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Feb 15

MADONNA – “American Pie”

Popular82 comments • 6,913 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.

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Comments

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  1. 31
    Mark M on 14 Feb 2015 #

    Beautiful Stranger is, I think, the last Madonna song I actually liked, and I think Tom is spot-on about it. Her American Pie, on the other hand, is not a good thing.

    Re27 etc: The ‘rock’s lost the plot’ line goes back at least to Nik Cohn’s Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom, which was written in 1968, published in ’69: ‘Very soon, you’ll have pop composers writing formal works for pop choirs, pop orchestras; you’ll have pop concerts held in halls and the audience sat in rows, no screaming or stamping but applauding politely with their hands, you’ll have sounds and visuals combined, records played on something like a gramophone and TV set knocked into one, the music creating pictures and patterns; you’ll have cleverness of every kind imaginable.
    Myself, though, I’m not interested.’

    Cohn on Dylan: ‘How do I rate him? Quite simply, I don’t – he bores me stiff.’

    On Brian Wilson: ‘Musically, he has travelled a long way, most of it backwards […] The way he wrote car songs, so simple, so obvious but still so improbable, it was something like the way Muhammad Ali fights, Elvis moves, Brigitte Bardot looks sexy. [But then] Almost he was ashamed of pop. He got snob.’

  2. 32
    anto on 14 Feb 2015 #

    This was an early hint of just how suffocating re-makes and revivals in the terrible-idea-let’s-do-it-right-away fashion would become. It can’t escape its air of pointlessness – The original ‘American Pie’ might seem corny but it worked as a pop one-off so covering it just seemed like a careless whim carried too far. Madonna’s version is not terrible, but it’s not anywhere near strong enough to be convincing.

  3. 33
    wichitalineman on 14 Feb 2015 #

    Before AP, Phil Ochs had also being walking a line between folk storytelling, a love of 50s r’n’r, and a mild suspicion of Dylan. He went as far as wearing a gold lame suit on stage at the Carnegie Hall in 1970 and alienating most of his fans.

    It also should be remembered that the single of AP was three-and-a-half minutes, and unless you bought the album that’s what you always heard – the first verse unfamiliar to most listeners would have been “helter skelter in summer swelter…”

    Anyhoo, this version: I agree with Ed and others who say the lyric should have been severely pared back. I didn’t/still don’t really understand the point of it (apart from as a dare – which was a good enough reason to give it a go).

    The production sounds thin and prissy, not iconoclastic in any way. Madge doesn’t do anything with the tricksiness of the lyric, singing it all in her musical theatre voice (which had worked fine on the heftier Frozen). And that “60s-ish” guitar at the end of the chorus is pretty horrible.

  4. 34
    Mark M on 14 Feb 2015 #

    Re33: I had, this week, been pondering the relationship between Tape From California and American Pie – Tape From California also being a sprawling allusive folk-rock epic that speeds up and slows down. What I was struggling towards is whether I could make a solid case for Tape… while dismissing …Pie, other than well, I dig Ochs and not McLean. Tape… has a lot of dodgy lines (‘Madonnas do the minuet for naked millionaires’), although it also – more often that …Pie reverts to plain speaking (‘The landlord’s at my window/And the burglar’s at my door/I can’t take it anymore/I guess I’ll have to fly, it’s worth a try’).
    But that’s to overlook that I first got to know Tape… in a very different genre cover version that chopped out lots of the words, and made it very difficult to make out anything other than the super-urgent chorus, so I guess (as usual) I was drawn to the music rather than the lyrics. (Not to say I don’t love a lot of Ochs’ storytelling).

  5. 35
    swanstep on 15 Feb 2015 #

    @flahr, 30. I’ve always thought that ‘peak devil’ for Jagger was ’68-’70, roughly ‘Sympathy for The Devil’ through to the release of Performance, hence that that rather than Exile was what must be being called out by McLean. Anyow, I agree that Exile is much more open to criticism musically, whereas if someone thinks ‘the music died’ on any of the previous three albums, they just seem out of touch.

    @Mark M. 30. But, famously, Kohn hailed things like Beggars Banquet against White Album Beatles and ‘cleverness’. I tend to think Kohn scored some good points against late Beatles, and like him I prefer the Stones (and also VU and Led Zep and P.Floyd) at the end of the ’60s, but I also think his hyperbolic imagination carried him away: e.g., calling Abbey Road an ‘unmitigated disaster’ and George Harrison’s two songs on it: ‘mediocrity incarnate.’ Brilliant.

