Tom Petty and Tom Frank: Two Geniuses of Pop Culture

So I’m finally writing a column I promised you nearly a year ago, a column celebrating the underappreciated greatness of Tom Petty. A column initially provoked by a shameful diss of Mr. Petty in these pages, one that actually used the word “stupid” to refer to him. I guess because he looks like a redneck, he’s got a face like a boiled peanut (the “delicacy” of his Florida panhandle roots) and he never makes pretentious statements about his music. But stupid!? The guy is a songwriting genius . I’d argue that his songs are, at their best, better than Bruce Springsteen’s: They don’t labor under the leaden weight of the Boss’ self-mythologizing portentousness. They have an offhand, self-effacing vernacular lyricism that puts him in a league with Neil Young. I’d argue that his songs can unashamedly share the stage with Bob Dylan’s, as they did in a series of memorable tours.

So why doesn’t he get the props he deserves? I think it has something to do with the intellectual bankruptcy of so much pop-culture criticism, which is why I want to begin my column celebrating Tom Petty’s underappreciated genius by celebrating the soon-to-be-appreciated genius of another Tom, Thomas Frank, whose new book One Market Under God is just about the smartest work of cultural criticism I’ve read in years. A brilliant, bracing slice-and-dice job on the pop culture of the New Economy, the smug gasbag rhetoric of savants like that awful, ranting shill Tom Peters (promoter of the concept of “Brand You,” the ethos of nonstop self-promotion), cosmic Pollyanna George Gilder and all the other clueless Candides–and their enablers in academic culture, the “cultural studies” intellectuals.

What a profound relief to see someone as smart as Mr. Frank take them on and take them apart. I found myself dog-earing so many pages of the galley (the book’s due in October from Doubleday) that I turned it into one big dog ear, rendering each individual dog ear useless.

Democracy is the worst system in the world, Churchill once famously remarked, except for all the others. But the fact that it’s a better system than collectivism doesn’t make the market a benevolent system.

Yet the ruling ideology of the market worshipers Mr. Frank so brilliantly anatomizes has it that the market is not under God, the market is God. Not something whose inequities and depredations should cause concern, not something we need to protect the weak and unfortunate from. No, just throw them off the sled if they can’t carry their weight in the mighty mission of humanity: to raise stock prices.

The sheer intelligence of Mr. Frank’s close reading of the promotional rhetoric of Internet globalization ideology is dazzling, but my favorite two chapters are the ones that expose the interpenetration of the hot new cult of advertising “intellectuals,” the “account planners” and the tin-eared drones of “cultural studies” in academia. The ones who claim to be engaged in radical politics but, as Mr. Frank demonstrates, serve as inadvertent cheerleaders for “market populism.” Pretending that watching TV and fetishizing the sex lives of Star Trek characters are political acts of “contestation” and “resistance.”

“Studying fashion magazines or communities of fans was the real revolutionary stuff,” Mr. Frank observes of the “cult-studs” with salutary contempt. “The first step in what would become an irresistible assault on the powers that be … cult-studs enthusiastically declar[ed] their firm intention to go on subverting, to continue ‘fighting the power’ by celebrating the counter hegemonic messages of TV sitcoms.”

But “for all its generalized hostility to business and frequent discussions of ‘late capital’ cultural studies failed almost completely to produce close analyses of the daily life of business.” Failed to notice as well how “the official narratives of the American business community of the nineties … embraced many of the same concerns of the cult-studs … their tendency to find ‘elitism’ lurking behind any critique of mass culture and their pious esteem for audience agency.”

It’s just a brilliant analysis whose sophistication and wit is worthy of Mencken or Dwight Macdonald, and it confirms my feeling that–with very few exceptions–whether they profess to love it or hate it, academics always get pop culture wrong . They no longer live it, if they ever did. But rather–despite their horror of “commodification”–they commodify it to advance their careers. A genius like Tom Petty just flies below their radar.

I recently came across an egregious example of this, a painfully earnest cult-studs tome on Elvis fans. The author strenuously attempted to demonstrate her empathy for Elvis fans, constantly patting herself on the back for her bond with the little people, unable to conceal her condescension, and then making the stunning admission that she never much liked and clearly didn’t “get” Elvis’ music. As if the content of the little people’s obsession were irrelevant, it could have been flying saucers or Nazi memorabilia. It was just so endearing that the little people opted out of the evil capitalist hegemony with their Elvis shrines. So revolutionary!

Elvis actually can serve as a transition to Tom Petty. I’d been reading Tom Frank’s book while thinking about a Tom Petty column when I happened to drop in at The Oxford American ‘s party, at KGB, for their annual Southern Music issue. An issue that happens to feature a terrific interview with Tom Petty by Holly George-Warren.

