Petty runs down, and over, American dream
By Edna Gundersen
USA Today - October 17, 2002
MALIBU, Calif. — Embattled and embittered, Tom Petty takes on the music industry and corporate America on The Last DJ, the rocker's battle cry for moral reform.
He targets money-grubbing moguls, tour sponsorships, radio's homogenized playlists and apathetic fans, all metaphors for grander crimes rampant in a profit-driven society. On Money Becomes King, a fan sees rock 'n' roll idealism trampled under a greed stampede. The title track bemoans the personality-free monotony on airwaves. Joe studies revenue gluttons who poison art.
"I left nobody out," Petty says. "I pick on the artist, the audience, everyone. And not just in the music industry. It could be any business. The problem is greed, pure and simple. Never mind a healthy profit; the idea is: 'We want all the money we can get. We want every damn dime out there, and our computers can show us where every dime is.' The mom-and-pop store had to care about its customers and its products to survive. These giant corporations don't care about anything but profit."
Petty, a longtime observer of America's cultural decline, began writing this concept album two years ago, fully aware that taking potshots at record and radio conglomerates could ricochet and damage his career. Yet Warner Bros. lauded his tack as bold, and radio quickly embraced The Last DJ. Though relieved by the industry's reception, Petty won't back down. "We're all working for the man, whether we like it or not," he says. "It's hard to know who you work for. You climb the ladder and look around, and nobody's there. That instills in people a kind of apathy. They don't really care about much beyond getting off work at 6 because they're not going to change anything and nobody notices if they do something good or bad."
He says that music execs, indifferent to rock's primal powers, have diluted and contaminated the genre, rendering it a generic tool for Madison Avenue. Boardroom avarice isn't solely to blame.
Consumers "have been anesthetized," he says. "Standards go down, we settle for less. A CD is not expected to have more than one or two good songs. And I find it amazing that audiences accept lip-syncing in live shows."
Clad in black and sporting sunglasses, the rail-thin musician appears almost vampirish, wispy blond hair framing his pallid complexion as he lights a third cigarette. Yet he seems perfectly at ease in the incongruous setting of sunshine and surf off his beachside inn's balcony. That kind of contradiction also tugs at The Last DJ, grim tales related with humor and engaging characters. Bad news abounds, but optimism blooms in psychedelic romp Can't Stop the Sun, the closing track that counters Petty's cynicism.
"It can get better if a little bit of conscience and morality and truth comes back," he says. "I love this music, and I don't want to see it reduced to some kind of lumbering cartoon. There's nothing to be gained by pessimism. My motivation is to raise the question. None of us seem to be enjoying popular entertainment. It's missing an element of truth, almost to a crisis proportion."
Though disheartened by record-business failures, Petty reserves his harshest criticism for television.
"TV's downright dangerous," he says. "It endangers every one of us. There's an industry that makes the music business look like Boy Scouts. You would have thought you'd see a drastic change in attitude and maybe some moral responsibility in the wake of 9/11. I've seen no change other than an effort to cash in on the flag and patriotism."
He has a personal ax to grind as well. Before he was bestowed with MTV's Video Vanguard Award for adventurous artistry in 1994, Petty fought to get airtime for his eccentric concept videos featuring animation and cameos by the likes of Johnny Depp and Kim Basinger. MTV wanted Petty singing and playing guitar. Flash forward to 2002, when sister network VH1 rejects his studio documentary.
"It's a land of censorship and dumb ideas," he declares. "The response was, 'We can't have a film of musicians playing instruments. Can't you do a funny concept video?' I've given up on the video world. I'm bowing out, at least for now."
The boob tube isn't all bad, he concedes. He has agreed to numerous appearances to compensate for shrinking promotional avenues open to boomer rock these days. And he'll star on the season premiere of The Simpsons Nov. 10.
"My family went ape when I was asked to do an episode," says the twice-married father of two daughters and a stepson. "It's as if I'd never accomplished anything in my life. For them, this is the absolute pinnacle of my career."