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Feb 15

MADONNA – “American Pie”

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#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.

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Comments

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  1. 1
    Cumbrian on 13 Feb 2015 #

    Before someone else says so, I think you’ve got a typo for the year of Buddy Holly et al’s deaths. 3rd February 1959 that particular incident I think.

  2. 2
    flahr on 13 Feb 2015 #

    This is new to me. Good, innit? Maybe if you were like invested in Madonna at the time (or indeed, ever) it would be a disappointed but I essentially hear it as some sort of anonymous disco version. “American Pie”‘s got a good tune, William Orbit does good production, Madonna’s got a good voice – what’s not to like? It’s very short and there’s even some light chuckles at the incongruity of the style.

    In a word: good. [6]

    EDIT: Having now read the review I should maybe change my opening line “invested in anything”. I was, after all, seven at the time and thus apathetic towards Madonna, dance-pop, the sixties, rock, reclamation, detournement, recuperation, assorted Situationist bollocks, the nineties, the early noughties, the pop charts, William Orbit, or anything else at all relevant to this record.

    I am trying to empathise by imagining Clean Bunny doing a not-very-good deep house version of the Bolero of Fire from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time* but the problem is that would be kind of awesome.

    *Majora’s Mask is, of course, better but I didn’t play it until later

    ANOTHER EDIT: Also as a token and tenuous bit of self-promotion I should say that if anyone has a strange hankering to see me recognise the original version of “American Pie” then BBC2 in its infinite wisdom will give you that opportunity at 8.30pm next Monday.

  3. 3
    AMZ1981 on 13 Feb 2015 #

    This song got a pretty hostile reception at the time but I must admit that I quite liked it. So did Don McLean himself (`I’ve received many gifts from the Gods but this is the first time I’ve received a gift from a Goddess`). It was, as noted, her second standalone single from a soundtrack in a row (it did find its way on to her next studio set but as a UK only bonus track) and you suspect she was making hay while the sun shone. Three years ago she’d been a fading eighties icon, now she had serious chart power again. With hindsight it feels like a consolation prize number one; Beautiful Stranger was unlucky not to get there while American Pie feels like a fun stop gap.

    For me I knew the original from a compilation but that only had part 1 (the original single was split over two sides and radio stations used side 1 as the radio edit) so it was the first time I’d heard some of the later verses and I ended up investing in a copy of the original Don McLean album as a result and was impressed by the whole record (these days I’d just buy the song I wanted on Itunes).

  4. 4
    Inanimate Carbon God on 13 Feb 2015 #

    No.

    This is poisonous.

    1.

  5. 5
    Izzy on 13 Feb 2015 #

    I believe my first time on Popular was eight years ago, for ‘Vincent’. Here we are again, and the comment’s the same: “I’ve never heard this song, but that’s a fantastic review.”

  6. 6
    Mark G on 13 Feb 2015 #

    Meanwhile, Don McLean decides to sell his original manuscript:

    http://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/feb/13/don-mclean-sells-american-pie-manuscript-saying-all-will-be-revealed?CMP=ema_630

  7. 7
    mapman132 on 13 Feb 2015 #

    Funny for this to be juxtaposed with “Pure Shores”. If PS represented a mythical me-in-2000 that never really was then this could be the actual me-in-2000 that was. Hard to articulate the differences outside of the life soundtrack, but anyway….

    The lyrics of “American Pie” mean little to me so I largely ignore them. Watching the video I’m not sure that Madonna paid much attention to the lyrics either, but that’s okay because this record is more about auditory and visual feel to me than whatever Don McLean was trying to say. The idealized Americana in the video takes me back to the less cynical world of 2000 – it particularly evokes the cross-US via Route 66 road trip I took that June. I stopped in tiny towns, talked to locals, ate at greasy spoons, etc. Even though I’ve taken many other road trips before and since, in particular a much longer and more ambitious cross-country trip in 2004, I have to say that in 2000 I felt a connection with America that I never quite felt before and certainly haven’t since. I don’t think I’m alone – I can’t imagine Madonna’s AP video being made in 2015 without a healthy dose of roll-your-eyes cynicism.

    So is the record actually any good? I certainly liked it at the time, but I was starved for any “proper” synth pop in the US chart in 2000 (this reached #29 btw). Madonna probably could’ve released a synth version of any classic record and it would’ve topped my personal chart (yes I have one – still do, at least a top 5). In a perfect world “Pure Shores” might have been atop the Mapman chart for four weeks in early 2000, but in the real world, it was “American Pie”. I don’t like it as much as I did then, but still good enough for 7/10.

