It’s crazy to think that when “American Girl” first came out, it was actually a commercial flop. The second single off Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers‘ self-titled 1976 debut, what’s now arguably his most iconic track — and an indisputable part of the classic rock canon — failed to make a dent on the Billboard charts upon its original release. Things have changed somewhat.
Petty died Monday at the age of 66 after suffering cardiac arrest in Los Angeles; in memoriam, we look back at his legacy. As subsequent singles like “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Refugee” became bona fide hits, Tom Petty developed into one of his era’s most dependable radio artists, and in time, “American Girl” earned its due as a signature song. It was also the very last song he ever performed publicly.
Part heartland toughness, part rock ‘n’ roll mythology — and don’t forget that little funk breakdown — “American Girl” is a perfect cover song. Below, find 10 of our favorites. The limits of YouTube make our selections skew recent, but keep scrolling and you’ll see where it all began.
What if, after that buckling breakdown, Petty came back for one more chorus instead of leaning into that gnarly guitar outro? Taylor Swift and her touring band the Agency explored this alternate universe on their 2009 studio cover, recorded during their Fearless Tour. Coming from the thick of Swift’s pop-country period, this cover glosses over much of the original’s grit in favor of softer textures.
Touring behind their 2017 album, Heartworms, James Mercer and company realized their jaunty Wincing the Night Away opener “Sleeping Lessons” segues into the opening guitar lines of “American Girl” quite impeccably. Above, watch them work it into their encore at Los Angeles’ El Rey Theatre on March 10.
The “Ex’s & Oh’s” singer recorded this spiffy, by-the-book cover in 2015 to go along with the soundtrack for the Reese Witherspoon-Sofía Vergara action flick Hot Pursuit. King was up front about wanting to stay true to the original and she made good on that count, even if she enunciates the line about standing alone on the balcony a little more clearly than Tom.
Gin Blossoms + Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers
Let’s hear it for Arizona! Two of the state’s rock ‘n’ roll standbys hopped onstage together to for this live cover, recorded back in 2010. It’s especially appropriate to hear the Gin Blossoms’ Robin Wilson and Scotty Johnson involved; without Petty’s signature guitar jangle, it’s unlikely there ever would have been a “Hey Jealousy.”
Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness
This fan-shot video is special one. Performing earlier this year, Andrew McMahon and his backing band wield a spot-on cover of “American Girl,” during which the former Something Corporate and Jack’s Mannequin frontman leaves his piano stool and crowdsurfs towards the camera-holder, singing Petty’s lines all the while. Really could use more energy, this guy.
Goo Goo Dolls
The Goo Goo Dolls are a band with two singer-songwriters (which a lot of people don’t realize!) making them uniquely qualified to pull off Petty and keyboardist Benmont Tench’s vocal interplay. Guitarist Johnny Rzeznik and bassist Robbie Takac brought the magic to this early 2000s cover, a fan-requested selection from a filmed concert. During the same era, they also covered it The Tonight Show With Jay Leno to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks.
Even when you’re the only one onstage, it’s not hard to get an audience to fill in the “American Girl” backing vocals. Here’s folk-punk troubadour Frank Turner getting it done with an Austin crowd during SXSW 2015.
The English hard rockers recorded this cover as a bonus track for their 2006 covers album Yeah!. Given their heavier pedigree, Def Leppard’s cover remains surprisingly faithful to the original, albeit with some added vocals in the outro.
Jersey-bred punks Titus Andronicus are an underground rock institution by now and a lot of their appeal comes from pulling off classic rock theatrics alongside their basement ethos. In other words, a Tom Petty cover makes total sense. Here’s frontman Patrick Stickles and friends rocking out “American Girl” in 2014.
In Paris of all places, the Canadian pop-punkers put their spin on “American Girl” with this live cover. Taking on Petty’s croon, frontman Deryck Whibley subdues his usual sneer just enough to sell the song. When it’s all over, he’s just like all of us after cranking it on the car radio: “Doesn’t that song just make you feel happy?”
We’ve leaned far into its rock side, now here’s the country. Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush let the acoustic guitars flow for for this stripped-down “American Girl” live session.
In the ‘60s, the Byrds made a career out of melding folk’s wokeness-inclined, storytelling strumming with those electric guitars the kids couldn’t get enough of. The following decade, deeply Byrdsian groups found tough sledding on the charts, but Tom Petty had his Rickenbacker helped keep the jangle alive — so well, that as legend has it, Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn quipped about swearing he wrote “American Girl” himself. But McGuinn was coming from a friendly place. In 1977, long before it was anything close to a hit, he included a cover version on his solo album Thunderbyrd and worked it into his live repertoire. Above, find him switching up the lyrics ever so slightly and below, find “American Girl” with that brass part you never knew it needed.