Don McLean, the one-man creative force behind the hit songs “American Pie,” “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night),” “And I Love You So,” “Castles in the Air,” and other songs, albums, tours and projects, shared thoughts about artificial intelligence, music, creativity and authenticity with Fox News Digital in a recent phone interview amid his current “American Pie” 50th anniversary tour.
“When you talk about artificial intelligence right now — I’m not sure what that means at the moment, but clearly it’s evolving,” he said from California, where he was making several tour stops after returning from concert performances in Australia.
“With any technology, you have an inflection point where it takes off,” said McLean.
“Today, AI has merely presented itself — but the inflection point hasn’t been reached yet. And that’s the scary part.”
He added, “I also want to say that before a form of artificial intelligence was in use — and it’s been in use for many years — the tape recorder and the photographic lens were both honest. If you took a picture, that was the way something looked.”
However, in current times, he said, “you have all this photoshopping and massaging and whatnot, so now the camera lies. And the tape recorder is the same way.”
He added, “Many people who have recording careers — they bring this stuff out on the road, you know? And these people are very popular.”
He would not name names, he said.
But he said, “And now the tape recorder lies because these performers don’t sound like they really sound. They don’t look like they really look. And so that’s been in play a long, long time, ever since Milli Vanilli got crucified for lip-syncing [in 1989].”
And “what you’re hearing is not the real singers in the first place,” said McLean.
“So we’ve had a form of artificial intelligence that’s been subliminal, but now all of a sudden it’s in our faces. Just as with computers and smartphones and all the things that we’re messing around with — and today, we can’t be without our phones, or we’ll go from zero to 120, flipped out. You know?”
McLean also said bluntly regarding artificial intelligence, “I don’t think a computer could possibly make worse music than what I hear on the radio today.”
He also said, “I actually think computer-made music is going to be a wonderful release from what I hear on the radio. People need some artificial intelligence because they have lost their regular intelligence to be able to write songs, you know, and make music.”
He went on, “Somehow, that ability has been diluted, I suppose, by all this stupid information and all these other things. People can’t concentrate.”
Said McLean about songwriting and creativity, “You have to be able to concentrate, and I mean seriously concentrate, in order to hear a melody and create a song and create an idea.”
In his own case, he said, “I have little films that come into my head. And all I do is write about the film that I’m seeing, and the words come to me. I’m more of an inventor, really, than a songwriter. Every song that I write is different from the others.”
Added McLean, “‘Wonderful Baby’ is not like ‘Dreidel,’ and ‘Dreidel’ is not like ‘Vincent,’ and ‘Vincent’ is not like ‘Prime Time,’ and on and on. They’re all different — really different. They use different musical forms. They use a different form of lyric writing. So that’s my thing. That’s my standard.”
Yet today, he said, “How can you tell the difference between the songs? It’s just like a rhythm section and a mindless chorus that goes on over and over, and it’s not very melodic. And I’ve been saying this, actually, on stage, that I can’t imagine a computer that can’t make better music than this.”
Here’s more of Fox News Digital’s in-depth conversation with McLean on these and related topics.
Fox News Digital: So when you say that to your audience from the stage, what kind of response do you get from people?
Don McLean: My audience knows that I can say almost anything and they don’t hold me to any kind of standard, like I’m supposed to say something. I don’t care what anybody thinks, anyway. I just say what I want to say.
I always have done that. I say what I observe.
But there’s a kind of concomitance here. And I started to see this in the 1970s, when I wrote the song “Prime Time.” Everything, all information and experience, was going to come through the television.
Well, that has happened. Today, it’s coming through the laptop, the TV, the phone — you know? Screens. It’s coming through our screens. That’s what happened.
I said this in my song “Prime Time,” too, but I think it’s made the population crazy. I really think people are losing their marbles. And this AI comes at a bad time for that because people are all on edge anyway. They don’t know what to think about all the things they used to know what to think about. That was a good sentence! (laughs)
They don’t know what they’re supposed to make of all this — and especially young people. And I think that’s probably why a lot of them are just thinking, “You know, screw it, I’m just gonna have a good time, and I don’t want to work and I don’t care about a career because I probably won’t live long enough to have one.”
It’s a kind of nihilistic thinking, you know? And it’s all playing into a very imperfect storm, it seems to me.
And I don’t mean to bring this up, and I don’t want to hurt people’s feelings or anything, but to me, the idea of having to discuss what a man or a woman is today — now you’re going down a philosophical rat hole, it seems to me.
I studied philosophy in college and loved it very much. But when we need to discuss such things today as “What’s a man?” and “What’s a woman?” when it’s obvious horse sense — we shouldn’t have to do this. When you get into these kinds of discussions, that to me is another indication of craziness.
Today, everybody’s afraid of everything. Nobody tells you what they think. I’m a free agent. I’m a free radical. I’m known all over the world, and I’m an old man and nobody gives a rat’s a– what I think anyway. But all these young people who work for companies — you say two things wrong and you’re out. It’s so fast.
They’re terrified of expressing an opinion. And I don’t blame them, if you’re young, and you have aspirations, you have a family, children, whatever — keep your mouth shut. People have had to become very careful.
Fox News Digital: Do you feel that during your career, you’ve been at the right place at the right time — the right person to create the songs you’ve created? You suggested this before, when we last spoke about “American Pie.”
McLean: Yes, I feel all of that. And I like singing quite a bit. I’m very happy with what I did with my life. At this point in my life — and if you reach this point, and a lot of people don’t — to say that, I think, is a wonderful thing.
