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In-Depth Look at American Girl by Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers

American Girl is a song that moves quickly through portrayals of modernist ennui to despair to (at least an imagination of) suicide and ends up at a possible redemption. It is set to a sprightly tune with a bopping rhythm that is one part early Byrds, one part Beatles’ vocal influence, one part New Wave courtesy of David Bowie, and one part Bo Diddley’s driving, scratching guitar riffs.

The girl in the story was:

…raised on promises…
She couldn’t help thinkin’
That there was a little more
to life somewhere else
After all it was a great big world
With lots of places to run to
And if she had to die tryin’
She had one little promise
she was gonna keep

It is the promise she was going to keep that preoccupies the middle of the song. What was the promise? To change, perhaps. To rediscover a love she lost before going to the big city, (Los Angeles), a love somewhere back in the American night? Or, if she couldn’t overcome her sadness and sorrow, to commit suicide as an act of escape and courage?
The upbeat music keeps us from getting at the truth, because no matter what the apprehension set up early on, we are told over and over:
O yeah, all right
Take it easy, baby
Make it last all night
She was an American girl
In many ways, American Girl is a celebration of a youth twisting in the wind of love, although this one struggles to cope with the
one desperate moment
[when] he crept back in her memory
God it’s so painful when something that’s so close
Is still so far out of reach.

There is something percolating under the song, though, other than a bare bones telling of a pilgrim girl. It becomes a commentary on the American Dream, its overpromising nature, and the inevitable disappointment it brings when one understands the emptiness of the end result.

The interpretation brings a broader meaning to the lines, Take it easy baby, Make it last all night. There is a slight hint that in life we all just have to move on and make things work better than they were working before. The song closes with a brief, sparkling guitar solo that allows just enough time to contemplate the critique of American society and promises too large ever to be kept.