Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Underrated Superstar

The phrase "underrated superstar" ought to be an oxymoron, but examples aren't hard to find. A lot of people think Keanu Reeves' hit movies find an audience in spite of Reeves without suspecting that the appeal of his quirky line readings and sad-eyed surfer persona might have deepened over the years. And it's tough to think of a more underrated superstar than Kevin Bacon, who's almost always good–and usually great–but never quite gets the attention of his higher profile co-stars. Take another look at Mystic River and notice how it's Bacon that keeps the movie together. He's not exerting his will on the material or grabbing the spotlight. He's just there, doing what he does.

Tom Petty is the rock and roll Kevin Bacon. He's had tremendous hits, earned critical respect and an enormous following but he's never quite made it into the pantheon. Why? My colleague Noel Murray argues that it's because he rarely puts out great albums, just good albums with great songs on them. That might be fair. Another possibility: He's more of a revivalist than an innovator, bringing pop sharpness and the jangling Byrds guitar sound back into rock music in the late-'70s. While punk battled dinosaur rock head on, Petty flanked it.

But really, I think it has a lot more to do with Petty's everyman qualities. Where some rock stars try to appear salt-of-the-earth, Petty achieves it effortlessly. He's not a first-rank rock star because he's never seemed particularly rock star-like. Petty has a memorable cameo in the otherwise as-unmemorable-as-you-suspect movie The Postman playing a post-apocalyptic mayor who may also be Tom Petty. "I know you… Your famous," Kevin Costner's character says to which Petty replies, "I was. Now I'm just the mayor." Unlike some rock stars, it's easy to imagine Petty getting his hands dirty if the shit went down.

But his everyman qualities aren't self-conscious, and they don't protest too much. Unlike John Mellencamp, Petty would never write a song about how he'll be small-town until he dies. They wouldn't make sense next to all those songs about getting away from those small towns. Rock and roll's about escape, not settling down and Petty knows it, even if he's not starry-eyed about it and he always introduces an element of doubt. It's pointedly unclear whether or not his American Girl ever finds what she's looking for and obvious that she's not going to be in good shape if she doesn't. Finding what you're looking for is the subject of another type of song.

Petty's a slyer, smarter lyricist than he gets credit for, as even the first lines referenced in Noel's Inventory piece suggest. He sings from the perspective of a romantic who's been kicked around a few times and who's done some kicking of his own. It takes a few listens to "Free Fallin'" to figure out that it's Petty who's broken the heart of the girl whose name he wants to write in the sky. That line's slightly out of character, however. Despite the name of his band, it's usually Petty getting his heart broken and few male artists have as many songs as deeply empathetic to how women feel as Petty, a line stretching from "American Girl" to "Mary Jane's Last Dance" to "Free Girl Now" and beyond.

Maybe ultimately Petty's not larger-than-life enough for proper rock stardom, despite the platinum albums and sold-out tours. And maybe that's okay. He does his best work down here with the rest of us.