Most people have heard the song “American Pie” and some may realize it was the title track of Don McLean’s second album. Many have puzzled over the song’s meaning, and there’s plenty to chew on in the 8+ minutes of imagery and poetry the tune presents. However, a couple years ago, McLean decided to sell off the original written lyrics and discussed the song’s message ahead of the auction. Here’s some of what he said:
“Basically in ‘American Pie,’ things are heading in the wrong direction…It is becoming less idyllic. I don’t know whether you consider that wrong or right but it is a morality song in a sense.”
While some have gone to tedious lengths to break the song down, I won’t bother with that here. Rather, I believe that the American Pie album as a whole reflects this loss of an ideal America and a short run through of the other songs proves this.
After the title track kicks off the album, “Till Tomorrow” wonders when it will be safe again to love. While it stays hopeful that better times are ahead, a certain gloom hangs over the tune. “Vincent”, one of McLean’s other famous songs, wrestles with the art of Vincent van Gogh, seeing the painter as a tortured man no one understood. “Crossroads” finds McLean at a tumultuous point in life where he’s unsure of direction or what to do. “Winterwood” and “Empty Chairs” bemoan love lost, while “Everybody Loves Me, Baby” humorously tells of a dictator who has it all except for the love of the woman he admires. “Sister Fatima” pokes at the cheap ways one could try and learn the future. “The Grave” is the token anti-war song and “Babylon” ends the album with a dirge.
All these songs, I think, fit within the themes laid out in the title track. America is moving away from an idyllic society to something uncertain. Love isn’t as easy to define or find anymore. The poets and dreamers are misunderstood and die off. A haze has descended on idealistic youth, leaving them cynical and confused. Love is broken and some may see it as untrustworthy; romance is lost. We may have everything one could want, and yet, something’s missing. We sell ourselves short to bring security to a future clouded in mystery. We can’t trust the wisdom of our leaders or the purity of our foreign affairs. We don’t feel like singing joyfully, but we’d rather sing “dirges in the dark”. In other words, the American dream is dying.
This collection of songs fit McLean’s generation, but they are timeless in that they can easily apply to America today. People are disillusioned, jaded, cynical, and unsure of what America has become. The idealistic, romantic dream as we once knew it is falling to pieces and American Pie as a whole could be our soundtrack.
McLean leaves off on a dour note. The idyllic America is gone never to return. Perhaps he’s right. Maybe America is moving in a direction none of us would want but we can do nothing to stop. That might be depressing to admit, yet for Christians this should come as a warning to us: don’t be so invested in an earthly country that you lose sight of your heavenly one. Kingdoms rise and fall; it’s a repeated fact of history. But the church is part of a kingdom that will never fall and serve a King who will never lead us astray. The American dream may be fading away; the heavenly dream remains strong.