In HateSong, we ask our favorite musicians, writers, comedians, actors, and so forth to expound on the one song they hate most in the world.
The hater: As one-fourth of Brooklyn-based indie darlings Parquet Courts, Sean Yeaton is a bit of an expert on what makes a good rock song. The group’s bassist, Yeaton has contributed both material and licks for excellent records like Light Up Gold, Sunbathing Animal, and the new Human Performance, out now. And while his pick isn’t groundbreaking—who doesn’t hate this song?—it’s shockingly the first time this song has ever been picked as a HateSong contender.
The hated: Don McLean, “American Pie” (1971)
The A.V. Club: Why did you pick “American Pie”?
Sean Yeaton: It stood out to me as a song that I’ve rarely heard criticism of from musicians or even music critics. At best, I read things that skirt around it. It’s the longest No. 1 Billboard-topping song of all time and it’s so crappy.
I hate to talk shit about another musician. Not that Don McLean gives a shit about me. He’s chilling in a pink stretch limo right now literally eating pie, probably. But as a musician you don’t want to bash somebody else. I guess that’s why it’s better to pick a song that’s so ubiquitous and crazy. It doesn’t really matter to him.
I find it to be so arrogant to write a song about the end of an era. It reminds me of getting into a conversation with your grandparents—or not even your grandparents, your parents—about gun control. All of a sudden, your parents, who used to be more liberal-leaning, are like, “Everybody should have a gun. That’s the only way to stop guys with guns.” It’s like having a guy go, “You know what I’m going to do? I just think that the world turned to shit or whatever, so I’m going to write a song that talks about the day it happened.” It wasn’t even the same era. It was like 20 years before that song came out.
I should note another fucking insane thing: The first time that song was played live was on Pi Day.
AVC: On 3/14?
SY: March 14, 1971. How crazy is that? It was in fucking Philly at Temple University, really close to where I’m standing right now.
AVC: That’s a weird fact for you to know.
SY: Because it’s gotten stuck in my head, I’ve become increasingly pissed off about it. I felt the only way that I could do my contempt for the song due service would be by putting in as much time to manage the tangled knot of obscurity that it’s created over the years.
You look online and people are like, “What is this song about?” And I’m just like, “Are you fucking kidding me?” How can no one know what this song is about? It’s crazy. And [Don McLean] has notebooks and shit that he had been keeping from people. He famously wouldn’t tell anyone what it was about. Crazy.
AVC: It certainly seems to spell it out.
SY: For fuck’s sake! I mean, Jesus Christ.
I can’t tell if this is a digression or if this is just a sort of the opening stretch. Maybe I’m just getting it all out of my system right now. But last year he sold the notebook that contains all the first drafts of the song, verses or whatever, how many million of them there are, and it sold for over a million dollars at Christie’s or something. And it literally said, “This song is about how it used to be cooler back in the doo-wop days. And now rap music and those damn hippies have fucking ruined everything.” It’s literally the sonic equivalent of an old man waving his fist at a young person. It pisses me off. That’s not what music is about. Music is supposed to be about fucking progress, continuation, and this guy wrote a song about music being done. He said, “Nobody can do it better than them.” That drives me absolutely crazy.
You hate it, too, right?
AVC: Pretty much. In high school, we interpreted the song through a both an English and a historical standpoint. We spent a lot of time on this song. Hours. I’ve always hated it because it’s one of those things where people are like, “It’s poetry. He wrote it in a really mystical way where he’s not just saying what he means.” But it’s so clear, so heavy handed, and it really smacks you in the face. It’s not mysterious.
SY: Absolutely. That’s what blew my mind about it, too. I’m not going to pretend like I have some insane, vast, calculated knowledge of this song, but I have been reading a lot about it in preparation for this interview. I didn’t intend to go down the crazy rabbit hole, but I have, so I feel like I have to get into some of this crazy shit. But it’s interesting you should say that because he, too, sort of arrogantly talks about this song as a poetic masterpiece and a song that other musicians should model their songwriting craft after. It’s all so crazy!
