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Yuppie Music III:
Tom Petty


Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
September 14, 2009

I have to give Tom Petty credit for inspiring this summer's series on yuppie music. I was listening to Radio Paradise when his song "Yer So Bad" came on. It begins, "My sister got lucky, married a yuppie." I chuckled to myself at the irony of a musician who so clearly disdains yuppies becoming a mainstay of their music, especially one with such solid counterculture credentials (FOD, friend of Dylan) who got his start in 1976 when rock was turning punk, which might explain the leather jacket he frequently sports that helps give him that faux-rebel image.

Although Tom Petty (and the Heartbreakers) came along around the same time as the Buckingham-Nicks incarnation of Fleetwood Mac, he was not the instant success that they were despite sharing their LA rock-and-roll lifestyle (and that of Jackson Browne) down to the white lines on the mirror. (Although Petty is Mr. LA, he hails from Florida; however, he palled around with Don Felder of the Eagles during his developing years.) Like Fleetwood Mac, Petty was bigger in Boston than he was in the rest of the U.S., but that still was not very big. Indeed, it seems likely that Petty's similarity to two home-grown, hard-rocking Boston groups, Aerosmith and the J. Geils Band, made the Boston audience receptive to Petty even before his breakthrough hit album, "Damn the Torpedoes" vaulted him to broader fame in 1979.

Unlike my previous two featured bands, Tom Petty did not start out in the yuppie-rock pantheon, he evolved into it during the 1980s, much like the yuppies themselves. Over time, Petty got softer and poppier. In the waning years of the '80s, Petty ditched the Heartbreakers and hitched his wagon to uberproducer and ELOmeister Jeff Lynne. Petty's first album with Lynne was in the guise of the Traveling Wilburys, an ersatz country-rock supergroup that added Bob Dylan, George Harrison, and so-to-be-deceased country legend Roy Orbison to the Petty-Lynne mix. Tom Petty's first solo album (missing a Heartbreaker or two), "Full Moon Fever (FMF)" followed shortly thereafter. The aforementioned "Yer So Bad" was the last of seven singles released from the radio-friendly, quintuple-platinum album. FMF was no "Rumours," either in commercial or critical appeal, but then what is? Obviously some of Stevie Nicks rubbed off on Petty from their early 1980s collaborations, but even with the aid of Jeff Lynne, Petty is still no Lindsey Buckingham.

The Tom Petty catalog from the 1980s through the present stands as a gleaming monument to banal self-indulgence. As Petty got less angry and more mellow (LA will do that to you), his music went from Stones to Beatles, especially with Jeff Lynne behind the mixing console. Like Stein's Oakland, "there isn't any there, there" in Petty's later music, and that is what makes it so compellingly yuppie. "Free Falling," the big Top-10, MTV heavy-rotation hit from FMF is light as a feather and as long as there are soft-rock radio stations, it will be playing on them. Still, even the more recent Tom Petty is good in the same way that Pringles are good.

Which leads to the question of what sort of legs does yuppie music have? Will people still be listening to it in 50, 100, or 500 years, or will it go to the grave with all the yuppies? Back during the campaign of 2008, neither presidential candidate would 'fess up to having this kind of music on his iPod, although McCain's two ABBA songs come close. Will some future national socialist state simply ban this stuff as mentally corrosive and destroy all traces of it?

Sadly, I must question the durability of yuppie music. Like many things, you had to be there to get the music. "The Pretender," "Gold Dust Woman," and "Yer So Bad" make sense in context, but could well appear idiotic to anyone who wasn't present in the milieu that spawned them (as well as many who were). While the Beatles themselves stand an excellent chance of multi-century endurance, especially now that they have their own version of Rock Band, almost all of those that played with their formula, no matter how successful, will be lucky to end up as historical footnotes. (I still have high hopes for the immortality of Queen based solely on their popularity at ball games.) 

The Andrews Sisters, who were bigger in their day than any recording artist has ever been (Beatles and Elvis included), are already entrenched in footnote status despite the occasional revival of swing music. My generation of boomers had no use for the Andrews Sisters (with the minimally possible exception of the Bette Midler rendition of one of their biggest hits) and I do not see any further interest developing on down the line. Even the eclectic Radio Paradise has not played the Andrew Sisters themselves in over four years.

While I could well write about yuppie music for the rest of the year—there's The Eagles, Steely Dan, Billy Joel, etc.—it is time to move on to other things. Shopping, for instance. Next time, I will continue the yuppie thread with a new, much-overdue installment of "Adventures in Retailing" that will focus on Crate & Barrel.

Copyright 2009 by Miller Risk Advisors. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to