Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” a classic anthem by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers from their debut album, has cemented its place in classic rock history in the US. Alongside its iconic status, the song is enveloped in one of music’s most intriguing urban legends.
The lore connects the song to a tragic tale from the University of Florida in Petty’s birthplace, Gainesville, Florida. The legend narrates a story about a young, idealistic girl with blonde hair who, under the influence of hallucinogens in her Beatty Towers dorm room, believed she could fly and tragically fell to her death.
This tale, especially the embellished version involving a leap from the 13th floor, became entwined with the song’s lore, symbolizing the loss of innocence that defined the era for many baby boomers.
However, Tom Petty himself has dispelled this myth, attributing the real inspiration for “American Girl” to his experiences in Encino, California. Petty described how the song’s lyrics were influenced by the sounds of the freeway near his apartment, reminiscent of ocean waves, sparking a creative outpouring that led to the song.
He explained that the song was about longing and the pursuit of something more fulfilling in life, with the titular character being a fictional composite embodying this sense of yearning.
“American Girl” holds another significant place in Petty’s legacy; it was the final song he performed live. On September 25, 2017, at the Hollywood Bowl, Tom Petty chose this song to conclude his set, a week before his untimely death due to cardiac arrest on October 2, 2017. This last performance added another layer of poignancy to “American Girl,” a song that continues to resonate with audiences seeking something beyond their reach.