  8. 8
    Rory on 13 Feb 2015 #

    McLean’s “Pie” was a number one in Australia, and part of the backdrop of my childhood: as ubiquitous as The Eagles’ Greatest Hits, and for similar reasons. Storytelling countrified rock went down a treat in the Australian countryside of the ’70s and early ’80s.

    Madge is ten years older than me, so she would have been in her early teens when the song came out; I imagine her covering it in the same way that many successful artists reach a point where they indulge in covers of their childhood/teen favourites.

    I never paid close attention to the words; I never owned it myself, so only ever heard them on a tinny AM radio, or through a friend’s car stereo on a drive to a campsite, or up to town for a pub-crawl. But the melody cut through those limitations, and it’s a perfectly pleasant one.

    Madonna’s cover keeps the best aspect of the song, and showers it with tasty multicoloured sprinkles of Orbitized decoration, and I still don’t care about the words. I’m with Flahr: good, to the extent of 6.

  9. 9
    Rory on 13 Feb 2015 #

    Mapman132, good point about 2000 as a highpoint of idealized Americana. Not just for Americans, either. It was the year I tried to get work in San Francisco, wrapped up in the cultural moment of Peak Web 1.0. I remember when I was there being quite taken by a pair of Old Navy pajama* bottoms made out of a giant US flag, but thought buying them might be an act of devotion too far. By the time I’d decided I wanted them, their Market Street store was all out, and I never did get any.

    Within a couple of years I was thanking my lucky stars and stripes I’d ended up in Blighty rather than the States. Not that I have any time for cheap anti-Americanism; it’s a big country, and there’s a vast amount to like. But the GWB years would have been tough to live through. Since then, of course, it’s been Blighty’s turn for political blight.

    *Note careful U.S. spelling. Was selling bottoms only a circa-2000 fashion as well, or did it persist?

  10. 10
    Rory on 13 Feb 2015 #

    Regarding Madonna’s 2000 cover versions, how I wish she’d released this. Breathtaking, like the original.

  11. 11
    Elmtree on 13 Feb 2015 #

    “In a stroke she’d done what years of dogged Britrock effort had failed to: successfully modernise the 1960s.”

    Though Saint Etienne almost did it with a not dissimilar sound ten years earlier. Some slightly more chart-hungry songwriting and they really could have been the band that defined a decade. I think I’ll always hear Beautiful Stranger as a single off the chart-conquering Saint Etienne album that never was.

    Meanwhile, this really isn’t very good, though Madonna would be back with better ideas very soon.

  12. 12
    Jonathan on 13 Feb 2015 #

    Repeat what I said on the Tumblrs: this is so clearly the superior version, by dint of being four minutes shorter.

  13. 13
    Chelovek na lune on 13 Feb 2015 #

    Second bit of impressive-surface shiny-sheeny vacuous-substance high quality wall-paper in a row. Though arguably high quality karaoke with sparkle, as here just about trumps film trailer soundtrack in my book.

    I’d be being unusually generous to give it more than 5, though.

  14. 14
    lonepilgrim on 13 Feb 2015 #

    I like the idea of music as wallpaper – superficial, brightens up the room, covers unsightly cracks, etc. This strips down the original version to its hooks and melody which are the best aspects of the song. I found the queer positive, I-contain-multitudes version of America in the video quite affecting. Not Madge’s best but still OK for me.

  15. 15
    Tommy Mack on 13 Feb 2015 #

    I wish she’d covered San Francisco instead.

  16. 16
    tonya on 13 Feb 2015 #

    #9 my brother-in-law asked for new pajama bottoms this year for Christmas and I had no trouble accommodating this request at J Crew. Old Navy and Gap also still sell bottoms separately, I think the thought is you wear a t-shirt or go bare (please) on top.

    The original was part of the wallpaper of my childhood, one of those songs where the words seem stupid but you figure there’s probably a deeper meaning that grownups understand. I’m certain it’s how I learned what a levee is, we don’t use that term in Oregon. I remember being disappointed in Madonna for covering this – who could possibly be more uncool than Don McLean? I can’t even find the kitsch in his sincerity, he’s just such a weenie.

  17. 17
    Izzy on 13 Feb 2015 #

    I adore Led Zeppelin’s version of San Francisco. It’s a great example of playing against type – a bad vibes band having a proper go at a good vibes song. The tension that results is pretty wonderful in my view.

