On American Pie

You can go read the critical explanations of what Don McLean’s song, “American Pie,” is all about–Buddy Holly, Dylan, the Stones, the sixties, but I don’t think that most people think about those things today when they listen to the song. I imagine that most people think about lost loves, youth, music they loved, ideals, tragedy, religion, and a host of other associations which the broad metaphors and wide-open tropes of the song suggest. The beauty of the song does not lie in the exact meaning of each reference–the jester=Dylan–but in the voice that wants to tell a story about lost innocence and cynical experience. As adults we listen to this song, and some piece of it resonates with the things that have happened to us: a first girl friend, music, a pick-up truck, a glass of whiskey. What matters is that we listen to that voice which tells us that “for ten years, we’ve been on our own,” and we know that we are no longer young, no longer under the protection of our parents, no longer in the possession of our youthful ideals. We feel empty, rage, read too much bad news from our doorstep, seen too many widows on the nightly news. “American Pie” is about what is lost with age. This is the common experience which is shared with everyone who listens to the song. Each person fills in the blanks with the failures and losses in their own life. What makes the song special, however, what makes it stand apart from the pop music fluff of the seventies, is the song’s ability to evoke that period in everyone’s life when everything was lived so intensely, when everything was a drama, when you could still “kick off your shoes and dance,” when you still might wear a pink carnation. There is no remedy for the loss of innocence, and experience has taught us that although those high ideals we might have harbored in our youth were hot and burning, that life is a little easier to live without those preoccupations. Yet the loss of innocence is also a bitter affair when you realize how foolishly you acted, how unrealistic you were about the way the world worked, and how bitter experience can really be–“My hands were clenched in fists of rage.”