In the autumn of 1971 Don McLean's elegiac American Pie entered the collective consciousness, and over thirty years later remains one of the most discussed, dissected and debated songs that popular music has ever produced.
A cultural event at the peak of its popularity in 1972, it reached the top of the Billboard 100 charts in a matter of weeks, selling more than 3 million copies; and at eight and a half minutes long, this was no mean feat.
But this was no ordinary song, either: boldly original and thematically ambitious, what set American Pie apart had a lot to do with the way we weren't entirely sure what the song was about, provoking endless debates over its epic cast of characters. And these controversies remain with us to this day. But however open to interpretation the lyrics may have been, the song's emotional resonance was unmistakable: McLean was clearly relating a defining moment in the American experience—something had been lost, and we knew it.
Opening with the death of singer Buddy Holly and ending near the tragic concert at Altamont Motor Speedway, we are able to frame the span of years the song is covering—1959 to 1970—as the "10 years we've been on our own" of the third verse. It is across this decade that the American cultural landscape changed radically, passing from the relative optimism and conformity of the 1950s and early 1960s to the rejection of these values by the various political and social movements of the mid and late 1960s.
Coming as it did near the end of this turbulent era, American Pie seemed to be speaking to the precarious position we found ourselves in, as the grand social experiments of the 1960s began collapsing under the weight of their own unrealized utopian dreams, while the quieter, hopeful world we grew up in receded into memory.
And as 1970 came to a close and the world this generation had envisioned no longer seemed viable, a sense of disillusion and loss fell over us; we weren't the people we once were. But we couldn't go home again either, having challenged the assumptions of that older order. The black and white days were over.
Bye bye, Miss American Pie.
The 1950s are fondly remembered as a kind of golden age in American history, a charmed moment in time when the country seemed more confident and hopeful than it has ever been.
A period of unprecedented economic prosperity, it was the era when the majority of Americans, freed from the constraints of the Great Depression and World War II, took some time off from the uncertainties of life to simply enjoy themselves; and in a long, giddy parade of marriages, babies, automobiles, suburban homes and kitchen appliances, celebrated their achievement of the American Dream.
Never before had the wealth of a nation been so widely distributed. But American enthusiasms during these years were rooted in more than just the good things that money could buy. Allied victories in World War II had been great moral victories for the country as well, and as the United States rose to economic and political world dominance in the postwar years, national pride went soaring right along with it.
Americans at mid-century were mighty impressed with America—and happy for awhile: In that era of general good will and expanding affluence, few Americans doubted the essential goodness of their society. After all, it was reflected back at them not only by contemporary books and magazines, but even more powerfully and with even greater influence in the new family sitcoms on television.
These—in conjunction with their sponsors' commercial goals—sought to shape their audience's aspirations. However, most Americans needed little coaching in how they wanted to live. They were optimistic about the future.
The same cannot be said of the 1960s. Just as the fifties was an era of great optimism and consensus, the sixties became its antithesis, as the black and white values of the status quo embraced by the previous generation—the sense of the "essential goodness" of American society—no longer rang true.
Emerging from the civil rights issues that had been simmering since World War II, and spurred on further by an unpopular war in Southeast Asia, this generation's dissatisfaction with American culture grew markedly more pronounced, as many of the assumptions about the society we were born into were called into question:
...the civil rights and antiwar and countercultural and woman's and the rest of that decade's movements forced upon us central issues for Western civilization—fundamental questions of value, fundamental divides of culture, fundamental debates about the nature of the good life.
From The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage by Todd Gitlin
The rules were changing. And so was the music. As American values were shifting through this period, a corresponding shift can be observed in rock 'n' roll, as it moved away from the exuberant simplicity of the 1950s to the more literate and politically charged subject matter of the 1960s. And as the music reflected these changes it also became symbolic of them, producing a defining musical figure at each major turning point: Bob Dylan at the more cerebral beginnings of the radical sixties, the Beatles during its more idealistic middle period, and the Rolling Stones closer to its anarchic end.
So even though American Pie appears to chronicle the course of rock 'n' roll, it is not, as is sometimes suggested, a mere catalogue of musical events. In using the cast of rock 'n' roll players from the 1960s and setting them against the backdrop of Buddy Holly's death, they become polarized—metaphors for the clash of values occurring in America at this time: Holly as the symbol of the happier innocence of the fifties, the rest as symbolic of the sixties growing unrest and fragmentation.
And as each verse sums up chronological periods in time—the late 1950s, 1963-66, 1966-68, 1969, 1970—another blow against the happier innocence of another era is registered: another day the music dies.