  6. 36
    swanstep on 15 Feb 2015 #

    @33,34. I much prefer Ochs to McLean. His stuff is usefully coverable too, e.g., Och’s Changes http://youtu.be/rlVfVBFdMaM vs Digits’ cover of a few years ago (which almost nobody heard, I’m its only youtube comment!).

  7. 37
    Tommy Mack on 15 Feb 2015 #

    Flahr et al, wasn’t there a school of thought at the time that Jagger personally carried a lot of the blame for Altamont after scuppering the concert’s original staging by giving away the location ahead of the agreed schedule?

  8. 38
    lonepilgrim on 15 Feb 2015 #

    Allegedly, it was the Grateful Dead who suggested that security for the show be handled by the local Hells Angels but the Stones took the blame because of their ‘Satanic’ image – and because the murder took place during their show. I believe that there were deaths at Woodstock but they weren’t caught on film and they didn’t fit the narrative of peace & love

  9. 39

    interesting that exile is coming in as a “road less travelled” on tom’s LP-listening thread, and apparently a net negative here: it’s probably actually my favourite stones LP (sometimes after between the buttons, sometimes before) and for years it was a prime crit-pick — it downplays jagger’s trolling and theatricality (or he’d began retreating from same), and it’s incredibly dense, a sustained suffocating impressionist fug of the dancemusic of the ugly places grown-ups hang out when they’re running away from adulthood (crappy bars & strip joints). its two predecessors (beggars banquet and sticky fingers) are organised round obvious poke-morality-in-the-eye highpoints — singles as literal devil worship — but both tend to fall off into noodly diffidence a bit away from the highlight (i think i’m arguing that light and shade, no bad tactic as a way to sequence an LP, does the non-highlight moments no favours on BB and SF: EoMS is certainly playing a difft game; i think its music is better, as well as more internally if less melodramatically varied, but it also gives you far fewer high-contrast routes in)

    (example: “shake your hips” is easily my favourite RS deep cut — i think it would seem a lot more flimsy and throwaway on BB or SF or even let it bleed, because the surround wd drain away a key element in its character)

    haha is this a kneejerk wire reviewer’s argument (it’s the NOISE-MINIMALIST SONICS d00ds) for what eventually collapses into the blobby gillespie aesthetic? I SAY NO but hmmmm —

  10. 40
    Mark M on 15 Feb 2015 #

    Re37/8: Yes, two people died at Woodstock, but there is a pretty significant difference between a smack overdose + someone being run over by a tractor on the one hand, and a man being stabbed by a member of a motorcycle gang being used to guard the stage.

    As I remember it, the implication in The True Adventures Of The Rolling Stones, written by Stanley Booth who was on the 1969 tour (although not published until the ’80s), was that Jagger at that point was still desperate to maintain the Stones’ hip credentials and therefore allowed the band to be railroaded into headlining a hastily cobbled-together free festival, which ended up having a disastrous change of venue. The suggestion being that if Jagger had been truer to his capitalist self then tragedy would have been averted.

    It’s also true that Altamont is one of those events whose symbolic impact (IT”S THE END OF THE HIPPY DREAM) outweighs what actually happened there – ie a lot more people have died at other gigs.

    (As a parallel, consider another ‘where the ’60s went wrong event’ Ronan Point– four people died due to a gas explosion in 1968, which was considered enough by many to discredit high-rise living in the UK forever despite the fact that it wasn’t the first of many similar incidents and many people have died before or since in gas explosions in conventional houses).

  11. 41
    Tommy Mack on 15 Feb 2015 #

    One of the extras on the Gimme Shelter DVD is an audio recording from a San Francisco radio phone in from (I think) a couple of days after Altamont. Already, callers were discussing the events in Death Of The Hippy Dream terms. An eyewitness says Altamont was ugly from the start: people at Woodstock were helping each other through the mud, sharing food etc, people at Altamont were pushing through to get a better place etc. Read into that what you will.

    I wonder if Exile’s reputation has suffered as ‘rock album that has to be heard in it’s entirety to be appreciated’ has drifted downwards from signifier of artistic depth to unwieldy and impractical time waster with no obvious hits that can be pruned away for a playlist. I’ve listened to it twice I think and enjoyed it: sometimes I want big hooks, sometimes a sustained murky, sweaty groove is fine!

