"American Pie" Singer Is Neither A Villain Nor A Monster

Don McLean, the singer-songwriter best known for his 1971 number one smash “American Pie,” was arrested last week on a domestic assault charge.

Last Thursday, he released the following statement on Twitter:

“This last year and especially now have been hard emotional times for my wife my children and me. What is occurring is the very painful breakdown of an almost 30 year relationship. Our hearts are broken and we must carry on. There are no winners or losers but I am not a villain.”

Don McLean Arrest

His initial statement raised more questions for me than answers—was he making excuses for his actions or denying them altogether? (A protection order, reportedly sought by McLean’s wife, has subsequently been dismissed by agreement, according to McLean’s website.)

But what caught my eye first was McLean’s “phrase of denial,” in which he said, “I am not a villain.” As soon as I read that, I knew the unfortunate word ‘villain’ would find its way into headlines—and it did.

I’ve written about “phrases of denial” before, pointing out that they serve spokespersons badly for associating a negative term with them, almost always unnecessarily.

Don McLean Headline

Eight memorable phrases of denial 

Richard Nixon, 1973: “I am not a crook.” President Nixon’s unfortunate phrase, uttered at the height of the Watergate scandal, became the five most famous words he ever spoke.

Bill Clinton, 1998: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” President Clinton stood by his denial for seven months until he finally admitted that he had, in fact, had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky.

Kenneth Lay, 2001: “We’re not hiding anything.” The CEO and chairman of Enron knowingly misled the public about his company’s woeful financial condition. The company filed for bankruptcy shortly after his untruthful claim.

Larry Craig, 2007: “I am not gay.” After being arrested for lewd conduct in an airport men’s bathroom, Idaho Senator Larry Craig denied the accusation by telling reporters, “I am not gay. I never have been gay.” (I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with being gay, only that if Craig’s intent was to deny it, he chose the worst way to do it.)
Larry Craig I Am Not Gat
John Edwards, 2008: “I know that it’s not possible that this child could be mine.” The Democratic presidential hopeful denied having a child with his mistress, Rielle Hunter. He later admitted that he is, indeed, the father.

Christine O’Donnell, 2010: “I’m not a witch.” Christine O’Donnell, the Republican Senate candidate from Delaware, had to do crisis control after a tape emerged of her saying a decade earlier that she had, “dabbled into witchcraft.” She took her critics on by releasing an ad that began with the words, “I’m not a witch.” The ad backfired, and she became fodder for the late night comics. She lost.

Oprah Winfrey, 2010: “I’m not a lesbian.” When the talk show host was asked about her relationship with close friend Gayle King, Ms. Winfrey tearfully denied the relationship was sexual. Her quotable quote was splashed across front pages worldwide. (Again, I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with being lesbian, only that if Winfrey’s intent was to deny it, she chose the worst way to do it.)

Chris Christie, 2014: “I am not a bully.” Considering that Christie has made a career out of brash confrontations. his denial in the wake of his “bridgegate” scandal only served to reinforce his bullying nature.

McLean’s Wife Adds Another Phrase of Denial

Making this case unusual, McLean’s wife came to her husband’s defense—after the ‘villain’ headlines had done damage—by using a phrase of denial of her own.

Don McLean Monster

Neither statement needed the loaded words “villain” or “monster.” That’s especially true in this case, as no one asked: “Are you a villain?” or “Is your husband a monster?” Both of those statements were released without a media filter; they released their statements, on their own, through Mr. McLean’s website and Twitter.

Here’s hoping Mr. McLean is innocent, as he claims, and that we can get back to remembering him as a talented musician.

Like the blog? Read the book! The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview is available in paperback, for Kindle, and iPad.