The Improbable Story Of ‘American Girl,’ Tom Petty’s Biggest Non-Hit
The single failed to chart when it came out in the late 1970s. Today, its Florida-based mythology lives on.
By Katherine Brooks
In 1976, the late Tom Petty recorded what was then a relatively unremarkable single.
The song, about a girl on a balcony facing a “great big world,” didn’t even chart in the U.S. when it was released as a single the following year. A 1978 Rolling Stone review of the debut album upon which the song appeared, the self-titled “Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers,” takes no notice of the final track on the record. English audiences might’ve caught on when it hit the U.K. Top 40 and was praised by NME as one of its favorite singles from ’77, but American interest was hard to come by. The band was reportedly frustrated that FM radio program directors didn’t push the song back home.
It’d take almost two more decades for the Bo Diddley beat earworm to cement itself on the Billboard Bubbling Under Hot 100 list, registering at No. 9 in ’94 when it was re-released. By then, it’d spread across prominent films (“FM,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “The Silence of the Lambs”) and throughout less prominent karaoke bars. It’d attracted its own urban mythology and was on its way to becoming one of the most covered tracks in music history.
“Take it easy, baby,” we’d all eventually croon. “Make it last all night. She was an American girl.”
Today, “American Girl” is pop-rock gospel, hailed as one of the 100 best guitar songs of all time. It might’ve entered into this world quietly, but it slowly, assuredly grew into the kind of ubiquitous anthem that every generation hums at traffic stops and local dive bars and quiet evenings at home. An earnest, maybe even saccharine, homage to some woman, on some cold night, it floundered in comparison to other ’77 hits like “Margaritaville” or “Tonight’s the Night,” but it doggedly crept into the soundtrack of our shared lives nonetheless.
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And it arrived with baggage, like so many great pop culture touchstones do. Rumors swelled around that pained and desperate American woman Petty conjured in the song. Some fans began speculating that the lyrics told the story of a University of Florida student who jumped to her death from the school’s Beaty Towers dormitory, perhaps the result of either tripping on hallucinogens or a tragic suicide plan. As evidence, fans noted that Petty, born in the campus’s home of Gainesville, Florida, sings about Route 441 in “American Girl,” a stretch of road that runs past the university.
“She could hear the cars roll by,” the lyrics read, “out on 441. Like waves crashin’ on the beach.”
Like most good myths, the Beaty Towers rumor is mostly make-believe. According to Petty himself, the story had become “huge urban myth down in Florida,” but the song had nothing to do with a university student, which he made clear in an interview reproduced in Conversations with Tom Petty and cited on Snopes. He likely didn’t even write the song in Florida.
“I was living in an apartment where I was right by the freeway. And the cars would go by. In Encino, near Leon [Russell]’s house,” he told author Paul Zollo. “And I remember thinking that that sounded like the ocean to me. That was my ocean. My Malibu. Where I heard the waves crash, but it was just the cars going by. I think that must have inspired the lyric.”
Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell dispelled the story further. “We used to have people come up to us and tell us they thought it was about suicide because of the one line about ‘If she had to die,’” he recounted to Songfacts, “but what they didn’t get was, the whole line is, ‘If she had to die trying.’ Some people take it literally and out of context. To me it’s just a really beautiful love song.”
Still, Gainesville residents clung to the myth, reportedly repeating it on campus tours. (Another myth ― that students would throw annual Halloween parties at Petty’s former house in Gainesville to honor him ― was also false; the musician had never lived in a house in the town, aside from his mother’s.) A good story is a good story.
In reality, Petty spoke of “American Girl” as though it were autobiographical, as though he was the one who “was raised on promises,” who “couldn’t help thinking that there was a little more to life.” He grew up in the “redneck, hillbilly part” of Gainesville, as he explained to NPR Fresh Air in 2008. “My family wasn’t involved in the college, you know. They were more of just your white trash kind of, you know, family. And so I have that kind of background, but I always kind of aspired to be something else.”
Back in ’76, he was still an underdog, singing about things “so far out of reach,” because they were. So when his music career later soared, atop a wave of more hits like “Free Fallin’,” “I Won’t Back Down” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” it was comforting to listen to a version of Petty sincerely wondering about “the great big world, with places to run to.” The track that almost never charted, that rings sickly sweet to some and like nostalgic white noise to others, is the simplest kind of escape.
For many fans in 2017, not even a day after Petty’s sudden death, it still is.
Senior Arts & Culture Editor, HuffPost
The Time Tom Petty Renounced the Confederate Flag
The late musician also voiced support for gun control.
By Kali Holloway / AlterNet
Tom Petty died Monday, closing a career that included a string of hits released over four decades. Petty’s music often melded classic guitar licks with his pop sensibilities, and infused the mix with southern rock. A native of Gainesville, Florida, Petty’s onstage performances in support of his 1985 album, Southern Accents, featured the Confederate flag; mostly as a prop for a character at the heart of the song, “Rebels,” but audiences took it seriously. In 2015, after Dylann Roof murdered nine people at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, Petty expressed regret about flying the stars and bars on stage.
“The Confederate flag was the wallpaper of the South when I was a kid growing up in Gainesville, Florida,” Petty told Rolling Stone. “I always knew it had to do with the Civil War, but the South had adopted it as its logo. I was pretty ignorant of what it actually meant…. I just honestly didn’t give it much thought, though I should have.”
“I regretted it pretty quickly,” the artist said of his decision to use the flag in shows. “When we toured two years later, I noticed people in the audience wearing Confederate flag bandanas and things like that. One night, someone threw one onstage. I stopped everything and gave a speech about it. I said, ‘Look, this was to illustrate a character. This is not who we are. Having gone through this, I would prefer it if no one would ever bring a Confederate flag to our shows again because this isn’t who we are.’”
He went on to speak in favor of the removal of the flag from the South Carolina statehouse, calling it the “right decision.”
“That flag shouldn’t have any part in our government,” Petty told the magazine. “It shouldn’t represent us in any way. The war is over. You know, it’s a bit ironic: It’s the only time that I know of where we defeated a country in a war and then flew their flag. But Americans were on both sides of the issues. I’m sure some people still carry it to their graves.”
Petty went on to add, “Beyond the flag issue, we’re living in a time that I never thought we’d see. The way we’re losing black men and citizens in general is horrific. What’s going on in society is unforgivable. As a country, we should be more concerned with why the police are getting away with targeting black men and killing them for no reason. That’s a bigger issue than the flag. Years from now, people will look back on today and say, ‘You mean we privatized the prisons so there’s no profit unless the prison is full?’ You’d think someone in kindergarten could figure out how stupid that is. We’re creating so many of our own problems.”
In a 2006 interview with Guitar World Acoustic, Petty reportedly also voiced support for gun control, citing his own weapons habits in shaping his outlook.
“I can never have a gun in the house. I’m not allowed,” he told the outlet. “I’ve had mine taken away for disturbing the peace. There were times when I’d just start shooting. Not at people, but I’d go out and kill a tree. When I’d get mad, I’d take a gun and kill some inanimate object. So it was the right thing to have the guns taken away. They’re dangerous.”
Petty was 66 when he died after suffering cardiac arrest. As the lead singer of the Heartbreakers and Mudcrutch, and a member of the super-group the Traveling Wilburys, Petty hit the Billboard charts more than two-dozen times. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.
“I turned anger into ambition,” he said in a separate interview. “Any sort of injustice would outrage me. I couldn’t contain myself.”
Kali Holloway is a senior writer and the associate editor of media and culture at AlterNet.