Ugh. There are a lot of ways to start a paragraph memorializing Tom Petty (he is, after all, one of the most prolific and influential figures in American music history), but nothing seems to sum up our collective disappointment and general melancholy toward his recent passing much better than that. UGH. It’s been a few weeks now since he left the great main stage we call earth, but nonetheless, we’ve been pulled into a sad and nostalgic research wormhole about the life and times of this great rock legend. He was certainly a special person on the musical front, but his massive influence extended far beyond to on general pop culture. For that reason, here are four relatively unknown and extremely underappreciated facts about Tom Petty’s cultural legacy that people don’t think about nearly enough. Ugh to him being gone…but “whatever-the-antonym-is-to-ugh-in-this-context” that he ever lived in the first place.
Tom Petty fought the greed of the record industry
Tom Petty was in his heyday at a time when the music industry wasn’t just booming, it was generating some serious cash for everyone involved. In 1981, he was about to release his soon-to-be-platinum record Hard Promises, when his label threw the Ebenezer Scrooge curveball of raising the price on his album by a dollar (from $8.98 to $9.98…yeah, times were different back then). Tom was less than pleased, and refused to release the record until his label agreed to the standard price of $8.98. While there’s no real proof that this served as an example for other artists standing up to the bombastic greed of the music industry, it sends an important message when someone of Petty’s stature dares to challenge the authority of the times.
"Tom Pettying" is an Atlanta street term
You know you’ve made it when rappers turn your likeness into a euphemism. On Atlanta rapper Big Boi’s 2012 album Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors, he introduced the world to the concept of “Tom Pettying” in a song aptly named “Thom Pettie.” According to a 2012 interview, Big Boi says that Tom Pettying is when you go out for a wild night with no real idea of where you’ll end up in the morning. It derives from “free falling,” but obviously Tom Pettying sounds way cooler. It’s kinda like how, in the Atlanta rap scene, “Diming” means to write lighthearted but substantive blog posts about pop cultural moments, ya know? Hey, it feels good to be on top.
He played a recurring character in King of the Hill
Sure, he was a famous musician who wrote timeless hits like “I Won’t Back Down” and “Free Fallin’,” but those cultural nuggets are only tiny drops in the pan compared to his generation-defining role in what we like to refer to as the “Macbeth of the modern era”—a little television show called King of the Hill. OK, so maybe King of the Hill is less Macbeth, and more a McDonald’s-half-eaten-Chicken-McNugget, but it was an incredibly sharp and hilarious TV show that had a major moment in ‘90s alternative comedy (thanks to the king of alt-comedy satire, Mike Judge). If you’re familiar with the show, then you may already know that Tom Petty played Luanne’s litigious husband on the show, who won a hilariously small settlement from Costco for slipping on some pee in the restaurant. If you don’t know what we’re talking about, or you only think of memes when we mention King of the Hill, then use this as an opportunity to go back and watch the whole show over again. Someday in the immediate future, it will be revered as a true high-art classic of the modern age. We already kind of made this joke with the whole Macbeth thing, but this time we’re serious. It’s hilarious, and Tom Petty is great in it.
He helped flip the narrative on the Confederate flag
This is a rarely discussed piece of Tom Petty’s story, but in the early part of his career, the Confederate flag was a big part of the TP & the Heartbreakers brand. Petty was from Florida after all, so it was in many ways a genuine proclamation of his southern pride. Also, it’s a bit of a no-brainer branding move considering his 1985 album and tour were called Southern Accents. Obviously the narrative around the Confederate flag has changed drastically since then, so, when asked later by Rolling Stone about how his feelings toward the flag’s depleting stock value, Tom gave the answer that we all might have hoped for: “I’m sure that a lot of people that applaud it don’t mean it in a racial way. But again, I have to give them, as I do myself, a ‘stupid mark.’” You’re forgiven, Tom. RIP.