In light of Tom Petty’s recent passing, and as a fan of his work, it seemed necessary to look back at his music and understand his artistry better. Everyone wants to be remembered for something, and for musicians, that something is the meaning left behind in their music.
Looking through some of the Songfacts of his music a common theme can be found: a search for purpose. Many artists of his time were writing about this, and like them, Petty finds himself slipping into a sort of nihilistic materialism. His music, on the surface, was love songs and heart break: American Girl, Free Fallin’, Refugee, Mary Jane’s Last Dance, and so on. But in reading the lyrics and the Songfacts, one will realize that he describes this search for purpose in terms of love songs, often used as innuendos for drugs.
This manner of expressing these ideas reminded me of Solomon’s book of Wisdom as he searches for love in women, he discovers God. This does not seem to be the case for Petty as his revelations often end in an acceptance of the current state of things.
For instance, take the song American Girl. This song sounds at first to be about a girl who had endured heartbreak or was falling in love with someone who didn’t love her and it ate away at her. The Songfacts reveals that it is inspired by an urban legend at the University of Florida that a girl took hallucinogens for the first time and jumped from her window. The idea was that she was a preacher’s daughter-type girl and in search of something more but ended up losing her mind on the trip and killing herself.
There is a similar story in the song Mary Jane’s Last Dance. Songfacts says that there is a sense that it could be about Petty’s ex-wife, named Jane, or about marijuana due to the name Mary Jane. In light of the times, it seems safe to assume that the double entendre is intended as many of the artists in the 60’s and 70’s believed that drugs were an avenue to a higher understanding and helped to discover a sense of purpose. By mixing lust and drugs with purpose, Petty fell into the materialistic, nihilistic sense of purpose that plagued the time period.
Runnin’ Down A Dream opposes Nihilism in full. Everything about it is purpose-driven and seems to suggest that he has a “destination.” This song creates a feeling of taking control of one’s life. The idea of being so dedicated to the purpose that he can drive day and night, still believing that “There’s something good waitin’ down this road,” contradicts his former claims that endorsed the nihilistic perspective.
Free Fallin’ is the recognition of his misalignment with what his purpose should be in life. He laments losing the girl he loved and recognizes that she did have something special about her due to her wholesomeness. However, his self-hatred does give off a nihilistic feeling as he seems to suggest that it is something unchangeable about him.
The nihilistic connotation is not sweeping throughout his songs, especially in his cover of I Won’t Back Down. This does not detract from his artistry, as he remains one of the best artists of his time. Artists are able to express things that they may not believe or hold true, so his observation and expression of the nihilistic point of view could be him exploring ideas in a creative way, or just putting them into song.
There is something to learn from this. In the words of Stephen Tyler, “Live and learn from fools and from sages.” It is possible to learn from the wisdom and mistakes of others, and whether Petty believed this nihilistic undertone of some of his music is not relevant to the fact that his audience can learn from it. He has beautiful lyricism and a great sound, so listeners can enjoy his music however they want, and can derive their own interpretations of what he has to say.
Either way, his body of work is great, and will be remembered for generations. If there is a silver lining, it can be that when great musicians die, their music is played everywhere, so we will all get to hear more Tom Petty at parties and events.
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