Monday, September 9, 2013

Song #347 of 9999 - American Girl by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

Song #347 of 9999 

Title: American Girl
Artist: Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Year: 1976
Album: Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

Trying to ascertain exactly what makes a song "catchy" is a fascinating little game. It's a little like exploratory surgery or maybe an autopsy. And sometimes just as messy. (I don't know what that means exactly but I decided to say it anyway.) A lot of people would prefer you just leave it alone—don't spoil the magic, they will say! But even if you can figure it out, it's usually some combination of elements that come together in a combustible way that's thrilling enough to forgive and forget that you know how the trick is done. And with that healthy mix of metaphors, let's conclude this convoluted paragraph and take a look at "American Girl."

First of all, if you don't like this song, you're crazy. Plain and simple. It's over for you and pop music. Move along. But for those of you who remain, let's figure out why this song makes us feel the way it does. The first (and most obvious) element of the song is the tempo and corresponding drum beat. If you listen to the interaction of bass and snare, the song is trucking along at a blistering 240BPM or so (which is "Walking on Sunshine" territory). But by omitting the kick drum from every other downbeat and sustaining each chord over two bars (both harmonically and literally with his guitar), the song can just as easily be felt at 120BPM, which is more manageable for most of us. The net effect is a bouncy double-time drum beat driving a more traditional pop structure.

The second thing that makes this work for me is the harmonic progression. I think anytime you move from a major tonic (I--Dmaj in this case) to a major supertonic (II--Emaj), it just sounds awesome with the #4 (G#) creating this sense of harmonic expanse. The fact that he does this frequently while sustaining an inverted pedal tone above (the jangly D) makes it even more interesting as it adds some density to the major chords (E7 and Asus4, for example). But the moment that really does it for me happens as the pre-chorus transitions to the chorus (at 1:10). At 1:02, the band settles on the dominant (V-Amaj), holding it for eight long bars, before moving to......the subdominant (IV-Gmaj). This deceptive motion sets a classic pop chorus in motion (IV-V-I-vi-IV-V-I) that culminates with the great harmonized hook ("an American girl!"). It's pop bliss.

So here's the $10,000 question: why did Petty bury this song at the end of his debut album? It seems like such an obvious first single (it wasn't---"Breakdown" preceded it) and would be a great album opener (it opens his Greatest Hits collection) but he saves it for the end. What do you think?


  1. Why wouldn't you just say the song is in Lydian?
    Great song, that album is full of great songs. Say what you will about Pettys vocals, those are all one takes on that album. How awesome is that!?!

    I don't think it has the dynamics nor the hooks that Refugee has, it makes sense to me that Refugee was the single.


    1. Hey Glenn. Refugee wasn't on this album. "Breakdown" was the single. I would say it's not in Lydian because the G# happens only occasionally. In fact, the chords of the verse are D E G A, so it's erased almost immediately. To say it's in Lydian, it would have to be persistent. Thanks for commenting!

    2. By tha way, your instincts about Lydian are good because that major II has the same expansive sound that you hear in Lydian, which is why it's my favorite mode!