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American Girl

by

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers



Songfacts®:  You can leave comments about the song at the bottom of the page.

This song is the subject of an urban myth that reads as follows:
The University of Florida is located in Petty's hometown of Gainesville, Florida. A dorm at the school, Beatty Towers, provided the backdrop to a popular urban legend at UF as well as the story behind this song. The story was that there was this virginal, All-American, debutante sort of girl, blonde locks and all, who decided to take hallucinogens for the first time while in her room at Beatty Towers. This being the 1960's and the age of limitless possibilities, it was pretty common to do something like that, especially in a college setting. Apparently, the girl thought she could fly, so she exited through the window and arrived face first on the concrete below. Some modern minstrels like to add that she jumped from the 13th floor, but this is probably part of campus lore. This incident was a big deal in Gainesville, which was still a picturesque Southern college town. It represented the end of innocence experienced by baby-boomers during the 1970's. Using it as inspiration, Tom Petty wove a captivating and poignant song based on this story for his first album and the rest is history. Expanding on the concept of innocence lost, this song speaks volumes and resonates even today. Beatty Towers are by State Road 441, which is mentioned in the second verse. (thanks, Pablo - Miami, FL)
Petty: "I wrote that in a little apartment I had in Encino. It was right next to the freeway and the cars sometimes sounded like waves from the ocean, which is why there's the line about the waves crashing on the beach. The words just came tumbling out very quickly - and it was the start of writing about people who are longing for something else in life, something better than they have."
Mike Campbell has been The Heartbreakers' guitarist since they formed the band. Here's what he told us about this song:
"We used to have people come up to us and tell us they thought it was about suicide because of the one line about 'if she had to die,' but what they didn't get was, the whole line is 'if she had to die trying.' Some people take it literally and out of context. To me it's just a really beautiful love song. It does have some Florida imagery."
Says Campbell: "We cut that track on the 4th of July. I don't know if that had anything to do with Tom writing it about an American girl." (Read more in our interview with Mike Campbell.)
Roger McGuinn recorded this on his 1977 album Thunderbyrd. McGuinn was a member of The Byrds and a big influence on Petty. He once joked that this number was a Byrds song he'd forgotten. Petty told Mojo magazine January 2010: "American Girl doesn't really sound like the Byrds; it evokes the Byrds. People are usually influenced by more than one thing, so your music becomes a mixture. There's nothing really new, but always new ways to combine things. We tried to play as good as whoever we admired but never could."
Even though Petty and his band were from the US, this caught on in England long before it got any attention in America. As a result, Petty started his first big tour in the UK, where this was a bigger hit.
This was featured in the 1991 movie Silence Of The Lambs. It was used in a scene where a female character is listening to it in a car before she meets Buffalo Bill, a serial killer who abducts her.
The Goo Goo Dolls played this at the 2001 "Concert For New York," a benefit show organized by Paul McCartney. Classic rockers like The Who and David Bowie were big hits among the crowd of police officers and firefighters, and they responded very well when The Goo Goo Dolls played this.
Petty: "I was watching the 9/11 concert in New York and the Goo Goo Dolls played 'American Girl.' I could see the crowd cheering in this really patriotic context. But it was just a story when I wrote it. In my mind, the girl was looking for the strength to move on, and she found it. It's one of my favorites."
This opens the movie Chasing Liberty.
Petty & the Heartbreakers played this to open their set at the halftime show of the Super Bowl in 2008.
This was featured in an episode of the TV show Scrubs called "My American Girl." (thanks, Melissa - Newcastle, Australia)
Petty told Mojo that the girl in this song was not based anyone in particular. "She was a composite, a character who yearned for more than had life had dealt her."
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
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Comments (27):

Perhaps in the lyrics "She stood alone on the balcony" and "And for one desperate moment then, he crept back in her memory/God, it's so painful/Something's that so close, yet so far out of reach", Tom's making a hidden reference to a forbidden love; And what's the famous story of forbidden love? "Romeo & Juliet". Think about it:
Who stands alone on the balcony in one of the scenes of the play? Juliet.
Why? To deliver a soliloquy of her desire and love for Romeo.
What's standing between them and their love? Their families, hence the painful memories part. She wants him as much he wants her, but at first, she can't have him because their families are feuding with each other, hence their forbidden love.
- Will, Waterloo, IL
Tom Petty is from Gainesville, Florida and would never, ever call 13th Street 441. To all of us who have lived in Alachua County our entire lives 441 is 441. 13th Street is 13th Street. I know exactly what and who the song is about. However, Tom is very guarded about what and who he writes about. And in keeping with Tom's wishes and respecting his privacy, the story behind the lyrics will remain a mystery, my lips are sealed.
- Bonnie, Micanopy, FL
This song is Tom Petty's tribute to all us "American Girls". "Take it easy baby, make it last all night"... such a strong sexual reference and pays such homage to all us American girls passionate enough to make it last all night. It sounds like this is a desirable trait of American girls, one that puts us above all the other girls.
- Camille, Toronto, OH
What happened to the lyrics? The link has disappeared within the last couple of weeks.
- Daniel, Detroit, MI
A tremendous song, and the twelve string definitely evokes the Byrds, and I bet Tom Petty doesn't mind that one bit. It really is weird to hear this, with the scene from "Silence of the Lambs" in my head. The young woman is jamming away, really into this, going down the road, only minutes away from Buffalo Bill.
- oldpink, New Castle, IN
To Scott from Bismark, ND...they do not open "every single show with this song"....In the 5 times I have seen them live this has always been the last song they do. I don't ever recall hearing them opening with this. Lately its been either "Listen To Her Heart" or "Runnin' Down A Dream" opening the show.
- john, Grand Island, NY
I love this song but everytime i hear it now i can't get that scene from silence of the lambs out of my head. creepy
- Rachel, north jersey, NJ
You know, I like this song better when I thought it was about a girl killing herself

