean by the author I’m a bit shocked it got a 4.

    I liked beautiful stranger and its one of those songs that takes a while to get going but when it does it’s sheer joy. Wasnt that keen on the second Austin Powers after a magnificent first movie. Havent got round to the 3rd film but did like Work it Out. Suffered a bit in comparison to what Sasha Fierce did after……

    Its the records that were kept off the top by AP that give the most reasons to be annoyed with Madonna here. Bye Bye Bye would have been a terrific Number 1 (something of a stateside Five) and I even liked ‘Its Gonna Be Me’ later in the year. The success of JT helped the re-evaluation of N Sync for some I’d guess. Sitting Down Here was and still is another favourite of mine. Fell away rather quick afterwards but hear it quite a bit again as early 00s memories come back into fashion.

  16. 76
    Inanimate Carbon God on 28 Feb 2015 #

    True fact about @71: The lines from “Their cupboard contained seven types of pasta” were meant to be sung to the tune of a 2001 bunny (albeit at warp speed in an angry Joe Strummer voice). I’ll leave you in suspense as to which until we get to it!

  17. 77
    Inanimate Carbon God on 1 Mar 2015 #

    I must admit I’m a bit shocked at the derision Don McLean’s original gets from the Popular cognoscenti-intelligentsia. Yes, the chorus is irritatingly nursery-rhyme and points a dog shit-strewn path down to Passenger, Mumfords, all that posh boy folk, and the clumsiest lyrics make “You’re about as easy as a nuclear war” look Shakespearean. However, it’s got so many factors that have earned some records here a “10” – jam-packed with hooks, a pithy but piquant take on its subject matter, a sheer determination to be iconic. (I know some get irritated by the latter, “nobody should aim to make an iconic, cult, this is the one-record”.. but the exact mentality was deployed in Dancing Queen and Come on Eileen. Is it because of the relative conservatism of McLean’s genres?)

    Maybe it’s the perceived pro-50s/anti-60s British Invasion/American imperialism/anti-Britishness allegation? But I tell you what, ending my perception music began in 1963 with phoney Beatlemania was probably the best thing I ever did, and in the last 12 months finally growing up not to consider Buddy/Elvis/Chuck/Little Richard/Eddie Cochran et al as “fogey music” (also with older films as well*) was one of the keys to understanding pop culture with some original substance and having something to bring to this blog’s particular table.

    Plus, “the song is too long” arguments will be deployed, but AP never seems to overstay its welcome with me, as you’re so carried away with the imagery. Maybe I like it because I wasn’t around at the time and for it to irritate me beyond belief as a “standard.”

    I don’t like Madonna’s version as it treats the cover version as phoning it in, not a noble art.. it brings nothing piquant to this particular table, and it’s depressing to see one of the most commanding pop stars of her generation who once could do anything she wanted, and get anything she wanted, take her foot off the gas and do a lip-service cover version totally out of context with what anybody needed from pop in spring 2000. And that toytown keyboard loop at 0:27 is hideous. The video apparently is less conservative and more inspirational but more discussions on Americanis(z)ation later, much more…

    * This time last year, watching James Dean’s performance in Rebel Without A Cause and Brando’s in On The Waterfront single-handedly saved me from running off and joining the circus.

  18. 79
    Ed on 8 Apr 2015 #

    The BBC explains it all in a very reasonable BBC way: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-32196117

  19. 80
    coach handbags new 2015 on 28 Nov 2015 #

    There are diamond heart rings, gemstone heart rings and silver heart rings.
    coach handbags new 2015 http://coachhandbags.backpacks2015.com/

  20. 81

    […] to explode phallic blood vessels is more grossly nostalgic than “Blow Away.” Tom Ewing has a great write-up of Madonna’s “American Pie” cover on Popular (which you frankly should read instead of […]

  21. 82
    Gareth Parker on 31 May 2021 #

    Again, Tom’s 4/10 seems fairly on the money.

  22. 83
    TheGerkuman on 20 Oct 2021 #

    American Pie has always been a weird sell to the british, despite some of the referenced musicians being british, and Madonna didn’t really help. Regardless of whether you agree with Don’s takes, he at least lived them. What cataclysmic musical events has Madonna lived through?

    It’s a portent of her American Life album, but that’s for a different article.

1 2 3 All

Add your comment

(Register to guarantee your comments don't get marked as spam.)

If this was number 1 when you were born paste [stork-boy] or [stork-girl] into the start of your comment :)


Required (Your email address will not be published)

Top of page