How Tom Petty Crafted the Legacy-Defining ‘American Girl’
Tom Petty set the scene with just a couple of lines: "Well, she was an American girl / Raised on promises."
In a little more than three and a half minutes, Petty wove a tale of a heartbroken girl who, like many Americans, goes in search of something bigger than herself: "She couldn't help thinking that that there was a little more to life somewhere else." The song was at once ardently energetic, building toward a blistering ending, and deceptively desolate with themes of solitude and loss.
At the time of the song's writing, Petty and the Heartbreakers had only recently signed a recording contract. It was a major milestone for the band, which had traveled from Gainesville, Fla., to Los Angeles in search of a "little more to life," but the deal didn't make the group an overnight star. "American Girl," the final track on their self-titled debut album summed up a sentiment many ambitious people learn in the land of opportunity: The American dream can be glitzy and glamorous, but it's not always what it's cracked up to be.
Petty wrote "American Girl" on his acoustic guitar, not by choice but because it was the only guitar he owned. He was living in Florida at the time, and his apartment backed up against U.S. 441, where a steady stream of traffic ran. "The cars would go by," he said in Paul Zollo's 2005 book, Conversations With Tom Petty. "And I remember thinking that that sounded like the ocean to me. That was my ocean. My Malibu."
When the song was brought to the studio, it was time to up the ante. Drummer Stan Lynch provided a Bo Diddley-inspired backbeat. "The drums are all on one track, which is really unusual," Petty recalled. "They're damn present." And what sounds like a 12-string guitar was two six-strings played by Petty and guitarist Mike Campbell, layered on top of each other. Campbell's trick to making the song sound more in tune? Leaving the third out of several chords, creating a sound that mirrored that of a horn section.
The high-reaching backing vocals were supplied by Phil Seymour of the Dwight Twilley Band, who also sang backing on the album's first single, "Breakdown." This was before Pro Tools, so the band had to get creative if it wanted to track a long, extended vocal like the one heard at the end of "American Girl," a feat achieved by Petty and Seymour singing the note and staggering their breathing. "We called it the laser vocal," Campbell later told Songfacts.
"American Girl" was recorded on the Fourth of July 1976, the exact date of America's bicentennial, and something about it just felt right, the members thought — as if all the pieces of who they were trying to become were finally starting to piece together. "I think everyone knew that there was a little lightning in the bottle on that one," Lynch later told Petty biographer Warren Zanes.
Listen to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' 'American Girl'
When the song was released, some couldn't help but notice a similarity to another L.A. band: the Byrds. Even though Petty loved the Byrds, the similarities weren't intentional. "I don't think it sounds anything like the Byrds to me," he said. "We would have never dreamed that we could sound like the Byrds. We would have wished we could sound like the Byrds. But we certainly weren't thinking that."
The Byrds' Roger McGuinn thought otherwise. Upon first hearing the song, he thought it was one of his. "I know it freaked Roger out pretty good," Petty remarked to Melody Maker in 1981.
"The vocal inflections were just like mine," McGuinn told Philly Voice in 2017. "I was told that a guy from Florida named Tom Petty wrote and sings the song, and I said that I had to meet him.” McGuinn even released a cover of "American Girl" in 1977.
Watch Roger McGuinn Perform 'American Girl' in 1977
Back home in Florida, a rumor began to circulate that the song was based on an alleged suicide that had taken place on the University of Florida campus in Gainesville. A girl was purported to have jumped from the windows of one of the residential buildings that happened to be near U.S. 441. The college has refuted this claim, and, the band said it's simply not true. "We used to have people come up to us and tell us they thought it was about suicide because of the one line about, 'If she had to die.' But what they didn't get was, the whole line is, 'if she had to die trying,'" Campbell later said. "Some people take it literally and out of context. To me, it's just a really beautiful love song."
The song was again tied to a distressed girl in 1991 in the psychological horror film The Silence of the Lambs, in which a young woman sings along to "American Girl" in her car moments before she's kidnapped by a serial killer. "I like the movie," Campbell noted. "And it didn't dampen my feeling for the song. I thought it was an interesting juxtaposition of an optimistic, joyous song against a really dark scene."
Watch Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Perform 'American Girl' in 1978
"American Girl" was not a success upon its initial release — it reached only No. 40 on the U.K. chart and didn't chart at all in the U.S. It wasn't until the album began to gain more momentum overseas that U.S. radio stations finally began to pick up on the band.
The song's famous intro riff struck a chord or two with the Strokes in 2001, when they took inspiration for their song "Last Nite" from their classic debut album Is This It. "People would say, ‘You know that song 'American Girl' by Tom Petty?’" singer Julian Casablancas later said. “‘Don’t you think it sounds a little like that?’ And I’d be like, ‘Yeah, we ripped it off. Where you been?’”
Petty also heard the resemblance but didn't mind. "I saw an interview with [the Strokes] where they actually admitted it," Petty told Rolling Stone in 2006. "That made me laugh out loud. I was like, 'OK, good for you.' It doesn’t bother me." (The Strokes even opened for Petty on tour a handful of times that year.)
Watch the Strokes' 'Last Nite' Video
"American Girl" remained a staple in Petty's set list, even if the song became an occasional chore to perform. "Sometimes I feel like I don't want to play 'American Girl' anymore," Petty told Zollo. "But then maybe you'll get two hours into the show, and the place is frenzied, and the vibe is so great, and the first couple chords of that song come on, and there's such a rush of adrenaline throughout the building, that the next thing you know, you're really digging playing 'American Girl.' And I'll feel, I can't believe I am digging this again, but I am."
"American Girl" was the last song Petty performed with the band at his final concert on Sep. 25, 2017. A week later, he died.
"Out of all our songs, ['American Girl'] is probably my favorite that we ever did," Campbell said in 2021. "We played it every gig for 40 years, and every night it would still get me excited, soon as I heard that clang clang clang. There's just something about the exuberance and the joy in that song. It was the first song that I think the Heartbreakers really sounded like what we were gonna be. You know, our sound."
Watch Tom Petty Perform 'American Girl' During His Final Live Performance