'American Pie' singer Don McLean talks his new George Floyd song, Trump and why artists are 'afraid' to take sides

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Songwriter Don McLean says he rejects comparisons of today’s political climate to the 1960s, saying in the past, despite the division, “you knew where people stood.”

“There was a reasonable discourse between parties — even though we had [Presidents Lyndon Johnson] and [Richard Nixon] and those people that really did polarize us — they still were talking. They still had some civility and some rules,” McLean said.

“Now it’s just like a big food fight,” the famed 78-year-old folk singer said.

Another big difference, McLean told ITK in a wide-ranging interview during a trip to Washington to attend last week’s state dinner for Kenya at the White House, is today’s artists are scared to get political. 

“If an event like George Floyd had occurred, five guys that I know would have written songs about it. But they’re afraid to — nobody wants to take a side or a stand on anything,” said McLean, whose 1971 classic “American Pie” was added to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry in 2016.

McLean said he’s “too old to worry about that,” which is part of the reason he’s just released a new song focused on Floyd, a Black man, who was murdered in 2020 when a white Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for more than nine minutes.

Floyd’s death, which was captured on video that showed him crying out for his mother and uttering his final words, “I can’t breathe,” sparked protests around the world.

“The Ballad of George Floyd,” released last weekend to coincide with the fourth anniversary of Floyd’s death, includes lines such as, “George Floyd wasn’t a menace. And George Floyd wasn’t a threat. George Floyd called for his mother. That’s something I’ll never forget.”

“George Floyd deserved some respect. But he got a knee on his neck,” McLean sings in the song.

The lyrics, he said, “came right out” of him after seeing the video of Floyd.

“That guy’s not dangerous,” McLean said. “This man can’t breathe. He’s on the ground is calling for his mom. This is sad. I have a heart. I have empathy for people.”

Other performers have shined a light on Floyd’s death in song: Trey Songz sang about police brutality in “2020 Riots: How Many Times,” and Bon Jovi belted out, “God damn those eight long minutes” in the single, “American Reckoning.”

While Democratic lawmakers have made a new push for federal police reform to mark the anniversary of Floyd’s death, McLean said his ballad, which is featured on his new album “American Boys,” isn’t political.

He said he hopes the takeaway for listeners is: “We’re all Americans. We just need to get rid of bad criminals in the police department. We don’t need to defund the police.”

“We need the Army. God knows, we need the police. But we don’t need bad actors,” the outspoken musician said.

Whenever artists veer into politics, McLean said, “You’re gonna piss somebody off or they’re gonna get turned off.

“I agree with that, but I can’t help myself,” he said. 

He recalled once being invited to perform at a United Nations event by Barbara Bush. But, he said, the then-first lady’s request was that he didn’t sing his 1971 tune “Orphans of Wealth,” which he described as a “long, powerful song” about poverty in America.

“I sang it,” McLean said with a grin. “She got pissed off.”

“It needed to be sung,” he said. “I like songs that are fun, and I sometimes like songs that are dangerous. Some songs are dangerous.”

Asked about his thoughts on the presidential race, McLean first responded, “I don’t know what to think. I don’t know what I’m gonna do.”

He paused before adding, “I think that we got to keep Mr. Trump out of the White House.”

“I just think this man is not qualified to be president,” the New York-born performer said of former President Trump. “And that’s an understatement.”

“I often put myself in Trump’s shoes, and he must say to himself, ‘Why did I ever do this? I had New York in the palm of my hand. I had my name on every building. People were afraid of me. People worshipped me. I owned everything.'”

‘And I decided to take that one step and get that trophy property called the United States,’” McLean continued. “‘And look what happened to me,'” he said.

“I just can’t imagine that he doesn’t ask himself that.”

President Biden, McLean said, has “got a lot of weight on his shoulders. I couldn’t imagine doing that job.”

In 2022, McLean told The Hill that he was concerned about an impending civil war because of the hyper-polarized state of the country. Asked if he still felt that way, he said, “Yes, because when you can’t have compromise, that’s when you end up with going to war against each other.”

Members of the 118th Congress, McLean said, are severely lacking in traits that some of the country’s past famed lawmakers possessed.

“Where’s [late Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.)]?  Where are these people that were funny, and smart and had control of the English language?” McLean exclaimed.

“They had wit. Nobody has any wit — they don’t know what it is. They don’t know how to make a subtle joke. It’s just all anger, all the time.”

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