I’m in no position to tell you what the best Tom Petty song is. What I can tell you is this: “American Girl” isn’t just my favorite Tom Petty song. It’s my favorite song.
Has there ever been a track that was so impossible to dislike? Its irresistible, unmistakable riff was nicked by the Strokes for “Last Nite.” Its lyrics (“And for one desperate moment there, he crept back in her memory”), catchy and poignant in equal measure, have been written on Taylor Swift’s arm in concert. The song’s been covered by Def Leppard, Sum 41, the Shins, and other artists who aren’t usually mentioned in the same paragraph. “American Girl” scored the Harvest Festival triumphantly pulled off by Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) on Parks and Recreation. Fast Times at Ridgemont High engineers the toss of a toilet paper roll through a school window to coincide precisely with the jangly, goose bumps–inducing opening lick.
To my taste, the very best pop culture uses of “American Girl” are the most ironic ones, as when those breakneck guitars keep Offred (Elisabeth Moss) company in the back of a dark, ominous police van in the last moments of the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale, or in The Silence of the Lambs, when Catherine Baker Martin (Brooke Smith) rocks out to “American Girl” on her car radio immediately before she’s abducted by Buffalo Bill. What does this song sound like? Well, there’s your answer: The exact opposite of being held against your will, in a well, by a serial killer who intends to skin you.
Catherine Baker Martin was onto something. There is no more satisfying song to sing along to — an empirically perfect choice for karaoke, and one for which the singer’s actual musical abilities feel like they matter very little, particularly once the rest of the room joins in. The lyrics jump deftly from the playful, in the most rock ’n’ roll chorus in the history of rock ’n’ roll choruses —
Oh yeah, all right
Take it easy, baby
Make it last all night
— to the ambiguously heart-wrenching:
God, it’s so painful when something that’s so close
Is still so far out of reach
Who among us doesn’t carry those lines inscribed on the AIM away message of our hearts?
An urban legend long held that “American Girl” was about a female student who committed suicide at the University of Florida in Petty’s native Gainesville — near the Route 441 of the lyrics — until Petty debunked it himself. Instead, as he told Conversations With Tom Petty author Paul Zollo, he was inspired by living near a California freeway, where the traffic sounded like the ocean. Even now, whenever and wherever I hear a single chord of “American Girl,” I feel my arm aching to reach out for a physical volume knob to turn up as far as it will go, or — once it’s lost — jam the seek button over and over until, through all static, I’ve found it again. This is a song for driving with windows down in the summer, in the back seat of your parents’ car. Then, eventually, in a car that you’re driving yourself.
It feels fitting that this anthem was recorded on the Fourth of July, and not just any Fourth of July, but the United States’ Bicentennial in 1976. America can be a profoundly difficult country to love in 2017, but Petty makes a compelling argument on its behalf: freedom, road trips, nostalgia, infinite pain, infinite possibility, and the sense that the person in the car next to yours is singing along to the very same song, as blissfully loud and off-key as you are.