It is, of course, ingeniously appropriate to appropriate Tom Petty as a Southern Musician. Sure, he’s best known as a southern Californian rather than a Southerner. (The video for “Free Falling” may forever be the signature image of dazed Valley anomie.) But the guy is from Gainesville, his origins are in the boiled-peanut bleakness of the Florida panhandle. And the interview reveals that he received his initiation into pop music from the ultimate (white) Southern Musician, Elvis!

Tom Petty was 11 years old when relatives took him to visit the set of an Elvis movie ( Follow that Dream , too perfect!). He recalls it as a dreamlike moment, almost a mystic initiation. He was standing behind a chain-link fence and suddenly heard his aunt say, “‘ That’s Elvis!'” And it really was a semi religious experience. I mean he glowed to me.… He said ‘hi,’ and then went in his trailer.…” Young Petty sees others getting the King to sign his records. “And I was like, ‘Damn, if I had an Elvis record, I could get an autograph.’ So when we went home I was a changed person. I set out finding Elvis records. That was how I fell in love with rock ‘n’ roll records … I always liked radio, but at that point I became consumed with it. At night we could get WLS [in Chicago]. There you got to hear all that great R&B … I became so obsessed … I had no other interests than that.”

It’s almost a Harry Potter moment, isn’t it? A young apprentice wizard initiated by the Wizard King. Of course, you can be initiated into all sorts of stupid things–not all obsessions are equal. But Tom Petty’s obsession with the pop song has produced works of pure wizardry and wonder. He’s a natural at it, but he’s also a true scholar, a sophisticate, a genuine cult-stud, someone who understands the difference between a song as poem, as words on a page, and the three-dimensional sonic entity , for want of a better word, the living being it’s endowed with by chords and harmonies.

Those who analyze Dylan’s words, for instance, rarely give more than a nod, if that, to Dylan’s chords . Of course, you can go too far in that direction. Once, in an interview, Dylan stunned me by talking about the emotional significance of certain chords. D-minor, he told me, was “the chord of regret.” Of course, he could have been putting me on. In the immortal mockumentary, Spinal Tap , released a few years after my Dylan interview came out, we have Nigel musing about his “art” and telling us “D-minor is the chord of sadness.” To be gently mocked by Spinal Tap is true pop culture immortality.

Still, a number of actual musicians have told me they felt there was truth in Dylan’s D-minor remark. In the emotional specificity of chords. This is not to say that Tom Petty’s words need to take second place to anyone’s. He’s the master of the beautiful, understated, cryptic, gnomic pop-song utterance. But he’s also the master of the harmonic alchemy of sound and sense in song. But enough of these generalities; the best way to focus on Tom Petty’s greatness is to talk about the individual songs. And maybe the best way to talk about the songs is to force myself to choose my Top 10 Tom Petty Songs and defend my hierarchy. Not an academic critique, but a fan’s notes.

1) “Free Falling” / “Learning to Fly.” It’s not a cop-out for me to choose these two together. In fact, if I had to narrow it down to one it might be “American Girl” or “Louisiana Rain.” But there’s just an amazing, fortuitous harmonic convergence on the Greatest Hits compilation that has “Free Falling” followed directly by “Learning to Fly,” a clear indication (from Tom Petty himself?) that the two songs ought to be considered as two sides of the same coin. They are, metaphorically, the Old and the New Testament of Tom Petty visionary anthems. One about a Fall, the second one about a Rise–although “Learning to Fly” promises one further, final fall:

Learning to fly

But I ain’t got wings

Coming down is the hardest thing. …

He ain’t got wings. He ain’t no angel but he writes like one. Sometimes he writes about them: His choiring riffs are always inquiring, you might say, into the realm of angelic ecstasy, realms evoked in dreamy images of floating, flying, free falling, driving, cruising. Sustained suspended gliding across the landscape. The kind of flying you do in dreams. What’s impressive about “Free Falling” is the way it’s true blue to its local color: some Valley dude floating away from his Valley girl. (“I wanna glide down over Mulholland.”) And the cryptic incantation of “Free falling, yeah I’m free falling” evokes a sense of the human condition caught between the two realms of heaven and earth. He is the poet of suspension, of suspended animation, of suspended examination. He’s free falling like the original fallen angel, the morning star, Lucifer, who–cast out in the opening of Paradise Lost –fell “nine times the space that measures night and day.” “Free Falling” is Tom Petty’s Paradise Lost in the Valley, “Learning to Fly” his Divine Comedy .

2) “Louisiana Rain.” Again it could have been “American Girl,” but the edge goes to “Louisiana Rain” because, for some unaccountable reason, it was left off the Greatest Hits album. In a way, it’s another ecstatic falling song. Only here it’s the rain that’s “falling like tears.” This is one of the all-time great sad-but-hopeful breakup songs. It’s about soaking in the past, soaking in it to the skin, but a soaking that turns to a cleansing. The purgative rinse cycle of emotion. Going on the lam, as the singer does, from San Diego to South Carolina and finally to Baton Rouge, being on the lam gets you redeemed, washed in the blood of the lam, you might say.

