American Pie’ and the Self-critique of Rock ‘n’ Roll

In William Irwin & Jorge J. E. Gracia (eds.), Philosophy and the Interpretation of Popular Culture. Lanham, MD: pp. 255-273 (2006)
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More than thirty-five years after its first release in 1971, Don McLean’s “American Pie” still resonates deeply with music listeners and consumers of popular culture. In a 2001 public poll sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Recording Industry Association of America, McLean’s eight-and-a-half-minute masterpiece was ranked number 5 among the 365 “most memorable” songs of the twentieth century. In 2002, the song was voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 1997, Garth brooks performed “American Pie” at a concert in Central Park, and in 2000, pop icon Madonna performed her own version of “American Pie” on the soundtrack of her movie The Next Best Thing. In 1999, American Pie became the title of a popular – and irreverently comical – coming-of-age movie starring Jason Biggs (the movie American Pie was followed by American Pie 2 in 2001, American Wedding in 2003, and American Pie Present – Band Camp in 2005). Like the movie to which it lent its name, the song “American Pie” presents a coming-of-age narrative; and, also like the movie, the song appealed strongly and immediately to its contemporary audience. Three months after its release in November of 1971, the song reached the number one slot on the charts in January of 1972, and it remained in the Top 40 for a total of seventeen weeks (longer than any other single during the year of 1972). Unlike the movie, however, the song “American Pie” is highly nuanced and sophisticated, containing multiple allusions and layers of meaning which challenge and heighten our understanding of rock ’n’ roll music and the possibility of self-reflection and self-critique in popular culture.
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