Madonna Eats it with “American Pie”

by Jeff Fleischer

(Nude as the News, June 13, 2000)


She finally did it.

After years of trying, Madonna offended me. Earlier this decade, she managed to tick off just about every sector of society by hitchhiking naked, using S&M imagery in her videos and generally turning up her nose at social morals. She even got MTV to ban a video, back in the days when videos made up a good chunk of its airtime. But none of this struck me as surprising, and I couldn’t have cared less.

But she went too far when she covered Don McLean’s “American Pie.” Now I’m offended.

First of all, there’s no reason for an established artist to cover a hit song unless they do something innovative with it. If you’re going to do a cover, use that as an opportunity to bring an obscure gem to light or record a new take on a traditional. And while young people might have to do covers as a way of paying dues, Madonna owns a record label and can call the shots.

Most covers of hits tend to be pretty disappointing, if not downright awful. The exceptions occur when the performer adds another dimension to the song. While Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” is great, Jimi Hendrix made it better through his virtuoso guitar work, expanding the riff into a whole new sound. Aretha Franklin did a great job with Otis Redding’s “Respect” because she altered the lyric to take a female perspective and brought a forceful energy to Redding’s low-key, soulful version.

Instead of taking this approach, Madonna merely cuts out a few verses and installs a lame techno beat under her voice. The vocal performance is one of her weakest ever, and the music is monotonous. In other words, it’s a really awful song from a musical standpoint. It has the mood of a cover by William Shatner.

But it’s more than that. Madonna completely bastardizes the context of the song. “American Pie” is on a short list of songs that should never be covered because they are so tied to a performer and a moment. Like John Lennon’s “Imagine,” “American Pie” can’t hold the same impact when removed from its writer.

In Madonna’s hands, the song ceases to pertain to its subject matter. On its most basic level, “American Pie” is about the plane crash that killed McLean’s musical hero, Buddy Holly, as well as Richie Valens and the Big Bopper. But it’s also a retelling of the story of rock ‘n’ roll, covering everything from Dylan’s motorcycle accident to the release of Sgt. Pepper’s to the Altamont Festival. This was McLean writing about his formative years as a musician and those who influenced him.

Instead, by cutting out verses and being emotionally detached from the material, Madonna ensures the new version has no purpose. And the video is just as useless, juxtaposing Americana images in front of a flag with Madonna and Rupert Everett goofing around. You get the feeling Madonna never listened to all the lyrics.

Speaking of which, the song was recorded for a romantic comedy. Because when you think romantic comedy, you think young musicians plunging to their death, right? But I digress. Hopefully, Madonna will go back to recording original material instead of ruining classics. Because this venture was infinitely more offensive than that banned video ever hoped to be.

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