American Girl (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song)

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"American Girl"
American Girl - Tom Petty.jpg
Single by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
from the album Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
B-side"The Wild One, Forever"
ReleasedFebruary 1977 (1977-02)
RecordedJuly 4, 1976
StudioShelter Studios, Hollywood
Songwriter(s)Tom Petty
Producer(s)Denny Cordell
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers singles chronology
"American Girl"
"I Need to Know"
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers singles chronology
"Something in the Air"
"You Don't Know How It Feels"

"American Girl" is a rock song written by Tom Petty and recorded by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers for their self-titled debut album in 1976. It was released as a single and did not chart in the United States, but peaked at No. 40 in the UK for the week ending August 27, 1977. It was re-released in 1994 as the second single from Petty's Greatest Hits album and peaked at No. 68 in the U.S. Cash Box Top 100.[4]

Despite limited chart success, "American Girl" became one of Petty's most popular songs and a staple of classic rock. It has been consistently rated as his best song and one of the best rock songs of all time, and has been called "more than a classic rock standard — it's practically part of the American literary canon."[5][6][7][8][9] It has also been used in several movies and television shows, often during a scene in which a character, much like the protagonist in the song's lyrics, is "longing for something bigger than their current existence."[10]

American Girl was the last song performed in concert by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. They played it to close out the encore of their performance on September 25, 2017, at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, California, the final concert of their 40th Anniversary Tour. Petty died of complications from cardiac arrest after an accidental prescription medication overdose on October 2, just over a week later.[11]

Composition and recording[edit]

American Girl was written by Tom Petty around the time he and the Heartbreakers signed their first recording contract. It was recorded on the 4th of July in 1976, the Bicentennial of the United States.[12]

"American Girl" uses standard rock instrumentation of electric guitars, electric bass, drums, and keyboards. The tempo is fast and "urgent,"[13] and is built on a repeated jangling guitar riff based on a "Bo Diddley beat."[14] As described in Rolling Stone, "The supercharged riff set the template for decades of Petty hits, but it was also an homage to the Byrds: Petty and Mike Campbell's twin guitars mirrored Roger McGuinn's 12-string, infusing the folk-rock sounds of the 1960s with New Wave energy."[6]

Lyrics and rumors[edit]

Beaty Towers on the University of Florida campus

Due to the lyrics about a desperate girl on a balcony hearing "cars roll by out on 441," the song was rumored to have been written about a college student who committed suicide by jumping from the Beaty Towers residence hall at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida. Beaty Towers is located on the edge of the university campus alongside U.S. Route 441 (called NW 13th Street through the city), and the residence hall opened in 1967, when Petty was still a teenager living in his hometown of Gainesville.

According to Carl Van Ness, the University of Florida's former historian, there have been many suicides in the school's history, but since the university does not keep a file of them, he "doesn't know for sure" if any involved a jump from Beaty Towers.[15] University of Florida spokesman Steve Orlando said that no one has committed suicide by jumping off Beaty Towers,[16] which would be a difficult endeavor since the dorm rooms have narrow windows and no balconies.[17][18][19][19]

When asked directly about the story in the book Conversations with Tom Petty, Petty responded:

Urban legend. It's become a huge urban myth down in Florida. That's just not at all true. The song has nothing to do with that. But that story really gets around... They've really got the whole story. I've even seen magazine articles about that story. "Is it true or isn't it true?" They could have just called me and found out it wasn't true.[20]

In the same interview, Petty says that he wrote the song while living in California:

I don't remember exactly. I was living in an apartment where I was right by the freeway. And the cars would go by. In Encino, near Leon Russell's house. And I remember thinking that that sounded like the ocean to me. That was my ocean. My Malibu. Where I heard the waves crash, but it was just the cars going by. I think that must have inspired the lyric.[20]

The opening line lyric "raised on promises" echoes a line of dialogue in Francis Ford Coppola's 1963 film, Dementia 13. Referring to another woman, the character Louise says (at minute 17), "Especially an American girl. You can tell she's been raised on promises."[21]

Single track listings[edit]

  • "American Girl" b/w "Fooled Again (I Don't Like It)"
    Shelter 62007 (US)
  • "American Girl" b/w "The Wild One, Forever"
    Shelter WIP6377 (UK)
  • "American Girl" b/w "Luna" (Live) *
    Shelter WIP6403 (UK)
    * taken from The Official Live Bootleg


Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers



Original release

Chart (1977) Peak
UK Singles Chart 40


Chart (1994) Peak
U.S. Billboard Bubbling Under Hot 100[22] 109
U.S. Cash Box Top 100[23] 68

In popular culture[edit]

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers performed the song on the BBC2 television show The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1978.[24]

The song has been featured in several Hollywood films and episodes of television shows, most notably FM (1978), Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), The Sopranos (1999), Scrubs (2001), Chasing Liberty (2004), Parks and Recreation (2009), Ricki and the Flash (2015) and The Handmaid's Tale (2017). Its use in The Silence of the Lambs made the list of Top 11 Uses of Classic Rock in Cinema at UGO.