He uses the song as a barometer for the way the world is still, even recently. He created a weird, almost isolationist dystopia where he’s like, “Well, you know, the world now is kind of like the last verse of ‘American Pie.’” What the fuck? You feel like you have to say that because you wrote it—or you need that to be the truth. You can’t be the guy who wrote “American Pie” and go, “Oh, it didn’t really pan out that way.” So he uses it as his calendar for everything. “Oh, shit, I’m a prophet, too.” It sucks.
The crazy thing is that I feel like it sort of knocked American rock ’n’ roll back a while. It screwed us over in a weird way. Though I wouldn’t necessarily lump it into the category of rock ’n’ roll. You could hear this song anywhere now because it’s so pervasive. Any radio station will play it. If a DJ has to go to the bathroom, they’re like, “What can I do? What can I put on for eight-and-a-half minutes? ‘American Pie’!” But I do think it had an effect on American rock ’n’ roll music and I’ll tell you why.
Also, regarding this Pi Day thing that I figured out—the same day that Don McLean played that song live for the first time was the day The Rolling Stones decided to leave England for France and subsequently write Exile On Main Street. Coincidence? Probably.
But it’s crazy because, in a way, that started a whole antithetical revolutionary new movement of rock ’n’ roll that is directly hinted at in “American Pie” as being a failure. You know, the big failure of Buddy Holly and whatever that tour was called—the Winter Party Tour. After that plane crashed, it was like, “You know what, fuck this whole thing. Let’s not try to do this music thing anymore. It’s done.” That was the working class and it was that weird middle ground where people who are artists and middle class are trying to find their footing to the point where they can be respected as working class and also as artists, but because that whole tour was a failure, it was an indication that there was no way that that could possibly be. Then when the song builds up to the whole Altamont thing, he’s directly blaming The Rolling Stones and other massively influential musicians for not giving a shit and it’s kind of like, “Man, do you not get the point? I feel like you don’t get the point of music or something.” There isn’t any nihilism in this song and it drives me fucking crazy.
AVC: You’ve clearly done a lot of thinking about this song.
SY: I guess so. It just seemed like it would be fun. I read a bunch of the other HateSong interviews and I thought that it would be funny if I seemed like a scholar of this song. An angry Indiana Jones type, “I don’t know what the fucking deal is! I’ll never figure out the piece of the puzzle!”
It’s nothing too crazy. It’s just funny to me. I honestly didn’t intend on learning so goddamn much about the song. I was more or less just trying to remind myself of a couple of lines, and then I found myself scrolling and scrolling and my jaw dropping and getting more pissed off. I got the goddamn chorus stuck in my head. It’s reverberating off the back of my skull as I speak.
AVC: I keep getting different parts stuck in my head, so thank you for that.
SY: It’s sort of like A Christmas Story on Christmas. They play it all day long. You could just turn your TV on at any point and you will inevitably catch a couple seconds or minutes or whatever of that movie. So it seems like that movie’s on an infinite loop, but if you sat and watched it in one go, it’s not really like that. “American Pie” is somehow the opposite, where there’s technically a definitive length of time, but it somehow seems as if it’s always going on somewhere at all times.
AVC: Have you ever been in a karaoke bar when someone starts doing “American Pie”?
SY: I’d just walk out.
AVC: It’s always a group of drunk dudes or drunk girls.
SY: And that’s one of those karaoke songs, too, where everybody thinks that song is just the chorus. They forget that there are all these verses, so then all of a sudden drunk people are trying to read. Then it’s just, like, “Get me out of here. What the hell.”
AVC: It does have a lot of lyrics.
SY: So many! It’s fucking crazy. There are a couple good ones, but I have too much pride to acknowledge that. I mean, I’ll acknowledge it. You can print that I acknowledge there are a couple good lines. But you should read some of this stuff that Don McLean said. He was just kind of an arrogant guy.
