Thursday, May 9, 2013

Rhetorical Devices in ‘American Pie'

The song “American Pie” was written by Don McLean in 1971, and since then has been subject to analysis and speculation about its meaning. The song is a story about McLean learning about the death of musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper, who all died in a plane crash in February of 1959. [1] The day quickly became known as ‘The Day the Music Died’ because of the prominence of the three at the time. While the song stands as a story alone, a simple analysis reveals allusions and metaphors abound, all of which complicate the meaning, but by analyzing these allusions and metaphors reveals a slew of rhetorical devices McLean employed while writing the song.
            The first verse is a simple verse to set up a story for the rest of the song, depicting McLean learning about the death of three great musicians. McLean might have been the first to realize that their death meant much more than that. The chorus begins by addressing ‘Miss American Pie,’ who might not be any actual person, but rather a symbol of the America that existed before the death of the three musicians.[2] [3]  Obviously, the chorus is repeated throughout the song--this repetition shows how much McLean valued that time. The chorus makes an allusion to one of Buddy Holly’s songs, ‘That’ll be the Day’, in which Holly claims the day that he dies to be the day his lover leaves him. McLean writes, ‘them good ol’ boys were drinking whiskey and rye, singing this’ll be the day that I die.’ The good ol’ boys could refer to just McLean, a use of synecdoche, which means McLean is reminiscing about the days before his lover died--that is, the America of the fifties, while Buddy Holly was still alive, an idea which is amplified in the next verse.
            McLean makes reference to a jester, king, and queen in the second verse. It is a hotly debated topic over whom McLean is referring to here; some suggest that the king is President John F. Kennedy, while the jester is his assassin. (The queen is probably included for poetic reasons alone; a king is typically seen with a queen, so to leave the queen out of the picture would bring up a whole new debate.) Others argue that the jester is Bob Dylan, and the king is the King of Rock ‘n Roll, Elvis Presley.[4] [5]  In either case, the use of auxesis[6] —portraying them as a king and a jester—shows how much respect McLean had for both Presley and JFK. [7] Presley had been around since the fifties and had lived to see the death of Holly, and Dylan was the new voice of the age. So he is using the jester (Dylan) to represent metaphorically a breakthrough of new music to America. It can also be argued that McLean saw the jester stealing the thorny crown as the beginning of a new America after JFK’s death, one that would bring political and cultural[8]  turmoil.
The second verse concludes: “The courtroom was adjourned - no verdict was returned
And, while Lennon read a book on Marx the quartet practiced in the park, and we sang dirges in the dark the day the music died.” McLean felt America had been cheated when ‘the courtroom was adjourned’ in the trial of JFK’s murder--the assassin committed suicide, so ‘no verdict was returned.’ Having occurred four years after the Day the Music Died, this was a perfect example to McLean of the changing political views of the time. He uses a concrete example (exemplum) in a perfectly ambiguous way. Lennon would be John Lennon of The Beatles, reading about the socialist ways of Marx. The Beatles, during the 60s, were experimenting with the new music of the time, and were rivaling Presley and Dylan for musical supremacy. This mirrored the social and political change that came with and following the assassination of JFK.
            So why would McLean choose to be obscure and ambiguous like this throughout the entire song? Limited by time, McLean had to pack as much content into one song as possible. The only way for him to honestly convey his thoughts and emotions regarding that troublesome time was to be obscure and ambiguous. He combined his respect for JFK as the leader of the America he loved with his admiration for the Big Three, along with the political, cultural, and social changes of the time to present the image of the a jester taking the crown from the king. This very simple image was amplified to include many different feelings through McLean’s use of skotison to be purposefully obscure as well as his use of auxesis to magnify the importance of the figures represented.
            The combination of these rhetorical devices created a storyline in a song as well as an emotional connection with the audience. The musical background is especially helpful in developing a tone with which the listener can understand the feeling McLean is conveying (a link to a YouTube video of the song with lyrics can be found here.) While this paper only considered the rhetorical devices used in the first two verses, many people have made their own attempts at analyzing the meaning of McLean’s song, and like any piece, should only be analyzed in its’ entirety. (Here is another good analysis of the song.) As for himself, McLean has avoided commenting on the lyrics personally, saying, “They’re beyond analysis. They’re poetry.” Perhaps that’s the best way to take it, but it’s the combination of the rhetorical devices McLean used to create such great poetry.

By Ethan B.

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