A Petty ‘Girl’? Bachmann, you don’t know how it feels.

July 1, 2011

A few days ago, Michele Bachmann received a letter from Tom Petty. The rocker asked the Republican to kindly stop using his song “American Girl” as her campaign jingle in her bid for president.

The cease-and-desist letter raised the usual chatter about artistic rights and political branding, totally missing the point.

How does a tea party candidate who owns a Christian counseling service on the side go to Iowa, crank up the Alpines and blast Tom Petty as a rallying call to conservative values?

There are many of us who don’t understand retail politics. We’re the ones who understand Tom Petty. You know, the Tom Petty of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers? Eight-track cassettes on the floor mats, an AMC Pacer clouded by smoke and a Big Gulp Mountain Dew paired with a bag of Funyuns.

The charitable conclusion is that the political consultant simply thought “American Girl” was a catchy title and the congresswoman from Minnesota was too busy to vet the Petty oeuvre.

Michele Bachmann, meet Tom Petty.

He climbed out of the kudzu and boiling springs of rural north Florida. Petty has always looked like the guy who operates the Himalaya at the carnival, the one who is half-baked while pushing the throttle up to high when the siren comes on.

Petty is skin and bones. Dentistry was not a priority. But the man knows how to put the jangle in a guitar, and when he was playing the sweltering bars around Gainesville in the mid-1970s, he personified swamp rock and cannabis and cold beer, because in rural Florida, what else was there? Back then, the local sheriffs looked the other way when Cessna planes full of marijuana landed in cow pastures.

When I was in high school in Florida, we would stand around a barrel of burning trash on Friday nights in winter and listen to “American Girl.” The guy with the best car speakers would rig up the sound, all the doors to his beater Camaro flung wide open so the music was loud enough to make the zippers on our windbreakers vibrate. There were few bands whose music so complemented the activity of burning trash, all those embers going up in the night sky. Salzburg had Mozart. We had Petty.

Over time, Petty got big, and his songs were perfect stadium anthems. He let Hillary Clinton use “American Girl” for her campaign in 2008, also a far-fetched partnership but not as severe as one with Bachmann.

Some say “American Girl” is about a suicidal young woman; others say it’s a standard rocker about loss and desire. Neither interpretation really fits Bachmann, who wanted more God in the public school curriculum of her district back in Minnesota.

It is not okay for a Christian lady to climb up on a campaign stage with Petty caterwauling these words:

Oh yeah, all right,

Take it easy, baby,

Make it last all night.

She was an American girl.

Presidential candidates are always taking good songs and trying to wipe away their true DNA. When Bill Clinton used “Don’t Stop” by Fleetwood Mac, playing it 600 times a day during the 1992 presidential campaign, it was hard not to think of Stevie Nicks laying gauzy scarves over the lamps in hotel rooms with piles of coke everywhere.

Fleetwood Mac was always about flawless harmonies, Laurel Canyon, the suede and tawny yearnings of Southern California, a glass of white wine and a Quaalude. Somehow, through sheer mind-numbing repetition and Clinton’s successful presidential run, Fleetwood Mac came to represent the optimism of a GM line worker.

“Don’t Stop,” of course, was ruined­ forever.

“American Girl” might survive.

Bachmann never said why she picked Petty as her ideological ring tone. “We have not put out a statement on that,” Alice Stewart, Bachmann’s national press secretary, said Friday.

Maybe Bachmann, in her youth, was one of us. Maybe playing “American Girl” in Waterloo last week was a secret wink to anyone who ever stood around a barrel of burning trash, thinking life will go one way, only to have it go another.

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