Why Tom Petty's "American Girl" Means More Than You Think

Photo: Samir Hussein/Getty Images.
Singer-songwriter Tom Petty died on October 2 at a hospital in Santa Monica, California, according to his manager. I've been a fan of Tom Petty's brashly unapologetic music since high school, but I'd never seen him perform live until this past July (my mistake). Petty was celebrating 40 years with his band, the Heartbreakers, and they played as many of their classic hits as they could fit into a two-plus hour set.
As a long-time fan, it was an amazing and emotional night of music about fighting back, dreaming big and loving hard. Petty's music has always felt like having the sun on your shoulders with feet propped up on the dashboard of a muscle car screaming down a dirt backroad. But it was so much more than that.
Advertisement
A stadium of fans of all ages danced and sang at the top of their lungs to "Don't Come Around Here No More" and "Refugee." But the most impactful moment was the final song of the set, the classic sun-and-beer-soaked-on-the-Fourth-of-July-weekend hit, "American Girl."
As Petty and the Heartbreakers finished up onstage, the crowd sang along with the classic 1977 song. Behind the band, a giant screen projected images of womanhood in America. The song, initially inspired by the cars going by on the highway, over time, had evolved into an anthem celebrating and empowering women from every walk of life.
The screen flashed a moving series of images of women of all ages, women in opposite and same-sex partnerships, women as mothers, women of color, women in the military, and paused on a deeply poignant shot of transwoman Alexis Arquette. Many saw this as resistance to President Donald Trump's tweet hours before, banning transgender citizens from serving in the military. It was a beautiful statement celebrating Alexis' womanhood during a classic song.
Arquette's brother David posted a heartfelt message on Instagram thanking Petty for his inclusivity the next day, writing, "Thank you #tompetty for your #americangirl tribute that included #alexisarquette." Alexis died of complications from AIDS in 2016.
The song and the moment were a reminder that we – women in America – are diverse, non-binary, strong, brave, bold, and beautiful – just like the America we live in. I've never been prouder to be an American Girl.
Advertisement
Advertisement