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Song: American Girl (1976)
Artist: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Album: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (Shelter)
Writer: Tom Petty
Although American Girl never charted in the U.S. the first time it was released in 1976, it has become one of the favorite Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers songs of all time. It is considered an absolute staple of classic rock and may be the song most identified with the band’s sound. It’s certainly my favorite Tom Petty song. It’s such a legendary song that it has inspired its own legends concerning its meaning. Many think the song is about suicide. Others think it concerns a more specific incident that occurred in Florida during the 1960s.
Specifically, it is widely believed that American Girl is about an urban legend regarding a University of Florida student who took LSD and jumped from the balcony of her room in Beatty Towers, believing she could fly. Other versions of the story leave out the drugs and simply say she leaped from her window and committed suicide.
Besides what listeners believe to be unclear lyrics, the main piece of evidence cited is Petty’s mention of 441 in the song:
Well, it was kind of cold that night
She stood alone on her balcony
Yeah, she could hear the cars roll by
Out on 441
Like waves crashin’ on the beach
441 refers to Highway 441 that runs through Gainsville, Florida, past the University of Florida and Beatty Towers. The girl is standing alone on her balcony and can hear the cars rushing by on the highway – the very highway that runs past the building where a girl jumped off her balcony to her death. If you look at a few pictures of Beatty Towers, though, you may notice that there are no balconies. Sometimes the story is changed to have the girl simply jumping from her window. However, the windows are very small and not located in positions that would be easy to jump from, if possible at all.
It is not likely, nor is there any evidence, that such a death ever occurred. Also, Highway 441 runs from Miami all the way to Tennessee, so to narrow it down to that one location is a stretch. However, Petty himself was from Gainsville so it is at least understandable that the song might become associated with the legend. Is it true?
All anyone had to do is ask, as Tom Petty repeatedly said no, the song was not about any such urban legend. Instead, although Tom Petty uses 441 in the song, a highway he would know well, he was actually inspired by 101 Freeway.
Petty wrote American Girl when he was living in an apartment in Encino that he said was located near Leon Russel’s house.
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. (1)
It’s clear that the song is not about the UF legend but the myth is so entrenched that it spawned a tradition where students hold yearly Halloween parties at a house where Tom Petty once lived.
The only problem is that Petty never lived in a house in Gainsville. He always lived in apartments. He did live in his mom’s house:
…I never lived in a house in Gainesville. I lived in apartments. I lived in my mom’s house, where I know they’re not throwing a party. So that’s also a myth. Someone got a house and said, ‘This is where he lived.’ That tradition has gone on and on. And every time I tell them it’s not true, they go, ‘Aaah …’ [Laughs] I almost am tempted to go ‘Oh great,’ because I don’t want to pop their balloon. (1)
To be honest, I don’t understand what’s so enigmatic or unclear about the lyrics of American Girl. The allusions in the song have never seemed to me to be disguised or meant to be inscrutable or mysterious.
I never got a suicide vibe from the song or a ‘drug trip vibe.
Instead, American Girl is about just what it seems to be about, disillusionment, disappointment, and heartbreak. It’s about a girl who is growing up and wondering if there is more to life and will she find it?
Although the reference to the highway and the balcony seem to recall the Gainsville urban legend, it is perhaps the first verse that causes so many misinterpretations. Many think that ‘if she had to die tryin’ is a reference to suicide. The phrasing may add fuel to the fire, as Petty inserts a pause before ‘tryin.’ “If she had to die….tryin, she…” This phrasing was undoubtedly chosen out of necessity rather than to highlight “if she had to die.” It is simply an ordinary use of the idiom.
And what was the promise she was going to keep if she had to die trying? Petty never said, but I would guess that it was the promise we all make to ourselves, that we will seek out and find happiness and fulfillment.
The girl in the song is not a specific girl but more of an archetype that Petty would continue to use in other songs about unnamed, or named girls. This American girl was brought up on the American Dream, and ‘raised on promises.’ Now, she has realized the emptiness of those promises just as many of us ultimately do. But, she would make her own way and find that dream despite her setbacks and disappointments, and despite her heartache.
It has been claimed that the opening lines, ‘she was an American girl, Raised on promises,’ was inspired by the Francis Ford Coppola film Dementia 13, where the character Louise, referring to another woman, says “Especially an American Girl. You can tell she was raised on promises.” It is unclear whether this is true.
American Girl, fittingly, was the last song played in concert by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers before Tom Petty’s tragic death. The band played it as the final encore of the last concert of their 40th University Tour at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, California.
1. Zollo, Paul, and Tom Petty. Conversations with Tom Petty. Omnibus Press, 2005.