'American Pie': The Paradox of Boomer Nostalgia, in One Song

Some people obsess over the lyrics of Don McLean's 1971 hit. Others just appreciate it as enduring pop.

Christie's curator Tom Lecky holds the original manuscript for the song. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Shortly after reading the news that Don McLean had sold the original lyrics sheet for “American Pie” at auction for $1.2 million, I found myself on a website I don’t visit often: GlennBeck.com. Three years ago, the conservative pundit used his radio show to spin out a line-by-line lyrical interpretation of McLean's 1971 classic. The song chronicled the death of old American ideals, Beck argued—and offered a dark prophecy about the years to come.

“Our culture has erased the meaning of anybody who tried to issue a warning,” Beck told listeners. “Anybody who was on the other side. They’re trying to do it now with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and they are saying that that has nothing to do with Jesus and Christianity ... They try to do this every step of the way and they’ve done it with much of music.”

Setting aside the culture-warrior rhetoric (who’s “they”?), Beck was actually just taking part in a grand American tradition: treating the 800+ words of McLean’s 1971 single like a Talmudic scroll. UnderstandingAmericanPie.com has a separate page for each of the song’s six verses, plus ones for the chorus and cultural context. The Genius.com breakdown of the tune combines the collaborative efforts of 61 people. The SongMeanings.com lyrics page has 335 comments. And McLean over the years has declined to explain the song’s words, a fact that allowed Christies in its delightfully overblown sale notice to speak of “AN ENDURING ENIGMA,” with the historian Douglas Brinkley writing that "American Pie" is “a talisman, which, like a sacred river, keeps bringing joy to listeners everywhere.”

The solemn reverence surrounding the song might strike some of its younger fans as a little amusing. And it definitely irritates the song’s many detractors: "Who the hell wants to actually understand this crap?" Michael Lopez wrote at the Phoenix New Times, placing it at No. 4 on the list of songs that make him hate music. "American Pie" might just be the artifact that epitomizes how 2015 pop culture relates to boomer nostalgia: Depending on your point of view it's enormously significant, a fun pop song, or insufferably sentimental.

That's probably because the song itself is a work of boomer nostalgia. McLean's inspiration, famously, was the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson a.k.a. The Big Bopper in 1959. The verses gesture at 60s icons like Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. Released in 1971, it concludes with a gloomy vision of a time, and a genre, ending. If you want the details, Beck is as good a source as any, with an explanation so precise that it tells you which lines correspond to which particular years of the flower-child decade.

But I certainly didn’t have any of this stuff in mind when middle-school me threw the song next to Green Day onto my Napster-enabled CD mixes around the turn of the millennium. It didn't matter to the people who bopped in clubs to Madonna’s sugary cover, which lopped off many of the lyrics and hit No. 1 on the dance charts. And it doesn’t matter when you’re listening to Weird Al’s version, which wistfully retells the plot of The Phantom Menace. The song keeps getting recycled, and its deeper meaning seem to be the least of the reason why.

“In an era of increased globalization, fluid social values, and with the loss of musical innovators such as Kurt Cobain and Michael Jackson, ‘American Pie’ retains today the same poetic universality it held in 1971,” the Christie’s writeup says. It’s a nice thought, but it seems safer to say that what's universally appealing are the internal rhymes of the chorus and the stickiness of the melody, looped more times than even Max Martin would dare. The fact that the words are impenetrable without a knowledge of the 60s, and yet the song remains vibrant, almost undermines the message: Music, it turns out, can't die.