For the longest, I had wondered what the heck Don McLean was singing about when he penned the lyrics to “American Pie.” At the first few times I heard the song, I couldn’t make heads or tails of it: it just seemed like a bunch of poetic gobbledygook. Then somebody told me that the song had something to do with the deaths of Buddy Holly, The Bopper and Ritchie Valens (which I found out about via watching the awesome La Bamba movie). I’m a guy who appreciates thoughtful song lyrics, so I gave it a second listen with that in mind. I still couldn’t get it. It actually took me finding a website devoted to deciphering that song for me to understand all of the metaphors, symbolism and historical relevance.
I’ll be honest with you all: I don’t think I have ever been more impressed with a single song’s lyrics. I was absolutely blown away by the amount of layers, meaning, and just overall STUFF this guy crammed in this one, eight-minute song. And once you know what he’s talking about, it all makes sense and has a serious impact. Impressive.
The site I found is here. Check it out.
Now, I know that times have changed and music is a lot different now than it was back in 1970 when this song dropped, but I can’t help listening to the tunes of today, especially the tunes in my favorite genres (Hip-Hop, Jazz, Gospel, some rock & electronica), and wondering if a song with this amount of depth will ever come around again, specifically in urban music (Rap, R&B, and maybe the blues).
My gut answer is “no.”
Like I said, I acknowledge that these are different times. The socially conscious, thought-provoking music of the 70s is pretty much stuck in that era. It was a time of real upheaval and unrest, which is why you got stuff like Marvin’s “what’s going on,” album, and groundbreaking material from the Last Poets, Gil Scott Heron, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Bob Marley and the like.
Even in the 80s and 90s you had your conscious and politically-themed hip-hop via guys like Public Enemy and KRS-ONE, and you had your introspective lyricists like Nas and Common. Heck, I consider “I Used To Love H.E.R.” a song with more depth than 90% of the music released in its time (and since, come to think of it).
But nowadays, there has been a serious drought in songs that have any real depth in urban music. You have rare gems like The Roots’ “Undun” album, and a smattering of thoughtful songs from the likes of Talib Kweli, Common, Big K.R.I.T.T., Jill Scott, Raphael Saadiq and guys like that.
But I think there’s a difference between being thoughtful and having depth. Usually when a song has a message, the message is presented very obviously, and it almost beats you over the head with it. That’s why a lot of socially conscious, thought-provoking songs come off as preachy: the message is presented blatantly and in-your-face. Songs like that are fine and we need more of them, but that’s not the kind of song I’m talking about.
A friend of mine heard a couple of songs I made about being broke. He liked one over the other because it displayed “the poetry of the problem.” What I think he meant is that the song evoked a more visceral response because of the mental imagery and emotion it stirred up. The song wasn’t just telling you about what it was like to be broke, it made you feel what the rapper was feeling. (By the way, the song was called “I Need A Job”).
And as much as I loved Undun, I disqualified it because it took a whole album for the project to get its message across, while “Pie” did the whole thing in 8 minutes.
I think what makes “American Pie” so unique is that it gives a comprehensive breakdown of the history of a very important decade in American history, but it isn’t a history lesson. The events aren’t simply recited, and the opinion of the events isn’t detached. The singer lived this period of time, he felt it. But he isn’t describing what happened as it happened, but he uses symbolism and metaphor to give the events an even deeper meaning and resonance than they already have. It’s not just Bob Dylan usurping the “voice of a generation” title from Elvis: it’s “the jester who sounds like you and me” stealing the thorny crown of “the king.” It’s “Lennon reading Marx, while four practiced in the park” as a reference to John Lennon’s new thinking mixed with Lenin adopting the theories of Karl Marx, with the Beatles preparing their departure from pop music at their final concert at Candlestick Park. Those metaphors by themselves have a bunch of layers, and that’s before you throw in the historical context this plays out in. Today’s songs are sorely missing this.
American Pie is truly an epic song, and I would love nothing more than to see a hip-hop equivalent, maybe using the deaths of Tupac and Notorious BIG (arguably the most significant deaths in the history of the culture) as the lynch pins the same way American Pie used Buddy Holly’s death. I want to see a song chronicling how that changed hip-hop and the people who support it, what it did to the mentality of the youth, and how it affects their mindstate of today. I want the song to have the layers of American Pie, with all of its symbolism and deeper meaning, all of its emotion and pathos, all of its subtlelty and nuances.
Since we have so many rappers who claim to be great songwriters – one even said he wants to be mentioned in the same breath as John Lennon, is it too much to ask that one of these guys create this, which would be the greatest seminal rap song ever (even greater that “I used To Love H.E.R.”)?
Until one of these guys steps up and writes something transcendent, I’ll be counted among the people who always complain about how the music has died.
And they were singin’…