Songology: Don McLean's American Pie & Michael Jackson's Billie Jean

Adam Reader analyzes the cultural impact and backstories of classic songs American Pie and Billie Jean
Music manics, it’s time for another rebel rousing rendition of our segment SONGOLOGY.  Where we discuss the science behind some of the greatest songs of all time and their impact within pop culture across the decades.  

Where do we even begin to asses the significance of Michael Jackson’s greatest single, and the album it came from? The song forever changed history as 15 years after the civil rights movement it forced MTV to put a black artist in heavy rotation. It went straight to number one and made MJ the biggest pop star in history.

With it’s gigantic disco kick drum,  deep palpitating bass, Grooving Guitar, succinct strings and smooth synth lines, Billie Jean had more hooks in it than any song before or since, setting the bar for the perfect pop single and Nobody has come close to vaulting it. 

The song is of course about a female stalker who wrote MJ  strange letters.  Thriller Producer Quincy Jones once said that Jackson found the woman lounging by his pool with a bathing suit and sunglasses on claiming that MJ was the father of one her twins, So I guess the twins had two different fathers...Pretty funny

Producer Quincy told Michael that the intro was far too long, implying that  he needed to get to the melody sooner, But Michael said that the build from the beginning made him want to dance. quincy responded with and I quote, When Michael Jackson says something makes him want to dance you don’t argue.

According to the King of Pop, he worked on the bass line for three weeks, however he nailed the vocal in just one take.  The song comes of as a modern version of I Heard it through the grapevine

Though there have been plenty of covers, this is a song that deserves the respect of never being compared to another. 

The best version was when Michael performed it on the Motown 25th Anniversary where he introduced the moonwalk and his one white glove for the first time. It was one of the greatest moments in pop culture history period.


American Pie

Do you believe in Rock and roll, and do you believe that music can save your mortal soul?

I do.  There was a time when rock and roll was pure and innocent and it went by the name of Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley,

Little Richard, and Bill Hayley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Ritchie Valens

These legends churned out feel-good records that truly matched the mood of the nation. You see the 50’s were an era of happiness and commonality.  America had just won the war and set the world free from Natzi tyranny. Young Americans were searching  for their  identity and discovered it in the music coming out of the car radio’s and drive inns.  They called this music  Rock and roll.  Buddy Holly stood out amongst the legends because well, he looked like me and you.  Just a smalltown kid, horn rimmed glasses, from Lubock texas who set the world on fire with his music.

Then just like that, he was taken from us.

February 3, 1959 the day the music died. 

Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper were killed in a plane crash. the next four years our nation would lose it’s innocence.  That same year Don Mclean was 13 years old. He would see Holly’s death as the beginning of a chain of events that would challenge the hope and purity of a lost era.  From that he would write a song that would capture the imagination of the nation like very few in history.

For McLean, the transition from the simple innocence of childhood to the dismal  realities of adulthood began with the deaths of his father and Buddy Holly and conclude with the murder of President Kennedy in 1963, which was the start of a more difficult time for America from the Civil rights movement to Vietnam to the deaths of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King.

At over 8 minutes long, American Pie was the longest song ever to hit no. 1 on the charts At first the label released it in two parts, but DJ’s began playing it in full, because of it’s story. The song is a saga of a dozen years in rock and roll and american society.

Thought Mclean would never fully admit the meaning behind the lyrics, the song takes us from his wonder years of the 50s through the whirlwind cultural changes of the 60s  and the battle to not let the despair conquer the last remnants of hope.  The song would use veiled symbolism to describe the history of the time using Bob Dylan, Elvis, The Beatles, The Byrds, Janice Joplin, JFK, The Rolling stones, woodstock, and many other ideas to flesh out the song.
Split screen 50 vs 60s

The song’s producer, Ed Freeman,  felt that American Pie was the funeral discourse for an era:  He said and I quote “Without that song, many of us would have been unable to grieve, achieve closure, and move on. Don saw that, and wrote the song that set us free. We should all be eternally grateful to him for that.

No hit single to ever grace the charts has ever been so intricate and cryptic, cramming so much interpretation into so enthralling a music package.

At it’s heart American Pie is a celebration of Rock and Roll and its power to resurrect our souls. 


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