Tom Petty Had an Improbable but Lasting MTV-Era Impact
When MTV launched in the early ’80s, a whole new dimension was introduced to the music industry’s concept of artist promotion. No longer was an infectious chorus or an exhaustive tour schedule enough to catapult an aspiring newcomer to stardom. Physical appearance had to be considered, as well.
It’s sensible then that the network became the favored stomping grounds for Madonna, Michael Jackson, and airbrushed new-wave bands. But what about the defiantly gimmick-free, rugged Americana of Tom Petty? That he was also able to command a dominant space on MTV’s massively manicured airwaves is remarkable in retrospect.
MTV went on air in August of 1981. Hard Promises, Petty’s fourth studio album with the Heartbreakers, had just arrived – further solidifying his standing as both an established rock act and an evocative storyteller. At the same time, the rebellious raconteur was also an old hand at video production, having developed conceptualized clips for singles dating back to Damn the Torpedoes from two years prior. “A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me),” his fourth music video, was produced before MTV’s emergence.
Petty ultimately inhabited the format as naturally as he did the charts, even if MTV’s cultural aesthetic might have suggested a narrowing market for his brand of tradition and unvarnished authenticity. He went on to collect a trio of MTV Video Music Awards between 1985 and 1995.
That adds another layer to Tom Petty’s remarkable story. Even before his sudden death, Petty had long been praised for his wealth of culturally lasting songs – and deservedly so. He also had a similar impact on ’80s video culture.
Taken from Damn the Torpedoes, there’s hardly a better visual introduction than the “Refugee” video. Weaving through back alleys and stairwells, Petty gives the camera a performance that isn’t meant to oversell. It’s one that can only be described as authentically Tom Petty.
“You Got Lucky”
“You Got Lucky” marked Petty’s evolution from the straightforward performance-based videos he’d constructed up to this point. Opening with an ominous score absent from the album version, the Mad Max-inspired clip finds Petty and guitarist Mike Campbell ambling around a post-apocalyptic desert, where they happen upon some familiar faces. This was the beginning of Petty’s mastery of the form.
“Don’t Come Around Here No More”
Memorably borrowing from Alice in Wonderland, the warped visual narrative of “Don’t Come Around Here No More” made for one of the MTV generation’s most iconic videos. The concept was inspired by the Eurythmics‘ Dave Stewart, who appears in the video as a hookah-smoking caterpillar. Petty, appropriately cast as the mischievous Mad Hatter, introduces us to a madhouse of of stylish surrealism that won his first VMA.
“Runnin’ Down a Dream”
Inspired by the Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, director Jim Lenahan echoed the cartoonist’s drawing style for Petty’s first predominately animated music video. Petty, accompanied by McCay’s Little Nemo character, runs through a Slumberland world that’s immediately recognizable from the classic comic.
Less a listless outlaw and more a spiritual guardian, Petty narrates the romances of “Free Fallin'” while watching over his subjects in peachy California suburbia. A sunny counterpart to the “Don’t Come Around Here No More” dreamscape, the atmosphere of the “Free Fallin'” video is magically serene.
“Yer So Bad”
The fifth music produced for Petty’s solo debut Full Moon Fever, “Yer So Bad” brings to life the dysfunctional narrative told through the song’s lyrics. Sharing in the spirit of the video for “Free Fallin’,” Petty’s gift for storytelling is animated by a visual interpretation that casts a tragicomic tint over an otherwise harrowing tale.
“Learning to Fly”
Directed by English punk-rock documentarian Julien Temple (The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle), the dreamlike “Learning to Fly” video mingles rural banality with glimpses of seductive glamor. Shots are interspersed with Petty caught in his natural state: coolly strumming an acoustic guitar in a Western dress hat, a vest and shades.
“Into the Great Wide Open”
Produced in between shoots for the 1993 feature film Arizona Dream, the “Into the Great Wide Open” video borrowed two of its stars, Johnny Depp and Faye Dunaway. Another of Petty’s several visual collaborations with Julien Temple, this video depicts Depp as Eddie Rebel in Hollywood searching for – and then losing – rock stardom.
“Mary Jane’s Last Dance”
A standout among the many Tom Petty videos featuring celebrity performances, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” sees Kim Basinger as corpse, the subject of Petty’s (presumably) licensed mortician. The storyline that unfolds looks far better on screen than on paper. The video earned Petty his second MTV Video Music Award.
“You Don’t Know How It Feels”
In contrast to the visually striking “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” Petty’s third VMA-winning video exercises a far-subtler approach to surrealist trickery. For “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” Petty is fixed in one spot, performing before a camera that pans slowly but never away, ultimately revealing different background settings.