Catherine Martin is cruising along in her car belting out American Girl while Tom Petty sings on the radio. She is the daughter of Senator Ruth Martin, and in minutes, she is about to meet Buffalo Bill, the deranged serial killer, lurking with his fake cast and ominous windowless van.
The song is not just a radio-friendly singalong hit from one of the greatest singer/songwriters of all time. It has a purpose in this scene when you consider it in the context of the movie.
Buffalo Bill has already struck numerous victims at this point, but he makes the fatal mistake of abducting the daughter of an American senator. She’s not just anybody, like one of the other girls. She’s an American Girl, in capital letters. Her family has power and connections. And it’s only because of those connections that the investigation is ramped up. The senator wants answers. Her personal interest attracts more resources and puts more pressure on Jack Crawford and the FBI to find the killer.
This song, in this scene, says a lot about power, how it’s exercised, and for whose benefit.