    Don McLean’s American Pie album is such a big part of my childhood that I’m incapable of being objective about it. The song American Pie probably is quite silly but I heard it regularly when most of my other favourite songs were actual nursery rhymes (28 years old I was, Stew…) so it seemed a beguiling, epic story: silly riddles don’t seem so silly when you’re four! Even the idea of him driving a pick-up truck was intriguing, let alone the jesters, Kings, Queens, marching bands, angels born in hell etc. I was disappointed with Madonna ‘s cover (not that I was a fan back then but I was no longer such a snob about pop so I was intrigued to see what she would do with it) – all she seemed to do was sap the energy from the song. I should listen again as I’ve not heard it for years.

  12. 42
    Ed on 15 Feb 2015 #

    Mark M @40 “Altamont is one of those events whose symbolic impact (IT”S THE END OF THE HIPPY DREAM) outweighs what actually happened there”

    Yes. Altamont symbolised the end of the hippy dream because something had to. Along with the Manson murders and the deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison.

    Amusingly, I have seen lyrics explanation sites identifying “the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost” from AP as those three. I am sure McLean couldn’t bear any of them. If you think Dylan is excessively self-regarding relative to his talent and artistic contribution, you’re *really* not going to like The Doors.

    Swanstep @29: “nobody seriously blames the Stones for what happened at Altamont”

    Disagree. As well as the logistical issues and the use of Hell’s Angels mentioned above, I have also heard it argued (by Stanley Booth?) that the generally sour and aggressive tone of the Stones’ music at the time was in effect an incitement to violence.

    Listen to ‘Midnight Rambler’, for a start, and it is easy to see the point.

    IIRC, Ian MacDonald argued something similar with respect to the mean-spiritedness of some of The Beatles’ later work, most notoriously ‘Piggies’.

  13. 43
    lonepilgrim on 15 Feb 2015 #

    I would disagree that ‘that the generally sour and aggressive tone of the Stones’ music at the time was in effect an incitement to violence’. I think they were far more cynical about the efficacy of ‘peace and love’ and the ‘age of aquarius’ and on an occasion when they did fall for that agenda they became the scapegoats for the violence – although their music matched the actual mood more accurately than the other acts. The Grateful Dead walked away from the concert with their image as harmless hippies virtually intact despite being instrumental in recruiting the Hells Angels.
    I don’t think the Stones are a benign influence but their demonisation (particularly for this event) seems unwarranted.
    Picking up on the other thread, I AM a fan of Exile on Main Street. It works particularly well as a piece of mood music with lyrics slurred and obscured. There’s a Riot goin’ on works in a similar way for me.

  14. 44
    Tommy Mack on 15 Feb 2015 #

    The Grateful Dead also escaped blame for Altamont as they didn’t actually play due to scheduling issues and so appeared only briefly in the Gimme Shelter film (appearing pretty magnanimous by suggesting they forgo their slot to let the Stones play on schedule).

    Listened to Madonna’s American Pie. Christ it’s boring. Two and a half minutes in and it already felt twice as long as Don’s eight. Weird off-putting video too. Beautiful Stranger’s really grown on me though: I remember quite liking it then tiring of it’s radio ubiquity but there’s loads of killer hooks in there (the ‘you’re everywhere I go’ refrain especially). Pretty tame production for a psych-throwback number mind: updating the 60s surely doesn’t have to mean sanding ALL the rough edges off, does it? Terrible video too. Hate Austin Powers as a character though some laughs to be had in the movies.

  15. 45
    Izzy on 15 Feb 2015 #

    When I mentioned “a bad vibes band having a proper go at … good vibes” and the tension resulting (no.17 above), it was of course the Stones at Altamont that was uppermost in my mind. The Under My Thumb they were playing when *it* happened is actually rather warm and lovely.

  16. 46
    Tommy Mack on 16 Feb 2015 #

    Not words I assosciate with that song! I like it but as an early example of Jagger as Satan or at least as psychopath. It’s got to be one of the most chilling things in the Stones canon. What was the reaction to it at the time? Was it ‘he’s a bad’un Mick Jagger’ or was more just ‘yeah, that’s how you deal with a woman who’s getting out of hand’?

    EDIT: Wow, according to FT’s internal clock, I am posting from THE FUTURE!

  17. 47
    swanstep on 16 Feb 2015 #

    @Mark M, 40. Stanley Booth was the featured guest on Sound Opinions a few weeks ago: http://www.soundopinions.org/show/479/.

  18. 48
    Ed on 16 Feb 2015 #

    @46, @45 Yes! Lyrically, Under My Thumb is one of the least warm and lovely songs in the Stones’ entire catalogue.

    BTW, Izzy @17: I agree Led Zep’s (extemporised?) San Francisco is a wonderful thing.

