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American Pieta

By Edward Crouse and Michael Stabile, apologies to VN

Madonna's newest single, "American Pie," is allegedly a cover of the 1971 Don McLean song. While SF Metropolitan editors acknowledge that such a text exists on scan-the-same-100-oldies MOR radio, we feel that the tensions between the two versions present a listener with too many options to let slip by as a mere "cover" of an old song. This is, in fact, more curious than the '60s "Is Paul dead?" question. Here is our psychic re-mapping:

Line 1: A long long time ago
"American Pie" starts on the "Borderline"--the same Fender-Rhodes keyboard sound that kicks off Madonna's second single caresses this lyric of recherche de temps perdu. It also must be noted that in Madonna's gutted form of the song, "A long, long time ago" resonates heavily with the introduction of George Lucas' Star Wars, thereby placing "a long long time ago" at 1978. This is the approximate time that the musical paradigm shifted from disco to punk/new wave/pop and began the Immaculate Conception which would gestate Madonna for the five years before her musical "Virgin" birth.

Line 4: That I could make those people dance
Madonna as dancefloor Messiah prophesied by Don McLean, whose own version of "American Pie" never made people dance. The best that might be said of it is that he did make them happy for awhile (or at least until the eight-minute-long song annoyingly leaches onto your brain).

Between Lines 5 and 6:
[two stanzas cut from prologue]
Any lyric that covers the Buddy Holly plane crash is slashed. In the context of her movie The Next Best Thing Madonna resurrects this one verse as an anthem for those who have died of AIDS when she inappropriately begins singing it during (and over) a Catholic funeral service.


American Pie: The original lyrics as sung by Don McLean.


Line 6: Did you write the Book of Love
cf. Sex by Madonna, 1992, photography by Steven Meisel, edited by Glenn O'Brien. Out of print.

Line 7: And do you have faith in God above
#1 of 6 religious patches that Madonna deems appropriate to include. Terribly ironic given Madonna's borderline faith and offense ("Like a Prayer") and defense (tearing up Sinead O'Connor's picture on SNL) of the papal system.

Line 8: If the Bible tells you so
Second religious reference (see above) but this time she appears to be arguing against strict interpretation of the scriptures given the active position of the word "Bible." To further argue, Madonna does use loose interpretations of Aramaic and Hebrew texts with her much talked about Kabbalah adoption.

Line 9: Do you believe in rock 'n' roll
As Courtney Love stated in SF Metropolitan, March 6 issue, "Madonna [...] is pop." The answer for Madonna then--despite the Doors-y noodling on both this tune and Madonna's last single "Beautiful Stranger"--is "no."

Line 11: And can you teach me how to dance real slow?
As with the previous note to line 9, use of the second-person voice here is mocking and deliberately obscure. The last pop precedent for this occurs in Diana Ross's conversion of Marvin Gaye and Tammy Terrell duets into mirror songs or bare stages where she alone emotes to herself, regardless of the purported love-object. Madonna, as everyone knows, thwarted dance teachers at University of Michigan and taught herself.

Line 13: 'cause I saw you dancin' in the gym
Possibly the only gay lyric in the song. The gym here, unlike the prom gym in McLean's version, is clearly an aerobicize-thyself 24-hour place, possibly even a bathhouse or after-hours sex joint, as this gym event is embedded in a space-disco rhythm.

Line 14: You both kicked off your shoes
Rupert Everett starts his background vocal on this lyric (the album, not the single, version). The two men "kicking off their shoes" act forms an image of Madonna cradling two hot boys, DP'ing (double-Pieta'ing) them. These hunks, like the two stone Commandment tablets, provide Ms. Ciccone with her first five flavors: sex, sex, sex, sex, sex. As well as her next five: gay(ish), queeresque, sappho-ney, vogue, and macho gerl.

Line 15: Man, I dig those rhythm and blues
Ahmet Ertegun coined the term "soul" to disinguish Ray Charles from the dominant "Negro" music of the day. This breakaway term thwarted "rhythm and blues," which went out of fashion for awhile after, until the advent of smoothie jazz, quiet-storm soul, and the ungodly trinity of Bryson-Vandross-Ingram. The namecheck of both R 'n' B and Rock 'N' Roll in MAP (Madonna's American Pie) is Madonna vitriolically smashing the Chuck Barris gong. Also, of course, references Madonna's relentless strip mining ("digging") traditionally African-American musical stylings and symbolism (the gospel chorus/burning crosses in "Like a Prayer" and the appropriation of African-American "Vogue" culture and dance in the late '80s.)

Lines 16-17: I was a lonely teenage broncin' buck/With a pink carnation and a pickup truck
The dialectic between teenage broncin' buck (aggressive male sexuality) and "pink carnation" (female purity) is too easily comparable to Madonna's early years toying with the Madonna/whore dialectic in "Like a Virgin."

Line 19: The day the music died
Obviously Madonna's old musical identity, shed as a snake. This could mean dance music as such or her own specific oeuvre.

Line 21: Drove my Chevy to the levee
By this chorus, it's clear that Madonna has switched the argument of Don McLean (a lament-allegory of flashpoints in rock history starting with the literal demises of Holly-Bopper-Valens and ending on the figurative end-of-the-'60s coda of Altamont) over to a discussion of her sex, and its projection. In the wake of the movie American Pie, she evidently appealed to both its sensibility (the all-american vaginal substitution) and its benevolent father figure, Eugene Levy. Cleverly tucked into a homophone, Mr. Levy, by most accounts, did not reciprocate. Any further speculation on the affair, particularly whether he indeed was "dry," verges on libelous and so this argument must let Madonna's slanderous salvo stand.

Line 25: This'll be the day that I die
"Everyday a little death"--Stephen Sondheim, A Little Night Music. It's here that producer William Orbit grafts in handclaps, sadomasochistically aiding the reaper.

between lines 25 and 30:
[7 cut verses]
History negated, rewired. All references to the '50s and '60s in rock (or pop) music are omitted. Ditto the queerest line in McLean's text: "Jack Flash sat on a candlestick."

Lines 26-28: I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news
But she just smiled and turned away
Quite possibly a reference to Madonna's brief lesbian affair with Sandra Bernhard and her one-woman show Without You I'm Nothing in which she not only imitates Madonna but sings a soulful version of "Me and Mrs. Jones." Not to mention that in The Color Purple the singing of the blues is directly to love between two women.

Line 31: But the man there said the music wouldn't play
This reaction covers Madonna's musico-mystico conversion into a Kaballah siren. The man could be any number of record executives who dared question the new slant on Ray of Light. Significant in light of Madonna's break with Warner and startup of her own label, Maverick (shades of "broncin' buck," anyone?).

Lines 35-39:
But not a word was spoken
The church bells all were broken
And the three men I admire most
The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died

Her choice to skip seven verses and go directly to the confrontation between Madonna, her family (and father, especially in the documentary Truth or Dare in which he and she refuse to talk) and the Catholic church with its "bells all broken." What would otherwise be a McLean reference to the Big Bopper, Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens (as Father, Son and Holy Ghost) going to the Coast (going west--where the sun sets--is an oft-used metaphor for death) is instead inverted to signify her change from Catholic to Kaballah. (In this case, going West is used as a symbol of liberation and her position as a religious pioneer. Think Joseph Smith and Brigham Young).

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From the April 3, 2000 issue of the Metropolitan.

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