The original 16-page (?!?) working manuscript of the lyrics to “American Pie” has been sold at auction for $1.2 million. With the story about the sale, I finally read an explanation of the lyrics that have perplexed me since I first heard them. Although the song is about the death of Buddy Holly, a fact I already knew, Don McLean explains that the lyrics are also about the state of society at the time. “Basically, in ‘American Pie,’ things are headed in the wrong direction,” he said. “I was around in 1970 and now I am around in 2015. There is no poetry and very little romance in anything anymore, so it is really like the last phase of ‘American Pie.’ ”
American Pie came out in 1972, when I was 2 years old. Dammit, people. The music has been dead my whole life.
This led me to wonder about the nature of nostalgia and of idealizing the past. I don’t for a minute believe that things were better in the 1950s and 1960s, when racism and sexism were rampant (or, at least, more so than they are today). But I see it all around me, this feeling that “things used to be better.” Better for whom, I wonder? We are collectively so afraid of change that it seems we have to tell ourselves that the past was ideal and the present has problems. This seems particularly tragic to me because the present is all we have to work with, the only moment in which we can make change.
This way of thinking extends down even to very young people. The other day, my daughter asked me what it was like to be a teenager in the 1980s.
“It was an awesome time to be a teenager,” I told her. “The music was great, New York City was gritty and not so Disney-fied, the fashion was fun and a lot of interesting things were going on in the world. I loved it.”
“Yeah,” she said. “It must have been better than now.”
I corrected her. I told her it was good, it was different, but not better. I said not to mistake my good memories of adolescence in the 80s as a negative comparison to today, which I also think is a great time to be alive. She mentioned that it must have been cool to live in a time before cell phones and 24-hour parental access to teens’ whereabouts (and, I must admit, I am grateful I didn’t grow up with that because I would have had half as much fun). But I pointed out all the things that are wonderful about now: unprecedented access to information, the ability to communicate with friends at all hours in a variety of ways and a much more inclusive and tolerant view of things like homosexuality (definitely not all the way there yet, but much better than in the 1980s). She will never stand on a corner at a time she is was meant to meet a friend and wonder why the friend hasn’t shown up yet (thanks, texts). She will never hear a snippet of a song lyric on the radio and be haunted by it for months because she never hears it again (kisses, Google).
In 1972, there was nostalgia for the “idyllic” 1950s and the idealistic 1960s. Today, there is nostalgia for the “freer” 1980s. I thought my generation, which was once the hip, young, MTV generation, would be spared the old-person’s “back-in-my-day” refrain. We haven’t been. So it goes, generation after generation, longing for a past that was never as good as we imagine it was. It was, like today, flawed, imperfect, and in need of improvement. Like everything. Like life.
Click here for the full Washington Post piece on the sale of the “American Pie” manuscript.