David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 60: Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers (American Girl)

June 25, 2020

To no one's surprise, the Tom Petty family issued a cease and desist order to the Donald Trump campaign this week over Trump's use of "I Won't Back Down" at his recent Tulsa rally. In all campaign years, some rocker becomes outraged because his or her song has been appropriated by some political candidate. Ronald Reagan pissed off the Boss by using "Born In The U.S.A."; Sarah Palin offended Heart by using "Barracuda"; Mike Huckabee irked Tom Scholz by using "More Than A Feeling." 

I would argue for the cease and desist orders on the basis of lack of imagination. In the case of President Trump, he had so many more interesting options. After all, "I Won't Back Down"  was a boring, predictable choice when George W. Bush tried to use it and Petty didn't have to roll over in his grave to complain. Think of the other options, Donald (or Jared or Ivanka or whoever makes these decisions).

"It's Good To Be King?"  Brilliant. Just tell it like it is.

"You Wreck Me?" Over the top edgy. Who is the "you?" Who is the "me?"

"You Got Lucky?" Fits right in with his self-image.

"Breakdown?" Mysterious, really likely to send the liberal, fake news outlets down rabbit holes.

On the other hand, what does it say when Petty (and his family) is comfortable with a song being associated with a serial killer than with Donald Trump? "American Girl" features prominently in a key scene from The Silence of The Lambs and provides a dark association for all of us who love that classic song. As Jame Gume, the killer nicknamed Buffalo Bill, prepares to make his first on-screen abduction, we hear "American Girl" while his target, Catherine Martin, drives back to her apartment. Michelle Bachman, famously rebuked by Petty for her use of the song while running for office, must have been particularly taken aback. (In the kinds of twists that this blog lives for, Bachman is also famous for confusing John Wayne with, wait for it, serial killer, John Wayne Gacy. I wish I could make this shit up.)

However, let me get back to the real point here. That scene from The Silence Of The Lambs ruined, mildly, "American Girl" for me forever.  As Martin pulls into her apartment complex, we watch her singing to "American Girl" from first verse through first chorus. Her emblematic image of female victim to male violence is ensconced from the beginning: "She was an American girl/raised on promises." Part of the horror of that scene is knowing that her kindness, her empathy, the core value for an American girl, is what will get her in that damn van and into Buffalo Bill's clutches.  To hear Martin croon along with Petty, "and if she had to die trying/she had one little promise/she was gonna keep," is gut-wrenching.  The first time we see the movie (and I have seen it 15 times maybe), we don't know if she will die or live at the hands of Buffalo Bill, but that line could have been a tip off.

As soon as that first chorus end, the scene changes, the music drops, and we get Buffalo Bill with night goggles on (there's the foreshadowing, people!). Martin pulls into her parking spot as Mike Campbell's adrenalin-producing guitar solo kicks on after the second chorus, and even though it is muted, since we are watching from Buffalo Bill's vantage point, the sense of the dramatic comedown for Martin from this height is coming. It's a height akin to her cat in the window who she talks to before being distracted by Buffalo Bill's clumsy attempts to get his couch in her car.

The scene with the cat is reminiscent of the lines that we don't get in the movie. It would be as if we were given the perspective of the cat: "she stood alone on her balcony/she could hear the cars roll by," followed a few lines later by "God, it's so painful/something that's so close/is so far out of reach."  None of this comes to the movie watcher cognitively, but when you have seen the movie (or at least seen it 15 times), these are the ways you try to separate the song from the association.

Luckily, Martin survives because of the determination, intelligence, and strength of another American Girl, Clarice Starling.  Two birds of an American feather: the Martin and the Starling.  And people wonder why this novel and this movie are so brilliant. I have come to accept that a brilliant rock song is the final piece of this holy trinity.

"American Girl." Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers. Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers. Shelter. 1976. Link here.

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Day 61: Ringo Starr "It Don't Come Easy."

See full unfinished list here.