Tom Petty was the soundtrack to my childhood. His unique voice, with that nasal quality and a distinctive Florida twang, always sounded like it was searching for something, but that it was also resigned to never finding it. It was perfect for long family car trips in my dad’s black pickup truck. Sometimes the trip itself — sitting silently and letting the music wash over us — was more fun than the hiking or fishing plans we made. That seemed appropriate, since Petty’s music allowed us to sit in our pain for a moment, to fully feel it.
The stories and themes of his music were often vague enough that it could apply to a wide variety of people and experiences. But his music is still often considered “dad rock,” which I suppose is appropriate given the fact that every dad I know, including my own, loves him. I texted my dad the moment I learned Petty was hospitalized for cardiac arrest. But the idea that his music is only for white middle class dads, which suggests that it is never politically charged, doesn’t acknowledge Petty’s own progressive political views, which he never hid for the sake of making more money, or his willingness to learn from mistakes instead of bemoaning “political correctness.” It also misses some of the main messages of his songs and the ways his songs can be interpreted for a younger generation.
Tom Petty himself was open about his political views. Petty did not constantly speak about his politics or use his politics to sell his music, but he never hid his fairly progressive political views. In his recent tour for the 40th anniversary of his band, Petty showed a number of photos of a diverse group of women while he sang the song, “American Girl.” And whether he intended to or not, Petty sent a message of support to transgender people by showing a photo of late transgender actress Alexis Arquette hours after Trump sent out a tweet about banning transgender people on the military.
When Petty did speak out, he did not mince words. He called the war in Iraq “shameful,” and added, “The guy lied. And he continues to do so. I can’t understand why he’s just not run out on a rail.”
Petty once threatened to sue George W. Bush for using one of his songs, “I Won’t Back Down” for a campaign rally. He sent the presidential candidate a cease-and-desist letter.
In contrast, Petty appeared to be thrilled when President Barack Obama played the same song in 2012 at the Democratic National Convention. Petty told Rolling Stone, “I got chills… They knew it would be OK. I’ve had a chance to meet the president and talk to him about the music he listens to.”
He wasn’t afraid to wade into emotionally charged controversies. When asked what his song, “Playing Dumb,” was about, Petty said it related to sex abuse within the Catholic Church. “If I was in a club, and I found out that there had been generations of people abusing children, and then that club was covering that up, I would quit the club,” Petty told Billboard in 2014.
Petty said that too often, Christians endorsed violence. “I’ve nothing against defending yourself, but I don’t think, spiritually speaking, that there’s any conception of God that should be telling you to be violent,” Petty said.
Petty’s song wasn’t subtle in its message to the Catholic Church. It mentioned the pope’s “red leather loafers” and men of God:
Well let’s light a candle for every kid
For every soul that was done away with
For every confession that wasn’t on the level
For every man of God that lives with hidden Devils
It wasn’t the only one of his songs that was clearly about an actual news event. Petty said that the song, “Learning to Fly,” was inspired by images he saw of the Gulf War on television.
He also wrote about a readiness to learn new things in his memoir, Runnin’ Down a Dream: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Petty writes that people should always be prepared to learn something new and keep an open mind to other perspectives:
You will never be told when the next bit of education is coming or where it’s coming from or who the teacher will be. That information will only reveal itself after the fact. All that you can do is leave a little room there for the next lesson to come through. Someone will be carrying it. You just leave the door open a crack.
This openness to learn new things may have helped Petty understand where he went wrong and change accordingly without any defensiveness. Two years ago, Petty told Rolling Stone that the marketing for his tour “Southern Accents” in 1985, which featured a Confederate flag, was a “downright stupid thing to do.”
“People just need to think about how it looks to a black person. It’s just awful. It’s like how a swastika looks to a Jewish person,” Petty said.
Some of Petty’s music feels new again in this political moment. Most people can understand a feeling of resentment. And if there’s anyone who should feel resentment over injustice, it’s the most marginalized people in America. Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker’s “American Girl” is a great example of how relevant Petty’s music is today. The Handmaid’s Tale, a story that people have turned to in their grief over the Trump administration, with its increasingly authoritarian statements and its assault on women’s reproductive rights, ended its last episode of the season with the song.
The song is played as the main character, June, called “Offred” in her dystopia, is taken away in a van for reasons we assume are related to resisting her government. A song that is “laden with melancholy but hides it via seemingly enthralling melody” as Todd VanDerWerff wrote at Vox, is more than appropriate here. This is a story about a woman who is ready to suffer the consequences of wanting more for her life.
Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” is another song anyone who has been dealt a major loss in their life or felt oppressed by anything or anyone can relate to.
No, I’ll stand my ground
Won’t be turned around
And I’ll keep this world from draggin’ me down
Gonna stand my ground
But it seems particularly prescient of the Trump presidency and what often feels like a never-ending stream of bad news and calamities. It could appeal to people protesting the president over his stances on immigration policy or poor people and people with disabilities who see their safety nets and health care attacked over and over again. It could resonate with people who are overwhelmed by the news of devastating hurricanes, mass murders, and the president’s careless threats of war over Twitter.
Petty’s songs often sent messages about looking for opportunities and freedoms somewhere else, such as “Runnin’ Down a Dream” and “Wildflowers.” The lyrics for “Runnin’ Down a Dream” are about someone who begins their travels with clear skies and warm weather, but the weather becomes cold and inhospitable. Yet, they continue down the road. “Wildflowers” is a simple, sweet song, but it sends a message that everyone should have love in their lives and be free to love — a message that could easily apply to same-sex couples.
You belong among the wildflowers
You belong in a boat out at sea
You belong with your love on your arm
You belong somewhere you feel free
Petty’s political leanings were not a major feature of his music or his persona as a rock musician like some other artists of his generation. But he was often an ally to marginalized groups, such as survivors of sexual violence, and never hid his progressive views to appease anyone. His songs were as much about recognizing and processing one’s pain as they were about resilience. And unlike a plethora of famous men who believe stubbornness is strength, Petty could admit when he was wrong.