Song of the Day #276: ‘American Girl’ – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

pettyAfter choosing ‘American Boy’ yesterday, I couldn’t resist the symmetrical pick of ‘American Girl’ today. And this can also serve as another exhibit in the gallery of ugly male singers.

I often joke with my wife about Tom Petty. She will instinctively say that she dislikes him intensely, yet every time a Tom Petty song comes on the radio she’s thrilled and insists that this is the one Tom Petty song she really likes. Of course she has said that about at least five different songs by now. In my book, once you love five songs by an artist, you kind of have to call yourself a fan. Sorry, Alex!

‘Breakdown’ is the one she really really likes, but I don’t think I’ve ever met a serious human being who doesn’t dig ‘American Girl.’ It’s one of those songs you might not think much about between listens but you completely give yourself up to it three minutes at a time.

An urban legend has it that this song was written about a girl committing suicide by jumping off a balcony at Beaty Towers, a University of Florida dorm. I heard that story once when I was attending UF and visiting a friend in that building and I didn’t understand how somebody could make it out of one of those little windows. And nobody did, of course, because it’s just a myth.

‘American Girl’ is also prominently featured in the great Silence of the Lambs, in a scene introducing the killer’s next potential victim. She’s seen rocking out to this song in her car before being captured and you like her instantly… because of this song.

I wish I could find the studio version but this live one will have to do. At least Crystal Gayle’s retro introduction is hilarious. Incidentally, two things make me happy… chasing women and writing about rock n’ roll.

Well, she was an American girl
Raised on promises
She couldn’t help thinkin’ that there
Was a little more to life somewhere else
After all it was a great big world
With lots of places to run to
Yeah, and if she had to die tryin’
She had one little promise
She was gonna keep

Oh yeah, all right
Take it easy baby
Make it last all night
She was an American girl

Well, it was kind of cold that night
She stood alone on her balcony
She could hear the cars roll by
Out on 441
Like waves crashin’ on the beach
And for one desperate moment there
He crept back in her memory
God it’s so painful
Something that’s so close
And still so far out of reach

Oh yeah, all right
Take it easy baby
Make it last all night
She was an American girl

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4 thoughts on “Song of the Day #276: ‘American Girl’ – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

  1. Amy says:

    “Now you’re talking,” I thought when my computer screen opened to reveal this was today’s song. I have always adored this song, though I must admit today is the first time I’ve had the Beatty Tower myth debunked.

    Demme’s use of the song in Silence of the Lambs has been my most frequent connection to it, as I use that scene each year in the film unit of my English classes. Therefore, I hear it 3 or 4 times in a row, once a year, whether I like it or not 🙂 It may just be one of the single best examples of a song introducing a character, and I instantly had more respect for Demme for recognizing what a perfect choice it was.

  2. Amy says:

    Also just learned that the various stories associated with “In the Air Tonight” are also urban legends. 🙂

  3. Dana says:

    My first introduction to this song was at a frat party at UF, where a band we really liked (the guitarist lived across from us at Campus Apartments) covered the song regularly. They really did a great job with the song (as they did with most of their covers), I had already known, of course, many of Petty’s bigger hits like Refugee, Breakdown, Don’t Come Around Here No More, so I went ahead and bought Southern Accents around that time, which I maintain could vie for top ten albums of all time.

    For awhile, I would have likely listed Petty amongst my favorite artists–with such strong efforts as Full Moon Fever and Wildflowers. But then he seemed to put out some not so great albums–very safe and boring–and he fell off my radar a bit. Thanks for reminding me, though, of one of the great songs by a really good artist.

  4. Brad says:

    Wow, great story! I was at UF from 2000-2008 and somewhere around ’01 or ’02 while visiting a friend in Beaty Towers I heard the EXACT same story! Funny that this link was found by searching for “Tom Petty” “American Girl” “Beaty Tower” and it was the only link that popped up. Maybe an urban legend but certainly an intriguing one. Thanks for posting!

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