Certain Songs #1002: Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers – “American Girl”

Album: Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers
Year: 1976

I don’t even know if I can do this. I’m practically shaking. I mean, it was already a shitty day — one of the shittiest days in recent history, really — and now Tom Petty? I mean, Tom Petty has been one of my musical heroes for decades.

So on an incredibly sad day no matter how you cut it, I invite you to listen to the joy in this song. Listen to how it just flies. It doesn’t make things better, but it’s a pretty good reminder of why Tom Petty’s music meant so much to so many for so long.

I don’t recall “American Girl” getting any airplay on the radio in Fresno. Of course “Breakdown,” which I never fully committed to, and then “I Need to Know,” which was what completely turned my head towards him, but not “American Girl.”

But man, what a fucking song, right? The way that Petty’s & Mike Campbell’s 12-string guitars dance with each other while Stan Lynch played a modified Bo Diddley beat until with a single “ooooooh” Tom sings:

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
Yeah, and if she had to die
Tryin’ she had one little promise
She was gonna keep

Listen to how “American Girl” invokes The Handclap Rule (Handclaps make a good song great, and a great song immortal), spreading them out throughout the song, mostly at the back half of each verse, adding extra momentum to the arena-sized chorus that even then, he seemed damn sure we were all going to sing back at him.

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

It’s a genius chorus, of course — from the rest of the band chiming in over him on “make it last all night” to the little pause just before “an American girl,” — precision tooled for maximum pleasure, and it made “American Girl” simultaneously a power pop classic and a folk-rock classic.

And if all of that wasn’t enough, at the end, Mike Campbell’s guitar solo, ringing and chiming and fading into the night while the whole band sings “ahhhhhhhhhhhh” ever higher and higher is the absolute topper, as you know that somewhere they’re all still out there, chasing the American Girl.

“American Girl”

“American Girl” performed live in 1985

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