I want to hear more about how you studied it from two different perspectives. What did that yield for you?
AVC: Not a lot in hindsight. This is when I was a junior in high school, so at the time I was like, “Oh shit, I’ve never thought of it that way.” But 18 years later, it’s a different story. At the time, it was like, “Oh shit! ‘Satan laughing with delight!’ That’s about Altamont,” and all this stuff. There was a lot of straight interpretation of it. “Jack Flash sat on a candlestick because fire is the devil’s only friend.” Blah blah blah.
SY: Oh my god, that’s one that’s stuck in my head constantly over and over again. I wake up in the middle of the night and I can hear the mumbling voice in my head crooning away. It’s a weird one.
I don’t know what it takes to hate a song. I understand there are a lot of songs out there and there are different reasons to hate songs. I think this one occupies a lot of them. I was thinking about that Mark Ronson song, like [Sings.] “Don’t believe me just watch, doot doot doot bomp.” You know that one? “Uptown Mississippi, motherfucking”—whatever. I was thinking about doing that one for this story. But I only really purely hate that song because it gets stuck in my head and then it’s there. I get that that song is a manufactured piece of merchandise for your ears. There’s nothing special about it, really. But there’s nothing to really hate, either. It doesn’t defame anything. This song, I hate it because it gets stuck in my head and I just feel like it’s kind of a dick move. It just seems so wrong to have a song and decide that you’re the person who deserves to write the song saying, “This shit’s done. Rock ’n’ roll’s over.” It’s really interesting because I did think for a while that there was an irony in it, you know? “Well, it’s ironic, of course, he wrote a song and the music died.”
AVC: No. It’s not ironic in any way.
SY: It’s not. He’s fucking dead serious. He’s a guy who thinks all the good shit happened already and nothing else good will ever happen again, which is so crazy because it’s an era of American culture that he’s talking about that was absolutely influential. But it was also really noteworthy because of how it stole and/or repurposed labor music and old blues music and stuff and was recreating it on its own. Not even crediting any of the sources and just taking them and turning them into other songs. And he’s saying that was the best it was going to get. That was the colonization of traditional music. That’s just so crazy to me. I don’t know. It bothers me.
AVC: Would you feel differently if the song was written by John Lennon or Elton John? Do you respect it less because you’re like, “Who the fuck is Don McLean to tell me what’s going on?”
SY: I don’t know, because there are songs by both of those artists that I don’t love or anything. I guess that’s a good question. Who is this guy? How did he luck out to just land this song that is basically the remix of the national anthem at this point.
Maybe I would feel differently, because I think that one of the problems with this song is for sure that this guy came out of nowhere, really, and has this song. That seems like a little much. He doesn’t really have a lot of history to back it up. From what little research I have done, I do get that he was really into music. He loved The Weavers. They were his favorite band when he was a kid. Pete Seeger was in that band. They were almost a proto-punk American folk band but I think he got the wrong message from them. To me, he’s kind of ill informed. He got a lot off of this hit and, even now, he still gets money from it. There was a quote I read online where someone was like, “What’s ‘American Pie’ about?” And he said, “It’s about how I never have to work again if I don’t want to.” God damn.
AVC: Well, it’s true.
SY: That is so crazy. “Sure, you don’t have to ever do anything else. It doesn’t matter.” In a way, he superseded his weird prophecy in his song because he, in his way, was an overnight capitalist art success story because he did one mediocre thing really well and fucking made a shitload of money off of it and never has to do anything else again.
So, yeah, I would feel differently about this song if there was a pedigreed artist who I respected behind it. I don’t know enough about the dude. I don’t understand if he has anything like this up his sleeve. I know that on the record American Pie, that this song is off of, there is one other No. 1 single on it. But I looked into that one, too. It’s called “Vincent” and it’s just about Vincent Van Gogh. Reading the lyrics to that song and listening to it make “American Pie” even seem more obvious.
