Is America willing to spend its hard-earned cash to hear a rock star rail about how craven pop culture has become? Tom Petty is about to find out.
On his acidic concept album, The Last DJ, which arrives today, the famously laid-back Florida-born rocker bemoans an entertainment industry with executives whose mantra is, "You get to be famous, I get to be rich."
In songs plainspoken and devastatingly direct, Petty laments the corporatization of radio and the greed that stunts artistic careers, the false worship of American Idols and the profit-at-any-cost orientation that derailed Enron and, he believes, exists throughout the business world.
"It's reached absurd levels," Petty said of the cynicism that pervades the entertainment industry. "When you're creating your pop stars on a game show on TV, you know something's wrong. Not only are you really insulting people who have put their [lives] into their art," he said, but it cheats the audience.
"We've had generations and generations who have lived with less and less quality in art. As a result, their expectations aren't very high. ... Corporations like America as dumb as it can possibly be, and that's hurting us, as a people and a culture."
Petty's concerns have been voiced by many artists of late, but he is among the first to address them in his music. Several songs on The Last DJ take up issues specific to the music industry. The title track complains about radio conglomerates that stifle innovation with restrictive playlists and endless focus-group research, while "Money Becomes King" derides fat-cat "golden circle" concert seating.
Petty says he was inspired to write the latter - which has a fan in the nosebleed seats looking at his favorite artist on the Jumbotron and observing, "I saw his face in close-up, trying to give it all he had/sometimes his eyes betrayed him, you could see that he was sad" - after watching VIPs in the exclusive seats near the stage.
"These people really aren't that interested in the show," observed Petty, 51, who says there will be no high-roller seating on his forthcoming tour.
They're "trying to show they're above anybody else, like they have some edge on other people. A rock concert is the last place we need to see that. In the '60s, that vibe would have been laughed at."
For all of Petty's dismay, expressed in elegant couplets and deliberately off-key ravings that lampoon the unctuous patter of executives, it would be a mistake to think he is just railing about one industry.
"You could substitute any business. We have the mentality out there today of wanting to make any dime possible in any market endeavor. The idea of doing something creative and good is acceptable [only] if it brings in the cash ... no matter what the cost to our self-esteem."
Though he concedes it's difficult for middle managers to defy the party line, he believes the quest for profit has rendered qualities such as character and integrity meaningless.
"Look at TV. They would give a mass murderer a weekly show if he got ratings. What's missing are the humans in the chain looking at the choices, saying, 'Maybe there's a connection between these images of teen-age girls we put out and the rise in child molestation.' We're losing the people who will stand up to the corporate boards sitting way up in the sky and say, 'I'm not going to do that.'"
The rocker - whose 1976 debut album yielded the AOR staples "Breakdown" and "American Girl" - says he wrote most of The Last DJ on piano. And as the writing progressed, he knew that the album would have a sound different from anything he'd done before.
Many tracks utilize a full string section, and there are times, on gorgeously rubato tracks such as "Dreamville," when the characters' reveries of a bygone age are reinforced with neo-psychedelic atmospheres miles from the rock-guitar grind. Petty, who wrote the "Dreamville" string arrangement, says the tunes are intended as a respite from the CD's more strident material.
"I had to be very careful that the album wasn't just a whine or a negative experience. The issues are personal, too, and I wanted them to feel that way."
And, he said, he refrained from sharing everything he thinks about the life that's being squeezed out of music.
"When the rulebook is applied to something that's artistic by nature, whatever it is can't grow. It becomes stagnant. You see it very plainly in music: These executives only want young acts that are willing to be molded and play the game without questioning anything. ... The performers in what they call 'rock' these days, they're exactly the people you got in a rock band to get away from."
The Last DJ (Warner Bros.) * * *