3) “American Girl.” One of the great rock ‘n’ roll songs of all time and it’s only his fourth best! It cries out to be played up against an equally great classic, David Bowie’s “Young Americans.” I can’t better the way Holly George-Warren describes its effect on her, in The Oxford American , as her youthful initiating experience of Tom Petty: “I guess you can say it was my theme song: its jangling metallic guitar riff perfect for pogoing, and the urgent vocals laced with a kind of southern English accent insisting that ‘there was a little more to life somewhere else.'”

Urgent is the perfect word for “American Girl.” Urgency is there in the best of Tom Petty’s songs: a lovely desperation. What’s beautiful about “American Girl” is its empathy. Unlike Bowie, who stands apart, affectionately mocking his “Young Americans,” you feel that in some way Tom Petty knows that we are–all Americans are–American girls, “raised on promises.” A desperate, hopeful innocence. “She was an American girl,” he sings. But he’s an American girl, too.

4) “Walls.” A lesser-known masterpiece, not on the Greatest Hits compilation. It appears on the all-Petty soundtrack of the likable Ed Burns film She’s the One . It’s haunting, lovely and cryptic. It’s not clear who’s inside, who’s outside or whose walls will come falling down: the singer or the girl with “a heart so big / It could crush this town”–or maybe it’s the same wall, the one within. Again there’s that urgency: “I can’t hold out forever / Even walls fall down.” This song just kills me; it’s the pure perfection of the jangling Beatles-Byrds guitar riff; it’s the heart-and-soul keyboards recapitulating rock laments all the way back to doo wop.

5) “Straight into Darkness.” Again an unaccountable omission from Greatest Hits , this is perhaps Tom Petty’s darkest, most chilling vision. It’s about a woman, a relationship that went “straight into darkness,” but it’s about the way we all eventually go “straight into darkness, straight into night.” Straight into death.

6) “Here Comes My Girl.” The angelic chiming says it all. A rare song that captures the feeling of ecstatic anticipation . That speaks to the teenager in love within us all that never (alas) dies.

7) “The Waiting.” Again anticipation, but this time more agonized, more informed by the experience of loss. Waiting for the return of something that is probably gone forever.

8) “Refugee.” It’s not at all designed to be a political song, it’s more about emotional exile. The way we all are, in some way, if not physical, then emotional refugees. Exiled from a lost homeland, a lost paradise. But the song can’t help, in the inescapable other context of “refugee,” become political in the best, most powerful way: from the inside out.

9) “Southern Accents.” It’s his anthem but it’s not on Greatest Hits . (Why?) In the Oxford American interview, Petty says that Johnny Cash once told him it was such a perfect song it ought to replace “Dixie,” that idiot, racist Confederate anthem. Amen.

10) “I Won’t Back Down” / “Billy the Kid.” Two separate songs (I’ll admit I’m squeezing them together to include more than 10 in the Top 10). “I Won’t Back Down”: a gritty, fight-back, underdog- against-all-odds anthem. And you have to include “Billy the Kid” (from Echo, his latest) as a kind of sequel to “I Won’t Back Down” for that knock-down, drag-out chorus riff: “I went down hard / Like Billy the Kid / I went down hard / But I’ll get up again.” Fall and rise, then rise and fall. Free falling, heart rising.

11) Special bonus selection: “Even the Losers.” Once again the keynote of Tom Petty anthems, dreamy defiance: “Even the losers / Get lucky some time / Even the losers / [Insanely angelic chiming chord run] Show a little bit of pride.…” Once again he’s at one with the emotional refugees, who’ve been “kicked around some,” been down hard.

Thinking about “Even the Losers,” I recalled something the great Murray Kempton once said to me about “losing-side consciousness.” He was talking about his own background, as a descendant of defeated Confederates, how it somehow prompted him to become a civil rights activist in the dangerous 30’s. When there were no victories in sight. How it explained the Miranda decision: “Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black came from the only county in Alabama that stood by the Union. Earl Warren’s father was a railroad striker in the Debs strike who was blacklisted and spent two years in [jail].”

How the historian Kempton loved best was Clarendon, the 17th-century writer who was always on the losing side in the shifting politics of the English Civil War. How being on the losing side, in the loser’s locker room of history, can inculcate a tragic sense of life, an identification with the unfortunate.

I think a kind of losing-side consciousness is responsible for the passion in Tom Frank’s analysis of New Economy rhetoric: his passionate disgust at the triumphalism of the smug winners, his passionate identification with the losers and the left-out–all those left out of the party by the exigencies of market-worshipping globalization.

Even the losers get lucky some time, and in Tom Petty and Tom Frank, the beautiful losers in life have found two brilliant champions.

Ron Rosenbaum’s new collection of non-fiction, The Secret Parts of Fortune (including two dozen Observer columns), has just been published by Random House.