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Just desserts or sweet surrender for a new "American Pie'?

Madonna hopes to carve her own piece of the Pie in a reworked version of Don McLean's 1971 rock anthem.

The Material Girl . . . driving a Chevy to the levee? And hanging out with good old boys drinking whiskey and rye?

Dance-music icon Madonna's latest career surprise arrived Wednesday, when radio stations across the country begin playing her new song: a reworking of American Pie, Don McLean's forlorn 1971 song of lost innocence and rock 'n' roll history. Yes, that American Pie, the 837-word, 8-minute epic.

"It's a totally odd fit," says Sky Daniels, general manager of Radio & Records, a radio-industry trade publication. "But when it comes to Madonna, the first reaction is never say never. She has defied expectations again and again."

Which explains why many industry insiders are predicting her shimmering, dance-beat remake will be a hit. Still, there was skepticism even on the part of producer William Orbit, who guided Madonna to a career renaissance with the acclaimed 1998 album Ray of Light and earned a Grammy nomination for her most recent hit, Beautiful Stranger.

"When she called up about it, I wasn't really sure it was a serious proposition," Orbit said. "I thought it was one of those ideas that might go away if I didn't do anything about it. Then she called back and said, "Have you started on it yet?' "

Why American Pie? The song is an emotional centerpiece in the upcoming film The Next Best Thing, which stars Rupert Everett, Madonna and Benjamin Bratt. Everett, who also co-wrote the comedy-drama, was the one who persuaded Madonna to recast the classic for the soundtrack. The singer is hardly a new fan of the song, however. She says she was a fan when it was No. 1 on the nation's charts 29 years ago.

"I loved it," Madonna says, "and knew every word."

Don't expect to hear every word, however, in this new version. The remake cuts four choruses and several verses _ including the chunk that is an oblique history of rock 'n' roll, with veiled nods to the Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. The sliced-up Pie comes in at a radio-friendly 4{ minutes. But how will fans of the original react?

American Pie is among the most popular, lasting songs since the 1960s, and its poignant imagery of "the day the music died" _ a reference to the 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper _ has made it a touchstone at classic rock radio. The 41st anniversary of that crash is Feb. 3.

The song's lasting power has been a source of ongoing inspiration for McLean, now 54 and living in Maine. He performs the song at each of the 90 or so concerts he does per year, and Garth Brooks and Nanci Griffith sing it with him on an upcoming live album.

"The song has a lot of value to a lot of people, and that's very meaningful for me," McLean says. "I have not heard the Madonna version, but I'm delighted she has decided to record it. I'm a fan of hers, and I think she is a colossal performer and presence in the music business . . . I'm sure whatever she is doing with the song is exciting and appropriate."

It was the alternating tone of the original _ its melancholy juxtaposed with a sing-along buoyancy _ that inspired Everett to tap the song for the script. The plot of the Paramount film, arriving in theaters March 3, is the fallout of a drunken sexual escapade between a gay man (Everett) and a female friend (Madonna) that leads to pregnancy. Madonna says the song sets a mood for the film.

"There is a scene where a boyfriend of one of the lead characters dies, and at his funeral we all start singing his favorite song, which is American Pie," she said. "The song becomes a kind of theme song of rebellion and nostalgia throughout the movie."

The Maverick Records soundtrack, in stores Feb. 22, also features another new Madonna song, Time Stood Still, along with tracks by Christina Aguilera, Moby and Beth Orton.

In an earlier screenplay for The Next Best Thing, it was Patti Smith's Easter that served as the mourned friend's song, but that changed when Everett sought a more upbeat song that could also fit into a dancing scene.

When he settled on Pie, he soon had another thought.

"It just gave me chills thinking of Madonna singing those first lines: "A long, long time ago, I can still remember how that music used to make me smile . . . and I knew if I had my chance that I could make those people dance,' " Everett said. "To hear that and imagine her looking back on her career, the 1990s and 1980s, all that she's done. And it's just a great millennium song."

Indeed, the song's vaguely apocalyptic overtones do fit a millennium mind-set. Madonna, for instance, calls the song "a statement for a lot of things in our culture dying that are important."

To Daniels, those themes are a key to its hit potential with Madonna's longtime fans. "It's a total reminiscence of youth," he said, "and that will resonate with fans who have been following her for, what, 18 years now?"

Orbit, however, disagrees. He believes that if the song is a success, it will be as a product of the present, not a valentine to the past. Orbit also questions whether the message of American Pie is newly relevant in 2000.

"I think it's newly irrelevant," Orbit says. "I don't think music ever died. I don't think music died just because Buddy Holly was killed any more than it died because people invented drum machines or anything else. People always latch onto some musical rosy past and they tie it in with their youth, and when their youth runs out they feel like the music's run out."