American Girl (1977)

Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers

Written by Tom Petty
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“American Girl” is a song that moves quickly through visions of youth’s restlessness to despair to – at least an imagination of – suicide, and finally ends up at the possibility of redemption. It’s set to a jaunty, juiced-up tune, that comes hard out of the gate, with a popping surging beat.

The song is one part early Byrds, one part Beatles’ vocal influence, one part New Wave courtesy of David Bowie, and one part Bo Diddley’s driving, scratching guitar riffs.

The girl in the song has been:

…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
Yeah and if she had to die tryin’
She had one little promise she was gonna keep

Listen to “American Girl”

It is the promise she was going to keep that preoccupies the middle of the song. What was the promise? To change, perhaps. To rediscover a love she lost before going to the big city (Los Angeles), a love somewhere back in the American night? Or, if she couldn’t overcome her sadness and sorrow, to commit suicide as a final act of escape and courage?

The upbeat music keeps us from getting at the somber truth, because no matter how deep the apprehension set up early on, we are told over and over:

O yeah, all right
Take it easy, baby
Make it last all night
She was an American girl

In many ways, “American Girl” is a celebration of a youth twisting in the wind of love, although this girl struggles to cope with the past…

One desperate moment there
[When] he crept back in her memory
God it’s so painful something that’s so close
Is still so out of reach

Tom-Petty-American-Girl-31259-991There is something percolating under the song, though, other than a bare-bones telling of a pilgrim girl’s journey. It becomes a commentary on the American Dream, its overpromising nature, and the inevitable disappointment it brings when one understands the emptiness of the end result.

The interpretation brings a broader meaning to the lines, Take it easy baby, Make it last all night. There is a slight hint that in life we all just have to move on and make things work better than they were working before. The song closes with a brief, sparkling guitar solo that allows just enough time to contemplate the critique of American society – and promises too large ever to be kept.

  • Roger McGuinn, founding member of the Byrds, joked when he first heard the song: “When did I write that?”
  • Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers played “American Girl” to open their appearance at the 2008 Super Bowl.