  18. 18
    thefatgit on 13 Feb 2015 #

    If you asked me what I thought of the Don McLean AP, I’d reply: “well, it’s not speaking to me, is it? It speaks to my parents’ generation.” And that would be that. If you asked me if I liked AP, then a firm shake of the head would follow. I can respect it, but I can not say I like it.

    So along comes Madge and Orbit, and try to retool the song to speak to a new generation. It’s not Gen-X, but Gen-Y; those unburdened by that period between The Beatles and The Sex Pistols. That was the way I saw it anyway.

    But even now, my assumption back then is grossly flawed. It’s easy to dismiss this song as a dusty, forgotten artefact in Madonna’s canon. Orbit-era Madge meant “Frozen”, “Beautiful Stranger”, and the sublime “Drowned World/Substitute For Love”. A lot of Gen-Xers like me found the parent album, (ahem) a “stunning return to form”. With all that came with that, the new, mature Madonna really turned my head, with the help of Orbit at the controls. AP, though is the one bad mussel in my moule mariniere. I just can’t engage with it in the same way as the rest of her Orbit ouevre. I blame the song. I still maintain neither version speaks to me, even with her all-inclusive video. Unfortunately, great swathes of that nation don’t agree with its let’s-all-of-us-unite-under-the-Stars&Stripes philosophy, so her message rings hollow. All the points awarded by me go to Madge for making a decent fist of it. (5)

  19. 19
    Doctor Casino on 13 Feb 2015 #

    A steady, muted burble of a backing track – funnily enough, quite appropriate soundscaping for an Old Navy or J. Crew store. But not much for a statement, or even a single; the track and the performance both flatten out the song to where one could hardly notice the chorus has come around again. Whatever the faults in McLean’s version, it at least knows how to wrest drama out of dynamism in the arrangement.

    My best guess is that Madonna tried on the opening stanza and recognized something true and rich there for a performer who had, indeed, made the people dance, but was just now realizing it was, now, a long long time ago. For a few seconds, you have the feeling this is going to be a really powerful track, but the rest of the lyric can’t bear this out. More sensible would have been to interpolate those lines – and those lines alone – as a bridge in some completely new song, where the original text and its appropriation could both operate tactically. Something like a 3 for me, as it’s such air pudding one can hardly notice it enough to be offended by it.

  20. 20
    Tom on 13 Feb 2015 #

    I’d forgotten the video – well, no, I remembered Madonna wiggling about in front of a flag, and the muted colours, but for some reason I thought it was a different single, maybe her other one with “American…” in the title (possibly because it feels kind of like a post-9/11 video?). I really should discipline myself to actually watch the videos before I write the reviews, there’s no excuse for relying on the MP3s. But I don’t think it changes the substance much, other than to remind me of the nationalistic element in McLean’s interpretation of rock history – the Brits were able to come along and change/ruin everything because of the void left by the death of BH et al. (I don’t think Don was expecting especially great things of the Big Bopper, to be fair, though I’d pick “Chantilly Lace” as my favourite of anything the casualties recorded…)

  21. 21
    23 Daves on 13 Feb 2015 #

    I don’t really have anything much to say about this record, but the appearance of this entry does seem to be absurdly timely. Just in today: http://www.thelineofbestfit.com/news/latest-news/don-mclean-to-reveal-meaning-of-american-pie-lyrics

  22. 22
    Ricardo on 13 Feb 2015 #

    A cover song, recorded on a dare by a friend, included on a soundtrack to a forgettable rom-com (starring the singer with said friend) and the last collaboration with William Orbit. You probably wouldn’t even need to hear it to know it’s a throwaway. And sure enough, it sounds like it.
    And when you realise this actually beat *NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” in the race for the top (#3 for JT’s old chums, fact fans), it’s even more baffling! I know *NSYNC never gained the same traction in the UK as they did over in America or Central Europe. But still…

  23. 23
    Auntie Beryl on 13 Feb 2015 #

    Empty and devoid of anything salvageable, this. I’m no fan of the original but this, following the Ray Of Light album, was Madonna leaning back and thinking she’d nailed this pop lark for good.

    She’d lost it for good. RIP. 1

  24. 24
    Shiny Dave on 13 Feb 2015 #

    Absolutely extraordinary timing for this review, as mentioned.

    Comments have reminded me how good Beautiful Stranger was. I can’t believe how many songs from this era I’d forgotten (although in fairness I’d quite literally slept through half of it), and Tom pointing out the sixties-as-aesthetic side of that which carried over to this is a fascinating take on it.

