Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, ‘American Girl’ – Lyrics Uncovered
The enduring popularity of 'American Girl' by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, particularly as part of their live shows, is proof positive that sometimes simple is indeed better. But 'Girl' also became one of the most lyrically misunderstood songs in Petty’s catalog.
Surrounded at the beginning of their career by peers writing songs that were long on length and short on actual hooks -- this was the ‘70s, after all -- Tom Petty and Heartbreakers quickly focused on delivering catchy songs in short three minute packages, such as their landmark single 'American Girl.'
"Oh yeah, all right /Take it easy, baby / Make it last all night / She was an American girl." While the chorus of 'American Girl' is anything but dull, it’s remarkably simple when you compare it to the complex songs Petty has turned out since then. As guitarist Mike Campbell explains in the band’s excellent 'Runnin’ Down A Dream' documentary, their unofficial slogan at the time was “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus!”
"Well, it was kind of 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." There’s been plenty of speculation through the years that 'American Girl' was inspired by the suicide of a female student at University of Florida. Which makes some sense seeing as how the school is located in Gainesville, Florida, where the band started their career.
But Petty himself debunked the story as an “urban myth” in the book 'Conversations with Tom Petty,' and marveled at magazines that had mapped out an entire storyline for a tale that simply didn't exist.
The truth according to Petty? He doesn't remember exactly what the song is about, attributing its setting to the combined sounds of the highway and the ocean at his Los Angeles apartment. Which really kills the "Florida murder" theory, because he’d already moved away to California at the time that he wrote it!
The enduring success of 'American Girl' is particularly impressive when you consider that it was buried as the last track on the band’s self-titled debut album. Thankfully, the right ears heard it and rescued this now-classic track from potential obscurity. So much so, in fact, that when Petty eventually issued his first hits retrospective in 1993, 'American Girl' was appropriately placed as the opening track.
Watch Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers perform 'American Girl.'