  19. 49
    Tommy Mack on 16 Feb 2015 #

    45, 48: sonically, UMT is quite delicate but this underscores the creeping menace in the song to me.

    I keep getting the ‘you’re posting too quickly message’. Is that related to the faulty date stamp on my last comment or am I really using more than my fair share?

  20. 50

    last time i got the “you’re posting too quickly” it came after i hadn’t posted for several weeks so i’d take it with a pinch of salt: it’s a robo-message generated by the wordpress machinery and triggered by i don’t know what; certainly it’s not an editorial or admin comment of any kind!

  21. 51
    Mark M on 16 Feb 2015 #

    Re49/50: I tend to get that message when I’m trying to post from my phone…

  22. 52
    James BC on 16 Feb 2015 #

    Awful yet iconic singer covers iconic yet awful song. What could possibly be worse? U2 doing Imagine, I suppose. Imagine indeed.

  23. 53
    Fivelongdays on 16 Feb 2015 #

    Ooh, interesting thread.

    Blaming the Stones for the Altamont Murder reminds me of a band of bunnies who were blamed for rapists raping people at Woodstock 99 on the grounds that they (the bunnies) were loud and stupid. A bit daft, really.

    From what I can recall, Madge’s version keeps the stuff from AP that’s good and gets rid of all the pseudo cryptic thing, leaving it as a song about thinking about music and how it impacts on people. And isn’t that, ultimately, the point of this blog?

  24. 54
    Tommy Mack on 16 Feb 2015 #

    I’d say sporadically brilliant singer covers flawed but enjoyable song (as I’ve said, I’m biased here) What a shame it’s so limp and boring but yes, U2 doing Imagine. Shudder.

    Re: Sukrat’s thoughts on Exile, I’d also put Captain Beefheart’s The Spotlight Kid in the category of long slow-burning groove rather than stand-out tracks. Arguably much of Trout Mask Replica is doing this in a more sonically extreme fashion but only in the middle of the album, sides 1 and 4 are very much ‘this idea then this idea then this idea’. I think Tom talked about something similar in terms of songs rather than albums, as Pageturners or Doing It Doing It Doing It songs but the same model could equally be applied to longer musical forms

  25. 55
    23 Daves on 16 Feb 2015 #

    #48 – Once when I was in a hurry to plug some gaps in my Northern Soul singles collection for DJ’ing purposes, I snapped up a cheap copy of Wayne Gibson’s cover of “Under My Thumb”. I got it home, played it to remind myself of the general tempo and contents, then couldn’t bear to do anything else with it. The Rolling Stones version is one thing, but the joyous nature of the cover takes it into new realms of wrongness. Gibson’s version is ridiculously triumphant.

    I’ve still got it gathering dust in a box somewhere. It’s one of those records you’re supposed to keep to one side at certain mod/ Northern Soul nights in case anyone requests it, but in my experience, nobody ever actually does these days.

  26. 56
    Tommy Mack on 16 Feb 2015 #

    Not heard his version. The Stones’ original is so creepy, calculating and nasty that even in the 60s, I can’t imagine anyone hearing it as anything other than proto-Eminem ‘I am evil and you should fear me’ song but triumphal Northern Soul cover suggests otherwise I.e. At least some were thinking ‘serves her right, the haughty bitch’

  27. 57
    punctum on 16 Feb 2015 #

    Misogyny klaxon

  28. 58
    Tom on 16 Feb 2015 #

    I’m not seeing it, Punctum – seems a fair summation of the mindset of someone who’d like a triumphant version of Under My Thumb! Not an actual endorsement of said mindset.

    Mind you I think the Stones are being, at best, deliberately ambiguous in terms of whether they want you to hear that song as evil or justified – I think that’s “proto-Eminem” too, though. But we’ll have plenty of time for THAT conversation before long.

  29. 59
    Tommy Mack on 16 Feb 2015 #

    Yes, I’d hope that it was fairly obvious that was meant as critique of that mindset. I’d also agree The Stones revel in moral ambiguity, it’s one of the things that makes Jagger such a compelling performer but it does make UMT uncomfortable to say the least. What I am curious about is how the song was received at the tim: was it read as Jagger playing or even being a dangerous character or was it taken as ‘well, you’ve got to get tough sometimes’, an attitude which for the sake of disambiguation let me state, I don’t endorse but I could imagine being prevalent at the time.

  30. 60
    Elmtree on 16 Feb 2015 #

    Other Madonna cover I wish had got to the top instead of this: Massive Attack’s terrifying, needy, slow-burn version of I Want You. Really makes you wish they’d tried to write some original songs together.

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