    It’s also interesting that he noted in the comments that he sees this video as kind of post-9/11: another of Orbit’s works from this time was the reworking of Barber’s Adagio for Strings, which was perhaps no less totemic than “Pie” for a somewhat different purpose, a go-to piece for America’s darkest times. But it wasn’t Orbit who reworked it into a trance anthem; Ferry Corsten did. It’s interesting enough that Madonna wanted to touch “Pie,” but did Orbit know quite what he’d been let in for?

  25. 25
    mapman132 on 13 Feb 2015 #

    I could see where one would associate the video with post-9/11 patriotism, but for me it very distinctly feels pre-9/11. Perhaps it’s because it specifically evokes the feelings I had during my June 2000 road trip. Or maybe it just feels innocent and apolitical compared to what came later. It’s also worth noting that the worst of post-9/11 culture didn’t actually occur in the immediate aftermath – it took a few months to a year to gestate. But that’s all yet to come obviously.

  26. 26
    Tom on 13 Feb 2015 #

    One of the frustrating things about this release is that her OTHER William Orbit collaboration for The Next Best Thing soundtrack, “Time Stood Still”, is fantastic: a really big, wintry, broken-hearted ballad. It’s closer to her 90s style than any of her 00s work, though, which is probably why it didn’t get the single nod and this did.

  27. 27
    Ed on 14 Feb 2015 #

    What’s always interested me about AP is how proto-punk it is: hating the sixties’ bombast and excess, and worshiping the rock’n’roll that came before it.

    Very on-trend for 1972: contemporary with Let It Rock (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vivienne_Westwood) and Jonathan Richman’s “I still love the 50s, and I still love the Old World.” Also just a year before Mud started having hits and Showaddywaddy formed.

    How any of this might have made Madonna think this song was worth her time, I have no idea.

    Surely what it really needed was the Professional Widow treatment: they should have chucked out most of the vocal and just looped “we all got up to dance”.

  28. 28
    Ronnie on 14 Feb 2015 #

    I can imagine a good song where Madonna sings the line “Did you write the book of love and do you have faith in God above?”

    I cannot imagine a good song where Madonna sings any of the other lines in this particular song.

    Jonathan @12 says it’s better than the original solely by virtue of being shorter, and I think that sums up the only way you could say something nice about it. If you have a negative opinion of “American Pie,” well, Madonna’s version subtracts some of the negative. But it sure as fuck doesn’t add anything positive. There is zero reason to listen to this more than once.

  29. 29
    swanstep on 14 Feb 2015 #

    I’m pretty sure I’ve never listened to more than a 4 min radio version of McLean’s original before….and, gawd the full 8m33s drags. And complaining about Jagger as the devil is one of the most tone deaf things I’ve ever heard; nobody seriously blames the Stones for what happened at Altamont and their records at the time are universally loved peak rock ‘n’ roll, ‘the music’ if anything is.

    Anyhow, Madonna’s edit of the song is relatively astute and the record’s perfectly pleasant, but it’s very dull. The video’s a reminder that Americans never seem to need much of an excuse to wrap themselves in their flag.

    I didn’t see ‘The Next Best Thing’ (it got very poor reviews and I seem to remember that Madonna’s friendship with Everett didn’t survive the debacle). Does anyone know how the track fits into the film? I vaguely thought/assumed TNBT was comedy but the plot (from wiki) doesn’t sound very funny: “Two best friends – one a straight woman, Abbie, the other a gay man, Robert – decide to have a child together. Five years later, Abbie falls in love with a heterosexual man and wants to move away with him and Robert’s little boy Sam, and a nasty custody battle ensues.” What National and Historical issues would be raised by such a story? Note that TNBT was the final film by sporadically genius director John Schlesinger (Billy Liar, Darling, Midnight Cowboy, Day of The Locust). Presumably he lived a pretty full-blooded version of the ’60s and therefore might have had the odd good idea about how to use the track…

    Agree with ed@27 that a more radical, ‘Professional Widow’-style treatment was probably the way to go:
    3 (I’d probably give McLean’s original a 2)

  30. 30
    flahr on 14 Feb 2015 #

    “their records at the time are universally loved peak rock ‘n’ roll”

    Clearly not universally if your complaint is that Don doesn’t love them…

    (And if ‘at the time’ is 1972, Don is talking about Exile on Main St and I can only agree with him!)

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