He’s like the guy in English class who was drawing the cool s’s and the Korn logo on his math book instead of reading Robert Frost, but then randomly would get an A on a poetry quiz because he had problems at home or something. You know what I’m talking about? I was that kid, so that’s why I’m saying it. He was wearing a puka shell necklace and had Etnies on. But then, out of nowhere, he loves Charles Bukowski. He’s an anomaly of a human being to me.
AVC: Do you take this song personally because you’re in a band? According to Don McLean, it’ll never be as good as these other bands, not does it mean anything.
SY: I don’t think musicians have to or should spend the time proving anyone wrong or calling them out. I feel honored to have a rare opportunity like this. But I think it’s crazy that more people aren’t embarrassed that an American musician had one shot at following his quote unquote “dream”—which was obviously more of a business endeavor than an artistic one—chose to succeed at doing it in a way that was wrong. He didn’t get it. He didn’t get the point. That’s really sad.
The backward example of it is Chumbawamba. They’re famous for that “Tubthumping” song, but their roots are in anarcho-punk and Crass Records and shit. They have a 7-inch EP that’s fucking phenomenal anarcho-crust-punk. It’s a great record of truly political fucked-up awesome punk rock music. I use it as a party trick. I love busting it out and being like, “Guess who this is.” And they’re like, “I don’t know! Who is it? I’m hammered drunk!” I’m like, “It’s Chumbawamba!” And they’re like, “Who cares?!” But I care. It’s awesome. This is like the opposite of that because Chumbawamba broke up after that record came out.
The Weavers, who I was talking about earlier, the group that Don McLean really liked, they were a band before that called the Almanacs. They were kind of interesting because they were all a pro-isolationist “keep America out of the war” band or whatever. They were sort of funded by this weird peoples’ committee. Then that committee decided to switch their idea and be pro-war. So for the Almanacs to keep making money, they had to start writing songs that were all like, “Let’s all do this fucking thing and go to war.” As soon as America got involved in World War II, the Almanacs broke up, but then they just re-formed as The Weavers. They’re the same people. And their band name, The Weavers, is based off of this German play about a labor party proletariat uprising. That’s so sick and weirdly punk. They were proving that music can be used as a weapon that can fuck shit up. Obviously it has been.
It’s funny when musicians take the more nihilistic, Bounty Hunter road of not really placing themselves fully on one side or the other. Like Skinny Puppy charging the U.S. government a licensing fee for using its music to torture people at Guantanamo Bay. That’s fucking funny. Obviously the group is super bummed that happened, but at the same time, it’s like, “Well, we at least ought to be making money off of it,” which is fucking true.
Don McLean thinks the opposite. It’s like it’s your first day on tour and you’ve got a flat tire or your plane crashed and you decide, “Oh man, I’m never going to go on tour again.” Of course, in a plane crash, you can’t. If you look at it from Buddy Holly’s perspective, it’s funny because it’s a lot more relatable. The reason he was on that airplane was because the promoters and booking agents for that tour were fucking idiots, and they made it impossible to get everywhere, and Buddy Holly had to play in every band on the tour and he just wanted some goddamn shuteye, so he got on a plane in a fucking blizzard and it crashed. He was so tired and wanted to do laundry.
That’s how I feel when I get to an Ibis Budget Inn in Glasgow or wherever on Halloween and everybody’s on ecstasy and hammered drunk trying to kill each other in the hallway. He was just having a bad time on tour. What’s so funny is that Don McLean reads into it like, “Man, this is a big mistake. This isn’t a good, well-oiled machine, and it doesn’t make any goddamn sense. This is going straight to hell with the hippies and the devil worshippers.”
God damn it. I just feel like he’s so wrong. Not only can I not believe that this is a song at all, but I can’t believe that it’s a humongously popular song.