Number Ones: Hey, remember that time when Madonna covered American Pie?


#1 MARCH 5-11, 2000

It takes a special level of hubris to assume that what the world needs is for you to release an updated version of one of the most celebrated tracks of all time. And while Madonna can hardly been accused of hiding her light behind an age-appropriate bushel, it was still a shock when she hacked through ‘American Pie’, half-singing the track, adding a William Orbit beat, and removing all but the second and sixth verses, and opening the track with half of the first – as if to signal that, yup, this is really what is happening here. The day the music died, indeed.

‘American Pie’ isn’t, however, the untouchable epic that FM playlists and weekend-long Best Song Ever lists have long convinced us is the case. In fact, the song routinely turns up on Most Hated lists, and years of inclusion in high school English/History curriculums* makes it smack of homework for generations of Americans, while brutally-edited versions on Australian radio have completely dulled any narrative impact the song might have had here. However, it is roundly considered a classic American song – its fearless length, ubiquity, and opaque lyrics giving a very real sense of mystery to the song which remains to this day. Don McLean, the song’s author, has been tight-lipped about the various attempts to decode the track, once saying, “it means I don’t ever have to work again if I don’t want to.”

Madonna’s version of the song can actually be blamed on Rupert Everett, the foppish, charming Brit who was co-starring with Madonna in 2000 film The Next Big Thing. He suggested she record the track for the film’s soundtrack, the compilation of which is seemingly a task left up to the lead actors. Instead of convincing Rupert she was not the one for the job, playing her 1992 single ‘Erotica’ for further emphasis of this, she went along with the idea, half-arsing a version to be released as advance promotion for the film. While it stalled at #29 in America – the country in which the pie was originally baked – the single hit #1 in Australia, on March 5, 2000.

Madonna’s hit actually caused the biggest moral wrinkle seen in the charts for some time: it knocked comedian Chris Franklin’s gormless parody ‘Bloke’ off the top spot. A mercy for many, it instead meant watching Madonna dance around in front of an American flag while the hallowed Rage font proudly proclaimed it #1. It was a tough Saturday morning for young Aussie music fans; thankfully *NSNYC slapped Madge off the top spot a week later, as ‘Bye Bye Bye’ begun its five-week run.**

The video clip itself, while terrible, could have acted to excuse the entire affair, with its *cough* provocative same-sex kiss being a symbolic showcase of the shifting sands of American life, counter-acting the sad lack of tolerance seen in the South, where the majority of the clip was shot. However, this kiss was omitted from the version of the video actually shown on TV, meaning that the revolution was not televised but instead lived mainly on bonus CD-ROM content, accessible from any computer with Windows 95 and a Pentium processor higher than 100.

Remarkably, this wasn’t the first time a Hollywood blockbuster had thrust the song back into the public realm of late. Months earlier, noted Flintstones satirist Weird Al Yankovic released ‘The Saga Begins’, a parody of the song stepping out events in the then-newly-released Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace (Choice line: “The Council was impressed, of course/ Could he bring balance to the force? /They interviewed the kid /Oh, training they forbid!”)

With both the song and the saga opening with the line “a long time ago”, and reams of familiar storyline to fill the many (many) verses with, it was a home run straight off the bat. In fact, while Madonna’s version was omitted from her second Greatest Hits set, buried as a bonus track on her Music album, and completely forgotten before you started reading this column, Weird Al’s version gained huge traction in the McLean house, where his kids listened to it so much that Don has actually accidentally swapped in some of the Star Wars lyrics***  while performing ‘American Pie’ in concert. Hopefully it was the line about midichlorians.


*The other song killed by history teachers everywhere in a misguided sense of ‘making learning fun’ is Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’, which is a rather unremarkable song in itself, and – in educational terms – a simple shopping list of names without context. You know, similar to school. Joel himself admitted on Howard Stern’s show that he can’t ever remember the words, relying on muscle memory to kick in after he recalls the first line of each verse. Also, he once dated Elle Macpherson and Christie Brinkley – learn piano, kids.

** 2000 was the worst year of #1s in Australian chart history. A sample: ‘Posion’ – Bardot; ‘Blue (Da Ba Dee)’ – Eiffel 65; ‘Who The Hell Are You’ – Madison Avenue, ‘Freestyler’ – Bomfunk MCs; ‘Music’ – Madonna, ‘I’m Outta Love’ – Anastacia, ‘Most Girls’ – Pink; ‘Beautiful Day’ – U2, ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ – Wheatus; ‘Who Let The Dogs Out?’ (Rhetorical Mix) – Baha Men

***No word as to whether Meredith Brooks has made the same mistake with ‘Bloke’ while performing ‘Bitch’.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s