The Hidden Meaning Behind The Guess Who's Song, American Woman

"American Woman" by The Guess Who, is a classic rock staple with a heavy, bluesy guitar riff that instantly evokes the style and mood of its time period, the crossover from the late '60s to the early '70s. Released in 1970, it was written by Burton Cummings (above), topped the Billboard Hot 100, and remains a popular rock anthem, per CBC Radio. The 1999 cover by Lenny Kravitz, used in the movie "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" to introduce the American character Felicity Shagwell, was also a hit and further cemented the song within the pop culture canon, with Kravitz winning a Grammy, at the 42nd award ceremony, for best male rock vocal performance. However, the meaning of the song has been a source of controversy over the years. Is it actually an ode to an American woman, or is there something else going on there? Is the American woman of the song actually a metaphor for something else? 

The Guess Who is a Canadian band. Formed in the late 1950s in Manitoba, they were eventually named Chad Allan & The Reflections, per Britannica. Frustrated by the tendency of Canadian radio stations to ignore songs from Canadian artists, the band submitted their cover of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates's song "Shakin' All Over" under the name "Guess Who?" in 1965, hoping to fool disc jockeys into believing the single came from a new British band. The song was a Canadian and American hit and the new name stuck, eventually morphing into The Guess Who.

A Canadian band's hit about an American woman

The Guess Who released a slew of albums; the single "American Woman," from the album of the same name, was the first song by a Canadian band to go to number one on the U.S. charts, per Britannica. The song was a happy accident; in a 2014 interview with Song Facts, guitarist Randy Bachman described how they came up with the iconic riff accidentally while tuning his guitar. It happened onstage in the middle of a show when he broke a guitar string; there was a pause in the show while he took a moment to change out the string and retune his instrument. 

Per Bachman, "I didn't have a spare guitar. I didn't have a tuner. I didn't have a roadie ... Not having a tuner, we would tune to the electric piano every night ... I started to play that riff on stage, and I look at the audience, who are now milling about and talking amongst themselves. And all their heads snapped back. Suddenly I realize I'm playing a riff I don't want to forget, and I have to keep playing it." Bachman called his band members back onto the stage and a "jam session" broke out as bassist Jim Kale and drummer Garry Peterson provided the rhythm section. Bachman told vocalist Burton Cummings to sing over the music and "the first words out of his mouth were, "American woman, stay away from me." 

Was American Woman actually a political protest song?

Randy Bachman (above) went on to explain to Song Facts: "This was the late '60s, they tried to draft us, send us to Vietnam. We were back in Canada, playing in the safety of Canada where the dance is full of draft dodgers who've all left the States." "American Woman," according to Bachman, was a critique of America's role in the Vietnam War hiding in plain sight: "It's basically an anti-war protest song saying, 'We don't want your war machines, we don't want your ghetto scenes, stay away from me.' "American Woman" is not the woman on the street. It's the Statue of Liberty and that poster of Uncle Sam with the stars and stripes top hat where he has a finger pointing to you, 'Uncle Sam Wants You.'" 

Lyricist Burton Cummings offers a very different explanation of the song's meaning. In a 2013 interview with the Toronto Star, he insisted "It had nothing to do with politics. What was on my mind was that girls in the States seemed to get older quicker than our girls and that made them, well, dangerous. When I said 'American woman, stay away from me,' I really meant 'Canadian woman, I prefer you.'" He confirmed this in 2020 in an interview with CBC Radio, stating "I wasn't thinking politically. I wasn't thinking about the Vietnam War — which at that time was at a particularly bad point of escalation, so people read a lot of their own meanings into those words."