- Songs are short structured works which makes them easy to analyze
- Dealing with songs written in English means that we don't need to look up what the "real word" was
- Modern songs are written within our socio-political context meaning that we don't need commentaries
I believe that American Pie is very similar to an apocalyptic work. It is not exactly the same (the very fact that it is a song means that it is not exactly the same), but it uses the same kind of literary structures that make apocalyptic writing so difficult to understand. Therefore, analyzing this song may help many interpret Biblical books such as Revelation and Daniel.
What is Apocalyptic Writing?
First of all, apocalypse does not mean the end of the world. The Greek word 'apokalypsis' means revelation. Apocalyptic writing is essentially a particular literary genre that existed in Jewish antiquity which revealed the divine purposes behind current or future events. It did this by casting events, nations and personages into metaphor which describe their true spiritual nature. All of these works claim to be visions sent to the writer by God (and the ones in the Bible truly were) and as such the metaphors are understood to be representatives of nations and persons on the spiritual plane. Here is a very straightforward definition from The Apocalyptic Imagination by John J. Collins:
A genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another supernatural world. (5)So what are their basic features:
- Polyvalent metaphor: A polyvalent metaphor is a metaphor that refers to more than one thing at once. For example, the beasts in Daniel and Revelation refer both to kings and the nations and peoples of those kings simultaneously. Additionally, it can refer to the way in which a metaphor may actually change its referent.
- Metonym: A metonym is when you refer to something by referring to something else which is related to it. For instance, when we say the White House says something, we do not mean that the building itself spoke. Instead we are referring to the Presidential Administration by way of metonym. Another example is when we say "Use your head" we actually mean "use your mind" or think. The entire genre of apocalyptic writing is one big metonym, where the events are described by talking about the spiritual forces behind those events. Additionally, judgements are not usually described specifically, but often refer to the entire state of the planet as being in chaos and disarray. This is also metonym.
- Interpreted Events: The point of Apocalypse isn't to explain to us what events happened, or what events are going to happen. The point is to explain why, and what the effects of these events are. They are explaining the power behind the events rather than the events themselves.
- Intermittence: Events are not told in chronological order, but instead are told in discreet snippets. These snippets may chronologically overlap, or the last event may be told first, or they may be the retelling of exactly the same event, or they may be drastically different time periods, or they may actually be chronological. For instance, Revelation is split into 5 sets of seven, as well as having these sets of seven interrupted by other images. These snippets may blend together, or they may be completely isolated from each other. Usually these snippets can stand alone, and create a single image. However the snippets will often slightly reference each other.
I think a lot of people don't really understand the song, so let me explain it is brief. American Pie is about the 1960s, specifically about our loss of our traditional sense of what it meant to be American. It does this by going through the events within the music industry of the 1960s. However, these events are all described in metaphoric snippets.
For instance, verse 1 is Don delivering papers as a boy, verse 2 is Don at a prom being rejected by a girl, verse 3 is a medieval courtroom scene with a coup from a jester, verse 4 is a football game, verse 5 is a Satanic sacrificial ritual, and verse 6 is a return to Don's hometown after some disaster. These images are drastically different from each other, and yet are united by the fact that they are all metaphors for the same time period. This is typical apocalyptic intermittance.
Let's take this concept to the book of Revelation. The book is easily divided into 5 groups of seven: Seven churches, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls, seven great events. One of the great mistakes of interpreting Revelation is to take it as being continuous, but most commentaries that I have read (and my Revelation professor in college) stressed the cyclical nature of Revelation. Each of these groups of seven need to be interpreted as discreet units. I mean discreet, not separate (Psalms are separate. Daniel and Revelation are merely discreet). These units absolutely interact with each other, but they also need to be understood in terms of what they are distinctly before we can appropriately look at how they interact.
Polyvalent metaphors are metaphors that stand for more than one thing. For instance, let's examine the jester. Like in most apocalyptic writing, the jester doesn't really fit into the image appropriately: he's a medieval person wearing James Dean's leather jacket and attends football games. The James Dean jacket had having a voice "that came from you and me" identifies him as Bob Dylan who is described as usurping Elvis (the King). However, Dylan in life represented an entire generation, and he as a person within the song represents that new order of thinking coming into power. The point of the verse isn't merely the rising popularity of Dylan at that time, nor the (very temporary) loss of popularity for Elvis. Instead the image is the imagery of rebellion: a commoner taking down a monarch, and this is the initial event of being "on our own" discussed in the beginning of the verse, implying that this was the beginning of all the woes that are to follow. This is what is meant by polyvalence.
