Rock Music Wiki

"American Girl" is the second single from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakersself-titled debut album. The single did not chart in the U.S., but in the UK it peaked at #40 the week ending August 27, 1977. The song was ranked 76th on the list of "The 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time" by Rolling Stone.[1]


 [hide*1 Music


"American Girl" uses standard rock instrumentation of electric guitars (Petty and Campbell), electric bass (Blair), drums (Lynch), and keyboards (Tench). The tempo is fast and "urgent",[2]and is built on a repeated jangling guitar riff based on a "Bo Diddley beat".[3]

As described in Rolling Stone, "The supercharged riff set the template for decades of Petty hits, but it was also a 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."[1]

Lyrics and rumors[edit][]

Due to lyrics mentioning cars rolling by "out on 441" and a desperate girl on a balcony, the song was rumored to have been written about a girl who committed suicide by jumping from theBeaty Towers residence hall at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida, where Tom Petty grew up. (U.S Route 441 runs along the university campus right beside Beaty Towers.)

[1][2]Beaty Towers residence hall on the University of Florida campus

Carl Van Ness, the University of Florida's official historian, says that a student may have committed suicide by jumping from one of the Beaty Towers between 1967, when the facility opened, and the early 1970s, when Tom Petty left Gainesville for California.[4] However, the residence hall does not have balconies.

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.[5]

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.[5]

The lyric "raised on promises" appears to have come from a line of dialogue in Francis Ford Coppola's 1963 film, "Dementia 13." Referring to another woman, the character Louise states, "Especially an American Girl. You can tell she was raised on promises."

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


Chart (1977 & 1994) Peak


UK Singles Chart 36
U.S. Billboard Bubbling Under Hot 100 9

Use in media[edit][]

The song has been featured in several Hollywood films, most notably FM (1978), Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Chasing Liberty (2004). Its use in The Silence of the Lambs made the list of Top 11 Uses of Classic Rock in Cinema at UGO.

It was featured in the TV series Scrubs, in a scene of an episode titled "My Own American Girl", which was first aired on October 2, 2003. It was also featured in The Sopranos, in season 6 episode "Join the Club".

The song was featured on the NBC comedy, Parks and Recreation, at the end of Season 3's "Harvest Festival" episode.

Fun Lovin' Criminals sampled the song for their 1998 song "Big Night Out", from the album 100% Colombian.[6]

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."[7] The Strokes played as an opening act for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers for several dates of their 2006 tour.[8]

The song was frequently played during Hillary Clinton rallies or town hall meetings during the 2008 Democratic Primaries.

Michele Bachmann used "American Girl" to kick off her 2011 Presidential campaign in Iowa, prompting Petty to demand that she not use his song.[9]

Cover versions[edit][]

Roger McGuinn of The Byrds (a major influence on Petty's music), released his own version of "American Girl" a few months after the original. 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?"[10]

"American Girl" has also been covered by the following artists: Dan Hubbard, Cindy AlexanderAngel City OutcastsGin BlossomsMelora CreagerCruiserweightDance Hall CrashersDef LeppardVal EmmichEverclearThe Gaslight AnthemGoo Goo DollsHumble GodsIll ReputeJack's MannequinFunMatchbox 20Of MontrealPearl JamRasputinaSaints of the UndergroundSix Going On SevenSmith WesternsSugarlandSum 41Taking Back SundayTaylor SwiftThe Hush SoundTokyo Police ClubMatthew Sweet and Twin Shadow.

All appearances[edit][]