Don McLean's American Pie Was Stripped Of A 50-Year Record By An Unexpected Pop Star

Throughout the history of popular music — going all the way back to the first pressed analog records in the middle of the 19th century — a popular song has always been about three to four minutes long. And there's a reason for that, according to Vox: that's about as much music as can be squeezed onto a small record, or a "single," if you will. These days, of course, that time limit is at once arbitrary and obsolete: Advances in data storage technology mean that a song's length is only limited by the memory of the computer that's storing it, and indeed, a Canadian artist has recorded a song — the longest ever recorded — that lasts a couple of days. However, regardless of the fact that music can now be more or less infinite, popular songs have actually gotten shorter, not longer, in recent years, thanks to the economics of streaming (via Fortune).

Nevertheless, a few times over the past few decades, an exceptionally-long song has found popularity despite this tradition. For example, Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" clocks in at about 20 minutes, while Harry Chapin's "Taxi" lasts about six minutes. For decades, the longest song to reach No 1. on the Billboard charts was Don McLean's "American Pie," at about eight minutes long. However, in 2021, that record was broken by an artist who wasn't even born until 30 years after McLean penned the tune (per Smithsonian).

American Pie Is A Song For The Ages

It's almost unthinkable that any adult reading this article would have lived their whole life without having heard "American Pie" by Don McLean (pictured above). As Musicoholics explains, the song's lyrics are — or were, but more on that in a moment — a morass of references, some of which made some degree of sense, many of which did not. Nevertheless, in spite of (or perhaps because of) its inscrutable lyrics, as well as its catchy hook and easily-singable chorus, the song became a hit. It reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts and, in the process, became a staple of classic rock. For 50 years, the song was the longest to reach No. 1 on the Billboard charts.

In July 2022, McLean spilled the beans (mostly) on what the song's about. Confirming what had been speculated about for years, the tune is, in fact, mostly about the 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson, and "Ritchie Valens" — "the day the music died," referenced in the lyrics, and what the event has come to be called since then (via American Songwriter). Other lyrics are about McLean himself, the songwriter revealed, while others remain ambiguous.

In 2021, according to Smithsonian, "American Pie's" five-decade reign as the longest song to reach No. 1 came to an end when it was dethroned by a song by a woman young enough to have been McLean's granddaughter.

Taylor Swift Dethrones Don McLean

Taylor Swift needs no introduction, so all we'll say about her here is that she was born in 1989, as she famously revealed in her album named for the year of her birth. In that same year, Don McLean would have been 44 or 45, according to his website. In other words, nearly three decades passed between the time "American Pie" reached No. 1 and the birth of the woman who would eventually unseat him.

According to Smithsonian, the song that did it was "All Too Well: The Ten-Minute Version," which lasts, not surprisingly, about 10 minutes. In a review, New York Times critic Lindsay Zoladz praised the "elegant simplicity of its structure" and noted that a 10-minute dirge is in keeping with Swift's brand of singing about heartbreak. "It allows a woman's subjective emotional experience to take up a defiantly excessive amount of time and space," Zoladz wrote.

McLean, for his part, was thrilled that the person who knocked him from his lofty perch was Swift. "She has sort of cast a spell across the nation and evolved into a force of nature of some sort right in front of people's eyes," he said (via USA Today).