hell, Now I'm just confused... maybe it is

damn I'm stupid XD
- Colleen, Allentown, PA
In the 1963 classic horror movie Dementia 13 a woman says of her new daughter-in-law from the States, "It's nice to see her enjoying herself for a change. The mood around this place isn't good for her.... Especially an American girl. You can tell she's been raised on promises." It seems very likely that this quote inspired the lyric.
- Drew, Crystal Lake, IL
Like a lot of people I love this song, but I recall Bono talking about songs he feels weren't finished on their Pop album. I kind of feel this way about this song. It's great, but it wasn't finished...anyone relate to that at all? I don't mind an unfinished story, but there's just a little...something very little...missing from this particular story IMO.
- mark, worcester, MI
This one was featured in the episode of Scrubs where Elliot has her transformation. Its playing as she freaks out and tears apart all of the innocent items in her room, including a kitty poster which she immediately tries to straighten back out. Gotta love Scrubs.
- Danci, treetown, OK
this may sound stupid but in the top, is that actually tom petty or is it just something he said?
- dani, hamburg, NY
*Beaty towers
- Ryan, Marion, IA
In an interview found in the book Conversations with Tom Petty, Petty himself said that "American Girl" was NOT written about the Beauty Towers story (which is indeed just an untrue urban legend). He went on to say that the song was actually inspired by a freeway running by a California apartment where he was living, nothing to do with Florida.
- Ryan, Marion, IA
If this song is about a suicide, which I don't think it is, it's probably about a girl who jumped off the roof of another UF building - and that actually happened.
- Greer, Gainesville, FL
I lived in 706 Beaty West in the 90's. The windows opened and you could climb out of the windows onto a small ledge.
- Mick, Las Vegas, NV
The girl in this song was indeeed "raised on promises," and she appears time and again in Tom Petty songs.

In 2002's Have Love Will Travel, Tom sings about how she "can't quite remember when the lines [she] drew began to blur."
- Paul, Marysville, WA
but she wasn't trying to commit suicide. she was hallucinating and didnt know it would kill her, and she probably thought she would fly and not fall down.
- Kevin, Chicago, IL
I went to UF, and people in Gainesville swear by the vality of this story. Much reaserch has been done to varify the story behind this song. Here are the facts Beaty towers was built in 1968. THe two tallest buildings on that stretch of U.S. 441 (typically called 13th street) Never in it's history had their been a reported case of a suicide in or around the buildings. Heading north or south away from the campus on 441 within 40 miles in either direction there are no apartment structures that are taller then 4 stories high.
While all of those apartment complexes were not checked for a suicide history, a 4 story jump is hardly a height to consider a suicide from.
- Jimmy, tampa , FL
In film class at UF our professor that the use of this song in "Silence of the Lambs" was a tribute to Petty from the film's director, Johnathan Demme, a UF film school graduate.
- Tim, Gainesville, FL
While I'm not sure whether this story is true or not, I'd like to say that Sam is incorrect. I live in Beaty Towers, and I assure you that the windows do in fact open up, and are in fact wide enough to squeeze through. I've actually been out onto the ledge before, so they are definitely not "locked shut"
- Clark, Gainesville, FL
American Girl was covered by a nardcore punk band Ill Repute, it is a mighty good cover.
- david garcia, bakersfield, CA
As far as the story goes, I can verify that Beaty Towers is by 441 and there has long been a story of a girl jumping from it (apparently she "haunts" the towers, but there's always a haunting story). And the windows did used to open all the way awhile back, but renovations have since changed that.
- Jedirock, New Port Richey, FL
I'm in love with an American Girl.
- Andy, Wolverhampton, England
I just found out today that this song is actually about my mother, who is now deceased. I dont know all the specifics, but I would like to find out more about the story behind the song, so if anyone out there does really know, please post your comments, I would greatly appreciate it.
- Nicole, Aberdeen, NJ
The often-told story about Beaty Towers is false. I know this for two reasons. The windows don't open wide enough to squeeze out of, and they're also locked shut, so it would have been impossible for one, and for two, nobody has ever jumped out of Beaty Towers, which I know from trying to look it up.
- Sam, Gainesville, FL
he opens almost every single show with this song
- scott, Bismarck, ND
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