Tom Petty’s ‘American Girl’: A Perfect Rock Song

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The front cover of the single’s picture sleeve

It was the second single from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ 1976 self-titled debut. When “American Girl” was released in February 1977 on Shelter Records, it barely got any notice from Top 40 radio programmers and failed to chart on that format.

Over the years, as the audience for Petty’s music widened exponentially, the appreciation for “American Girl,” with its now-familiar jangly guitar riff courtesy of Petty and the band’s Mike Campbell, became enormous and it’s long been a classic rock favorite. Of all the tunes in the Petty canon, decades later, “American Girl” can be looked at as a perfect song.

The song’s protagonist is unnamed, simply referred to multiple times as “she.” In the second verse, Petty writes:

It was kind of cold that night
She stood alone on the balcony
She could hear the cars roll by
Out on 441
Like waves crashin’ on the beach

Watch Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers perform the song on The Midnight Special in 1978

“441” refers to a portion of U.S. Route 441 that runs through Gainesville, Fla., Petty’s hometown. On Oct. 30, less than four weeks after Petty’s death, Florida State Senator Keith Perry filed a bill to have a portion of U.S. 441–known locally as NW 13th Street–re-named Tom Petty Memorial Highway after the city’s native son. While Perry’s heart was in the right place, it appears that he didn’t do his research. The road already has a name in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a designation awarded in 1998.

The backlash was swift and Perry is amending his original bill to re-name a section of Southwest 34th Street that features a now-prominent Petty memorial that fans painted on a wall overlooking a stretch of that road.

Fans have analyzed the song and have tried to connect the lyrics “if she had to die” and “one desperate moment” with the girl on the balcony. Over the years, the nearby University of Florida has had a series of suicides. Petty repeatedly denied any connection.

The song’s lyrics include the bawdy lyrics:

Take it easy baby
Make it last all night

Though “American Girl” failed to connect with Top 40 radio programmers, Petty would ultimately earned 11 Top 20 U.S. pop sings. (1979’s “Don’t Do Me Like That” was the first, reaching #10; 1994’s “You Don’t Know How it Feels” was the last, at #13. (Rock radio embraced him: he had no less than 31 that reached the format’s Top 10.)

Not surprisingly, Petty and the Heartbreakers chose to perform “American Girl” at their 2002 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.

Related: Roger McGuinn talks about recording “American Girl,” written by a then-unknown songwriter

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Greg Brodsky

Greg Brodsky

Best Classic Bands Founder/CEO Greg Brodsky earned his first professional bylines as a reporter for the music trade weekly Record World. He still has all his vinyl albums and enjoys going to flea markets and garage sales to grow his collection.
Greg Brodsky
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  1. TP67
    #1 TP67 6 November, 2017, 16:10

    Actually the lyric is “if she had to die tryin’ she / had one little promise she was gonna keep.” It’s a great song for the same reasons Petty was a great artist .. it takes the general (a young American female hoping for a “little more to life somewhere else”) and combines it with the specific (“out on 441 like waves crashin’ on the beach.) Also notable because it really only has two verses and no chorus. Tom said they were “trying to do Bo Diddley” .. but that’s selling it short. Agreed .. almost the perfect rock song.

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