Great Fakeout Songs: "American Girl" by Tom Petty


Welcome to the premiere of "Great Fakeout Songs," a new series on those songs that have jaunty melodies but dark, dark lyrics, and vice versa. The art of the fakeout works well for humor in music (see Weird Al, Rilo Kiley) but can also add a sense of poignancy.

I'm kicking things off with "American Girl," by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. "American Girl" has had a bit of a resurgence lately; it was used in a key scene in Parks and Recreation, and Tom Petty has prominently issued a cease-and-desist order to Michele Bachmann, who's been using the song in campaign rallies.

Now, the flip-side of the fakeout is the tone-deaf politician (don't worry, we'll get to "Born in the USA" eventually). Michele Bachmann, or whoever her campaign organizers are, have failed to listen to the lyrics or think about them in any meaningful way.

While it's not explicit in the lyrics, the song is about a girl's last memory before jumping off the balcony, committing suicide.

Well it was kinda cold that night
She stood alone on her balcony
Yeah, she could hear the cars roll by
Out on 441 like waves crashin' on the beach
And for one desperate moment
There he crept back in her memory
God it's so painful when something that's so close
Is still so far out of reach

Even if you don't cotton on to the suicidal theme from the lyrics, this American Girl is in awful despair. Even more damning for the Bachmann handlers, this American Girl has GIVEN UP ON THE PROMISE OF AMERICA. She wants to get away from her broken heart and broken dreams.

Well she was an American girl
Raised on promises
She couldn't help thinkin'
That there was a little more to life somewhere else
After all it was a great big world
With lots of places to run to

Anyway, it's a great song, and you can listen to it below. The greatest hits is on sale at Amazon for $6, which ain't bad.

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11 Responses to “ Great Fakeout Songs: "American Girl" by Tom Petty ”

  1. There's going to be some Springsteen in this list isn't there?

    Not a criticism.

  2. "(don't worry, we'll get to "Born in the USA" eventually)"

    The challenge is in making this series NOT a series of springsteen posts.

  3. I like the idea. Was thinking of this the other day while listening to Eels.

  4. Cheers! Eels are a good suggestion!

  5. This is a completely wrong reading of the song. The song is full of hope and possibility and is an anthem of the American spirit of moving on to bigger and better things.

    There is no suicide in the song. She is not standing on the balcony about to jump to her death, but rather about to step into the rest of her life, a life without the guy that hurt her. The last verse of the song is about her decision to leave and fulfill the promise of America and its endless opportunities and the momentary hesitation she has before doing so.

    I imagine it like this: She is standing in an evening gown on the balcony of a nice hotel with a champagne flute in her hand looking out over some Floridian city. Suddenly she remembers all of the good times she had with the guy and why she was ever with him in the first place. Maybe she shouldn't go. Maybe there is nothing else out there. Maybe she has already had the best part of her life. Then the lyrics end and the music tells you what she does. I get this image of a champagne flute sitting on the balcony railing bubbles popping and she is no longer standing there. The music tells you she's moved on. That's why it sounds like a train or truck moving down the highway. The last image I get is of the girl in her nice gown a dirty run-down fast food restaurant finally happy and finally free and about to realize her potential.

  6. Oh Colin. As ever, the optimist. But a rebuttal is clearly in order!

    Rebuttal: You. Are. Wrong. The end!

  7. After I wrote my interpretation here I looked stuff about the song. I think you might find it most interesting

    About the myth that the song is about a suicidal girl--

    and particularly this statement by Tom Petty--
    "I was watching the 9/11 concert in New York and the Goo Goo Dolls played 'American Girl.' I could see the crowd cheering in this really patriotic context. But it was just a story when I wrote it. In my mind, the girl was looking for the strength to move on, and she found it. It's one of my favorites." from this website:

  8. Ah, but Tom Petty himself said that the song does tell the story about a demented girl on the edge of suicide, just NOT a real one who jumped off the balcony at the University of Florida!

    I think that quote illustrates that the song is NOT patriotic.

    I think we should call Tom Petty and ask :p

  9. The one that always gets me is The Police's Every Breath You Take. It's a creepy song about obsession and it has somehow become such a song about love that I've heard it played as the special dance at several weddings.  Bet those marriages had some trouble.  A (somewhat) more recent example is Dido's White Flag, which is about female obsession.  Most people just concentrated on the chorus "I'm in love and always will be" and thought it was a positive song about a love that is meant to be, but if you listen to the lyrics she sings about destroying the guy's stuff, and understands he doesn't want to talk to her because of it, and a bunch of other things, then each chorus is basically a big "BUT" that shows she doesn't understand any of the things she just said because it's not over because she says it's not over.  The lyric "And when we meet (which I'm sure we will)" says it all about how she's still going to be coming after him.  She's got such a nice voice, though, that people just don't associate it with a dark song. 

  10. I thought this was about great makeout songs.  Bummer.

  11. Lol. Perhaps just for you I will make a post on that subject :)


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