Ok, how does this compare to Revelation. Let's look at the great prostitute of Revelation 17. The great prostitute is said to be Babylon, however the 7 hill reference identifies it as Rome. Which is it? Both. It is the spirit of Babylon in Rome. Additionally, the prostitute refers to the religion of Rome specifically since she is described in religious terms. Also, does this actually refer to the city of Rome, or to a city that is like Rome? Considering that Rome and Babylon is likened to each other, we can't assume that this must be one city or the other. It could very well be a city that is like both Rome and Babylon. Additionally, it doesn't just refer to the physical city itself, but to the city as the seat of government. Therefore, we have a metaphor that is drawing from mulitple images as well as possibly referring to multiple things as well. If all of this sounds confusing, don't worry.
It is precisely the feature of polyvalent metaphor that makes apocalyptic writing (and American Pie) so difficult to interpret. The key to interpreting both is to allow the writing to create an image in your mind. The imagery, and the feeling of the imagery, is actually more important to interpretation than figuring out exactly what it means. Indeed, the metaphors aren't exact, so they don't exactly mean anything! This isn't meant to be a secret code, but a painting with words. The more you treat it that way, the easier (and truer) interpretation becomes.
Metonymy is that figure of speech where you refer to something by talking about something related to it. A metonym is often confused with a metaphor, since you have one thing standing in for something else. However, metaphor is a form of comparison, where you have the two ideas are different from each other, and they are being compared for the sake of pointing out what little they have in common.
For instance, if I call Todd a pig, that is a metaphor. Todd is not a pig, nor does he have anything to do with pigs in his life. The one thing that he has in common is he acts like one, hence the metaphor. However, if I say "Many hands make light work", that is a metonym. While it is true that people are not hands, they do have them. Indeed, the expression is referring directly to what their hands are doing: working. There is no comparison going on. It is only a means of emphasis. This means of emphasizing an aspect of a thing by referring to something related to that thing is metonymy.
What is important about metonymy in both American Pie and Apocalyptic literature is that both use it as an overall structure. The entire structure is merely a metonym for something else.
Let's take American Pie. All the verses are describing events in music history (in song order): the death of Buddy Holly in verse 1, sock hops of the 1050s, Rolling Stones (mentioned in verse 3 and emphasized in verse 5), Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Byrds, the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Motor speedway, and Janice Joplin. Additionally, he re-purposes the lyrics of the music of his era, often specifically the songs of the groups that he is referencing (Rolling Stones' Jumping Jack Flash, The Beatles' Helter Skelter, The Byrds' Eight Miles High, and, of course Buddy Holly's That'll Be the Day). However, it would be an error to believe that McLean was only interested in the music industry. Instead, he is referencing the Flower Child revolution of the 1960s, and he is using the music industry as an overarching metonym.
Just like metonymy is at the interpretive heart of American Pie, it is also at the interpretive heart of Apocalyptic literature. One major unifying element of Apocalyptic literature, and this is different from American Pie itself, is that they are divine visions. These visions are not understood as being metaphors for the nations and leaders in the world. They are understood as being representations of angelic/demonic forces behind these nations and leaders. This isn't to say that the nations and leaders are not in purview, but that they are metonymously referred to by their supernatural forces. This is very evident in the beginning of Revelation where John is writing to the "angels of the churches" rather than to the churches themselves.
One final point that needs to be made here is that both Apocalyptic literature and American Pie are, at the end of the day, referring to real events. However, they are not simply telling/retelling these events for the sake of history, nor are they even trying to tell you what happened. Instead, they are telling you why, and what the result is.
It is clear that American Pie is indeed influenced by Christianity simply from its overt references to religious themes. While American Pie is not about the end of the world, it is about the end of America as we knew it in the 1950s, hence saying good-bye to American Pie. The song recounts the events of the 1960s as America looses its innocence, and turns its worship away from God and towards Rock 'n Roll and celebrities. This site does the best job I have ever seen at explain the details behind the song, but, like all apocalypses, American Pie cannot be understood simply be identifying its referents. Its imagery and tone are necessary for properly understanding the tone as you allow those images to clarify your own personal feelings about where America is, or where is was in the early 1970s when the song was written. It isn't about what happened, but what was lost, and the angst in losing that first love with America.
It is our desire to strip away the imagery of biblical apocalypses and get to the events themselves that disrupts our ability to really look at the books as the truly are. It isn't good enough to identify who the four horsemen are. Once you know what they are, you need to then envision them as horsemen charging through humanity, tearing down civilization. It is not good enough to identify who the Antichrist is; you need to understand that he is really a beast, who is more horrid than his human form allows us to see. Don't just recognize that the goat in Daniel is Alexander, but see Alexander as a goat recklessly attacking forward against all adversaries.
I don't want to say that identification isn't important. We need to know what they are talking about to know what they are talking about. But "solving the code" isn't the objective of interpreting these kinds of works. Instead, we need to learn to look beyond just the events themselves, and understand what the purposes for these events are. After all, that's the whole point of the revelations.