According to Tom Petty, The Strokes have admitted to taking the riff for their 2001 single, "Last Nite", from this song. In a 2006 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Petty said "The Strokes took 'American Girl', and I saw an interview with them where they actually admitted it. That made me laugh out loud. I was like, 'OK, good for you.' It doesn't bother me."[25] The Strokes played as an opening act for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers for several dates of their 2006 tour.[26]

Cover versions[edit]

Roger McGuinn of The Byrds (a major influence on Petty's music), released his own version of "American Girl" on his Thunderbyrd LP in 1977. The similarity between Petty's record and The Byrds' musical style was so strong that when his manager first played "American Girl" for him, McGuinn asked "When did I write that song?"[27]

"American Girl" has also been covered by the following artists: The Killers, The Shins, Jason Isbell, Green Day, Elle King, Cindy Alexander, Angel City Outcasts, Elvis Costello, Melora Creager, Cruiserweight, Dance Hall Crashers, Def Leppard (from Yeah! 2006), Val Emmich, The Dollyrots, Everclear, Fun, The Gaslight Anthem, Goo Goo Dolls, Gin Blossoms, Humble Gods, Ill Repute, Jack's Mannequin, Larkin Poe, Matchbox 20, Matthew Sweet, Of Montreal, Pearl Jam, Rasputina, Saints of the Underground, Six Going on Seven, Smith Westerns, Sugarland, Sum 41, Taking Back Sunday, Taylor Swift, The Hush Sound, Tokyo Police Club, Frank Turner, and Luke Sital-Singh.

All appearances[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Lester, Paul (February 11, 2015). "Powerpop: 10 of the best". The Guardian. Guardian News and Media. Retrieved July 29, 2016.
  2. ^ LaBate, Steve (December 18, 2009). "Jangle Bell Rock: A Chronological (Non-Holiday) Anthology… from The Beatles and Byrds to R.E.M. and Beyond". Paste. Retrieved March 2, 2017.
  3. ^ a b Robbins, Ira A. (January 1983). The Trouser Press guide to new wave records. C. Scribner's Sons. p. 227. ISBN 978-0-684-17943-8.
  4. ^ "U.S. Cash Box Chart Entries - 1990 - 1996" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on July 22, 2018. Retrieved May 31, 2018.
  5. ^ Unterberger, Andrew (October 3, 2017). "Critic's Picks: The 20 Greatest Tom Petty Songs". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved April 14, 2019.
  6. ^ a b "The 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time : Rolling Stone". May 31, 2008. Archived from the original on May 31, 2008. Retrieved October 12, 2016.
  7. ^ Hann, Michael (October 3, 2017). "From Free Fallin' to American Girl: five of the greatest Tom Petty songs". The Guardian. Retrieved April 14, 2019.
  8. ^ "20 Awesome 'America' Songs". Billboard. July 2, 2015. Retrieved April 14, 2019.
  9. ^ Stone, Rolling (October 2, 2017). "Tom Petty's 50 Greatest Songs". Rolling Stone. Retrieved April 14, 2019.
  10. ^ Edwards, Gavin (October 6, 2017). "'American Girl' Sums Up Everything Great About Tom Petty". Billboard. Retrieved April 14, 2019.
  11. ^ Perrigo, Billy (October 3, 2017). "Watch Tom Petty Close his Last Ever Concert". Time. Retrieved April 14, 2019.
  12. ^ Fitzpatrick, Molly (October 3, 2017). "Why Tom Petty's "American Girl" is perfect". The Village Voice.
  13. ^ Stover, Laren. "Richard E. Grant's Sensuous Obsession". Observer. Retrieved October 12, 2016.
  14. ^ Dean, Bill (June 2, 2008). "Rock pioneer Bo Diddley dies". Gainesville Sun. Retrieved October 12, 2016.
  15. ^ Wilmath, Kim. "Myths, legends and UF" The Independent Florida Alligator Online, August 15, 2007. Retrieved on February 29, 2008.
  16. ^ Enkerud, Mark. "UF campus holds decades of legends, ghost stories" The Independent Florida Alligator August 16, 2009
  17. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on December 28, 2015. Retrieved 2015-10-10.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  18. ^ "'American Girl' Suicide". Retrieved October 12, 2016.
  19. ^ a b Rolland, David (September 16, 2014). "Running Down a Dream: Tracking Tom Petty's Florida Roots in Gainesville | New Times Broward-Palm Beach". Retrieved October 12, 2016.
  20. ^ a b Zollo, Paul. Conversations with Tom Petty (2005) p.195-196
  21. ^ Stroumboulopoulos, George. " Nod to the Gods: Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, 'American Girl'",, April 6, 2014.
  22. ^
  23. ^ "U.S. Cash Box Chart Entries - 1990 - 1996" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on July 22, 2018. Retrieved May 31, 2018.
  24. ^ The Old Grey Whistle Test (DVD). Warner Home Video. 2003.
  25. ^ "Tom Petty News on Yahoo! Music". Archived from the original on July 18, 2011. Retrieved August 13, 2011.
  26. ^ "For The Record: Quick News On Hilary Duff, Katharine McPhee, Shakira, Wyclef Jean, Snoop Dogg, Bam Margera & More". MTV. Retrieved October 12, 2016.
  27. ^ "McGuinn Takes It Easy As Comeback Takes Off" Austin American-Statesman May 13, 1991: B8