Don McLean’s American Pie was a hit several years before I was born. Somehow, though, I remember that song as being part of my childhood. As a child, it was the melody and the rhythm that had me hooked. It wasn’t until I was a teen that I tried to understand the song. So much meaning was packed into those lyrics. For me, it was a puzzle that needed to be solved. I’m sure the meaning of the song was fairly clear to those who grew up in the 50s and 60s. I spent years asking people who were of an age to know the history of that time what they thought the song was about. They told me about the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and The Big Bopper. I heard theories that some of the lyrics were about Elvis, JFK, the Beatles. Some of my own interpretations included Hitler, Stalin, and the threat of nuclear war. After awhile, the song became less of a puzzle to me and more of a symbol.
I often listen to “oldies” stations when I’m in the car. As I waited in the Starbucks drive thru the other morning (yes, I do see the problem with this statement), American Pie came on the radio…and I began to cry. I could blame it on hormones. I could blame it on a lack of caffeine. I could blame it on the thought of the grocery shopping that awaited me and the fact that I still don’t have a taser for those trips. But none of those things were the cause of this irrational emotional outburst. I cried because the song represents in such a timeless way the problems we face in each generation. We have senseless tragedies that take artistic geniuses from us before their time. We have changes in our culture that may not be for the best. We have political upheaval that brings out the worst in us. Our heroes let us down or disappear altogether. History seems to repeat itself more than it should.
But for many, I think this song brings a sense of nostalgia now. We hold onto our nostalgia like a lifeline. Nostalgia isn’t bad. Nostalgia reminds us that things have been good before; it also reminds us that things have been bad and eventually we came through it. What all generations have in common are these losses, these fears, these hopes for a better future. And we have our music. The music changes each generation, perhaps building on what others have left us or taught us. But it is one thing that can bind us all together, regardless of age, race, religion, gender. And if we listen closely enough, we can find a message that will perhaps help us deal with the problems we face in the present and future.
If you’re interested in a “full” interpretation of American Pie, check out this site.