I do a thing on stage, where I’ll say, “People ask me, how do you write songs?”
And I say, “Well, the first thing you do is you fall in love. That’s the first thing. You have to fall in love.”
Most songs are written about women or men. Taylor Swift — look at that. It’s a whole career out of angst and happiness and relationships. So, you meet somebody, and you have a song like, “I’ve Just Seen a Face” [by The Beatles] — this kind of magic.
So you meet the person and then you fall in love. “And I Love You So” — I’ll throw one of mine in there. Maybe you’ll have the kids — “Wonderful Baby.” There’s another song.
And then maybe you start getting tired of the relationship. And you start looking around. And now your country music starts kicking in here. “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind” [by Loretta Lynn] — all this kind of stuff.
And then, OK, pretty much, you get a divorce — “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” [by Tammy Wynette] — and then, “She Got the Goldmine, I Got the Shaft” [by Jerry Reed] and on and on.
But the hardest one of all is, here comes the girl you thought you were over — and maybe it’s Christmastime, and she’s coming down the road or the avenue, where all the shopping is, maybe it’s in New York City, all the shops and all the people, Bloomingdale’s, you know — and there she is with her new love and her presents, and she’s just so happy.
And that’s the toughest song of all. And then I sing, “Crying” — or “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love with You)” — these kinds of things.
In my life — and although I just said I’m happy with it — there’s a lot of pain in writing songs.
And if you don’t have pain, you’re not going to write anything worthwhile.
Fox News Digital: When we understand today that ChatGPT can spit out song lyrics and far more — what are your thoughts on that? Concerns on your end?
McLean: There’s going to be a lot of lawsuits, I can tell you that. This is wide-open town. And if they spit out any of my lyrics — you know, [people] will be all over any entity that does anything that’s remotely like sampling.
There’s going to be a lot of lawsuits, a lot of money spent on lawyers. That’s the only way to stop it, to make people pay for copyright infringement.
But it’s not so simple. If you put all this stuff into a computer — if you put in Beethoven, and Don McLean, and the Sons of the Pioneers, let’s say — and it comes out with, what? I don’t know.
Yet intellectual property is very powerful and it’s protected in the United States.
Once again, though, when I hear the stuff that’s out there today, that’s something that’s passing itself off as music today.
I don’t call it music. You can’t whistle it. If you can’t whistle a tune, it’s not a song. You can’t whistle this stuff. It’s just — a kind of entertainment by the yard. It’s not music.
That’s why I say computers will be better. They’ll be fed music — and it’s going to come out more musical than what people are able to do now.
I don’t know what’s going to happen with AI when this inflection point is reached. You’re not going to know what’s real and what isn’t. You’re not going to know who’s on the phone.
It’s just starting. That’s my point. We are just suddenly aware of this.
But it hasn’t begun to reach the point where it takes off exponentially. And then how can we keep up with it? This is another terrifying thing that we created.
The story of Frankenstein has to be the great story of humanity. In trying to find a way to make our presence on Earth known so that it can last forever, we’ve now created a form of life, a Frankenstein form of life, that ironically, instead of letting us last forever, ironically could eliminate us and be here without us.
And it is capable of changing. We deserve this, in a way, because we’ve basically handed ourselves over to the phone and the computers.
That’s why I like still making records and writing songs. You go back to the lyric — simple. You know what it says, and you know where it came from.
And I stand behind it. It’s guaranteed to have come from my brain.
Fox News Digital: The people that you attract to your concerts and shows are going to see you. They’re not going to see a recording or imitation of you or your work — they want to see you. Isn’t that the case?
McLean: Yes, and one more thing here. When I go on stage, this is what I say. Every time I play anywhere now, 90% of the people [also playing on tour] are tribute bands — tribute bands to ABBA, the Rolling Stones, to Neil Diamond, to John Denver.
So I say to my audience, “I’m the only real guy left. I’m really me! This is me! Here I am.”
Then I kid around with them. I say, “I’m gonna audition a Don McLean in Europe, and another one in Australia, and another one in England, and another one in the United States — and I’m gonna have my musical director be busy for the rest of his life casting the band and the writing arrangements. And then I’m gonna retire.”
McLean — who is 77 — does not appear to be nearing retirement any time soon.
Five of McLean’s songs are set to be turned into stories for kids and published as children’s books, he shared.
“American Pie: The Fable” (2022) is already out. Still coming up is “Vincent,” “Castles in the Air,” “And I Love You So” and “Tapestry,” he said.
Meanwhile, he’s doing 13 concerts in the U.S. between June and October, including a few appearances on the East Coast.
His newest album, “American Boys,” will be out this year.
He’s also going to have a Christmastime remix out around the holidays, he said.
Plus, the documentary “The Day The Music Died: The Story of Don McLean’s American Pie” was nominated for best music documentary by the 2023 MTV Movie and TV Awards.
“I’m always busy,” he said, “and I love accomplishing things — making goals for myself and achieving them.”
McLean’s iconic song “American Pie” attained No. 1 on the Billboard charts after its release more than 50 years ago, on Jan. 15, 1972. To this day it remains a classic of American folk rock music. It’s been featured in numerous films and other venues.
“American Pie” is also in the Library of Congress National Recording Registry and was named a top-5 song of the 20th century by the Recording Industry of America (RIAA).
Anyone wanting more information can check out McLean’s website at donmclean.com.