Music: American girls

March 19, 2023 • 1:30 pm

I always see these two songs as a pair, as they both deal with American girls. But they’re very different: one’s by a Brit (David Bowie) and the other by an American (Tom Petty).  Further, Petty’s song is about American girls, while Bowie’s is about the relationship between American men and women, but with more emphasis on the women.  What they have common behond that is that they’re both good songs, and so I’ll pair them here. In fact, “American Girl” is the only Tom Petty song I really like, and “Young Americans” one of the few Bowie songs I like.

Tom Petty’s “American Girl” from 1976 always puzzles me: what’s so American about the American girl? Yet it still rings true, especially the line “raised on promises”, something that’s supposed to distinguish American girls from non-American girls. Perhaps it refers to the promise of the American Dream: if you work hard, you can get what you want.

Here’s what Wikipedia says:

. . . . Petty says that he wrote the song while living in California:

I don’t remember exactly. I was living in an apartment where I was right by the freeway. And the cars would go by. In Encino, near Leon Russell’s house. And I remember thinking that that sounded like the ocean to me. That was my ocean. My Malibu. Where I heard the waves crash, but it was just the cars going by. I think that must have inspired the lyric.

The opening line lyric “raised on promises” echoes a line of dialogue in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1963 film, Dementia 13. Referring to another woman, the character Louise says (at minute 17), “Especially an American girl. You can tell she’s been raised on promises.”

The opening is what gets me here: it’s driven hard by a great bass line, and the cymbal sound at the beginning (or a human “chhh” sound) is great, though you can hear it only on the original recording.)

Here’s a great performance of David Bowie’s “Young Americans“, a song released in 1975. It’s much more complex than the Petty song. As to what it means, well it seems to be a Brit’s pastiche about America in general (the lyrics are here)—a UIysses-like stream of consciousness about this country. Beyond that, and the several references to cultural and historical phenomena, I won’t even try an exegesis.

The song is tremendously energetic, and the sax work is great. It was composed entirely by Bowie, and they don’t write ’em like this any more.

Sadly, both Petty and Bowie are gone, both having died fairly young (Bowie was 69, Petty 66).

19 thoughts on “Music: American girls

  1. Great songs, thanks! Petty’s “American Girl” is one of those songs I never get tired of hearing.

  2. I very much like David Bowie! Both old and new, weird and conventional. It doesn’t get much bouncier than Modern Love. Just the title gives me an earworm I don’t mind having.

    1. I love Bowie as well. You mentioned Modern Love. This slowed down cover highlights how good the melody is. Hidden a bit by Bowies’ fast paced original.
      Search Youtube for “Modern Love” by The Last Town Chorus

  3. Both very young to be pushing up daisies (at the time of departing). Ummm… Petty’s American girl would be as you say built on local knowledge.
    I know I found American girls as a young kiwi, very upfront, full of fun and seem to know what they wanted when I visited in 1973
    That was a good thing. When you have the numbers cultural behaviour, attitudes that are dominate just blend and play out… You would have been the exception in my small myopic town of Auckland.
    But now that is more the ‘normal’ everywhere without question. Still it was simple compared to today, it is a minefield.
    David Sanborn blows that sax at equal measure to Bowie’s vocals on that opening track… but I like that album “Young American” GREAT studio band they gave Bowie more a soul, blues, jazzy record which he seemed comfortable with in his ‘turning American’ phase of life.

  4. Enjoyed Tom Petty as part of the Traveling Wilburys which included Roy Orbison who had such an amazing voice.

    Had the pleasure of seeing Roy Orbison perform live in Victoria B.C. some 40 odd years ago, of course wearing his signature Ray Bans.

    Just watched the David Bowie documentary “Moonage Daydream”, quite the renaissance man. Best enjoyed with your pharmaceutical enhancement of choice if you are into that sort of thing.

  5. As a young man I liked Petty’s version so much after running out of girls in Australia I moved to the USA! Must have worked as I’m still married (to an American girl!) 🙂

    I REALLY liked it in Silence of the Lambs where it plays a pivotal accompaniment.

      1. Strangely, Bowie pays homage to Lennon in American Woman with this line lifted from A Day in The Life:
        “I heard (read) the news today oh boy”.

  6. … what’s so American about the American girl?

    Well, let’s see:

    ~ East Coast girls are hip;
    ~ Southern girls knock you out with the way they talk;
    ~ Midwest girls really make a fella feel all right;
    ~ And the kisses from Northern girls keep their boyfriends warm at night.

    What more could you want?

  7. I like American girls and all culturally appropriated girls, but American weddings? This song from Gogol Bordello sums that up, and I’m a fan.

  8. Love both of these songs. Both Bowie in all his incarnations and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers were prolific and I like many of their songs. From Ziggy, to Changes, to China Girl. From American Girl, to You Got Lucky, to Mary Jane’s Last Dance. Both of them are icons in the annals of Rock music.

  9. The live performance of “Young Americans” on the Dick Cavett show has long been a favorite of mine. Bowie’s performance is best described as raw, and, among the musicians in the band, that’s David Sanborn on sax and Luther Vandross on backing vocals.


  10. For me, Petty’s “American Girl” will forever be associated with the scene in “The Silence of the Lambs” when Catherine Martin is listening to and bopping along with the song on her car radio just before being grabbed by Buffalo Bill. A perfect choice for that scene!

  11. One of my regrets in life relates to Tom Petty. I live in Kingston On. and the summer of 2017 Tom was playing at Bluesfest in Ottawa. As the headliner he would have gone on the stage at 9 and when I looked at the schedule there were no other performers that day that interested me. My daughter, who would have been 18 at the time and also a Tom Petty fan, and I decided not to go.

    He died that fall. It was less than a 2-hour drive. Reflecting back on it neither my daughter nor I have any idea what our reasoning was. We still lament when when hear him on the radio.

  12. The denial of the importance of evolutionary psychology is symptomatic of a much deeper and more profound set of problems that we have inherited from ancient cultural traditions about the place of humanity in the universe, which were codified into, and retrenched in, the Judeo/Christian tradition. As a society we are obsessed with the question of what it means to be human. Because we know we evolved, this is the wrong question. The right question is: “What is it to be this kind of animal?”. This can only be answered with appropriate reference to evolutionary science, especially that of human origins, which, of course, includes evolutionary psychology.
    There will of course be those who will make the absurd suggestion that if we accept we are animals it somehow diminishes us: How could it ever be possible to diminish the importance of sentient beings like humans, dolphins, elephants and apes: creatures that are the product of three and a half thousand million years of evolution and have extraordinary, and as yet unfathomable, levels of complexity?
    It is impossible to understate the importance of the evolutionary story of our origins because of its implications for deep philosophical questions about where meaning came from in the universe, what matters, and perhaps more importantly what should matter. We need a synthesis between science and philosophy to deal with these questions. Post modernism with its implicit science scepticism and denial, has a lot to answer for.

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