It’s Not So Bad: Madonna’s cover of ‘American Pie’

It's Not So Bad is a new feature on HitFix where a brave, stupid writer defends an unpopular pop culture subject.

Every Madonna fan — or every Madonna fan worth knowing — has a bone or two to pick with the woman herself, and that's the way it should be. One of Madonna's primary functions as a pop culture phenomenon is agitator, and I was sufficiently agitated with her Britney lip-lock (because Britney is no Madonna heir, as we've now long understood), her “Hard Candy” album (because Timbaland and Justin Timberlake were her most uninspired choices as collaborators), and the leaden self-seriousness of her MDNA tour (because leaden self-seriousness is not very danceable). Otherwise I'm on board with her impish immortality and obvious potential as a standup comic. I'll always love Madonna. She's like if Marlene Dietrich were an American Gladiator.

Thanks to her explosive kiss with Drake at Coachella this weekend, we were all reminded of how polarizing Madonna's stunts are (and how revoltingly sexist her worst detractors remain). But perhaps her most unanimously panned stunt ever — and yes, I'm going all the way back to '83 here — was in 2000 when she covered Don McLean's “American Pie” for the soundtrack of her does-it-even-qualify-as-a comedy “The Next Best Thing.” It made a small splash on the US Billboard charts and fared very well in the UK, becoming the 19th highest-selling single of 2000 there. NME called her version “sub-karaoke fluff,” and it was alleged that her friend and costar Rupert Everett put her up to chirping a dance version of the track. McLean sold the “American Pie” manuscript at auction for $1.2 million this week, and that prompted me to realize something: I actually like Madonna's version. Here's why.

1. The funereal vibe fits the song

Though Madonna's version of “American Pie” is blippy dance-pop in the vein of her other retro hits “Ray of Light” (which was actually a cover of the '60s folk song “Sepheryn” by Curtiss Muldoon) and “Beautiful Stranger,” it manages to convey gloom. The original “American Pie” is a rollicking jam until its final verse, and in its clangy vigor it mostly sidesteps the song's true intention of lamenting an era of rock-n'-roll and American innocence. Madonna's dreamy, drab vocals are more elegiac, giving the song a resounding funereal vibe that fits its vigil for Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper. 

2. It removes every dubious lyric of the original

Rock fans spent a lot of time in the '60s and '70s unpacking and analyzing cryptic lyrics. The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Jefferson Airplane, and, hell, the Kingsmen were subject to endless literary interpretations. A few of them stuck. McLean's “American Pie” attempts to join those ranks, offering up nebulous references to John Lennon (or is it Vlad Lenin?), Karl Marx, and a couple of Rolling Stones' songs. And for what? By the third and fourth verse it becomes a total word jumble, a virtual Mad Lib of Biblical allegory, repurposed rock imagery, and inscrutable emotion. By the time Jack Flash is sitting on a candlestick and angels born in hell are grappling with Satan's spell, you're basically headlong into a doomsday version of Smash Mouth's “All Star.” It's catchy as hell for refrigerator magnet poetry. 

Madonna's “American Pie,” in its brief four-and-a-half-minute version, reduces the song to its essential and excellent lyrics. We're dancing in the gym to rhythm and blues. We're screaming in the streets with the lamenting lovers and poets. Good old boys are calling their own deaths. These are the lyrics that remind us we've always loved the music first, not the strange mythology that comes with it. 

3. It solves the most egregious problem of the original: no active women

The hagiography of “American Pie,” which purports to toast everything great about the rock era, is almost entirely male-centric. The narrator is a self-described buck with a truck who only references women when describing American innocence (“Miss American Pie”), Buddy Holly's grieving wife (“his widowed bride”), an aloof girl at the gym who loves someone else, and a aloof girl who sings the blues (“She just smiled and turned away”). This is not a song about women. In fact, the song implies that women stood around being virginal and weeping during the rise and death of rock. But when Madonna steps in to declare herself the “broncin' buck,” suddenly the troubadour narrator of “American Pie” feels less like a fanboy and more like a cooler, more subversive feminine outlaw. It becomes a song for everyone, not just guys who love male rock heroes and crush-worthy aloof women.

4. The remixes are even better.

I actually listen to this version more than the official video take. Gives more meaning to the “I could make those people dance” promise.

5. Madonna is the definitive rock-n'-roll hero.

Madonna, in her peerless legend, is so worthy of this song. Unlike many (male) rock heroes, she's spent the past 30 years rebelling against something real and insidious and constant. During her “Behind the Music” special in the late '90s, Madonna described the intentions behind her infamous “Sex” book as such: “I was turning my nose up at the whole idea that women aren't allowed to be sexual and erotic and provocative and intelligent and thoughtful at the same time.” You could say the same thing about Madonna's entire career. She's fought to redefine the place of women in an industry that exalts male power; in fact, she's fought for women to be represented in music as more than angelic widows and smiling, unknowable dreamgirls. The very animal of Madonna is a critical turning point in rock history; she is living proof that when Miss American Pie lost her innocence, she gained a brain and nerve.