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Just a Southern Boy: The Breathing Poetry of Tom Petty


Published on December 14th, 2017 at 08:20 pm

By Sarah Silvers

Petty’s songwriting in “You Don’t Know How It Feels”, discusses the inherent unfairness of human nature in the most typical form: unrequited love.

There's someone I used to see
But she don't give a damn for me
But let me get to the point, let's roll another joint
And turn the radio loud, I'm too alone to be proud
You don't know how it feels
You don't know how it feels to be me. (3-8)

Petty writes with a tone of frustration and aggression over this unrequited love, specifically through the line, “But she don’t give a damn for me” (4). The word “damn” bears a negative connotation, collectively being used as a term for condemnation and ruin. This usage emphasizes his frustration and pain. Petty also relates how this feeling of lost love inflicts a sense of loneliness, causing him to instate the usage of a coping mechanism when he writes, “But let me get to the point, let’s roll another joint” (5). Petty is, of course, referring to rolling a joint of marijuana, a pain coping mechanism that has proven itself to be widely popular for people who wish to disconnect themselves from the discomfort of their lives. It is within these lines that Petty’s recurring theme of navigating through the obstacles of everyday life is most evident. Petty’s obstacle is loving one who fails to love him in return, and he chooses to navigate this by partaking in an unhealthy coping mechanism, ultimately failing to successfully overcome it. When faced with an obstacle, one immediately experiences fear or shame. Fear tells one to escape the situation, while shame urges one to hide. If the situation causes one to be afraid or ashamed, these emotions get in the way of overcoming obstacles (Hall). In Petty’s lyrics, it is evident how his emotions have limited him in his ability to successfully navigate through his obstacles.

Petty’s writing in “Wake Up Time”, however, focuses more on the tendencies of human behavior as they attempt to protect themselves from the obstacles of life.

You spend your life dreaming, running 'round in a trance
You hang out forever and still miss the dance
And if you get lucky, you might find someone
To help you get over the pain that will come
Yeah, you were so cool back in high school, what happened
You were so sure not to have your spirits dampened
But you're just a poor boy alone in this world. (12-18)

Petty writes with a melancholy, reflective tone, commenting on human behavior from an experienced perspective. As he writes, “And if you get lucky, you might find someone / To help you get over the pain that will come” (14-15), it can be inferred that Petty himself has attempted to protect himself from pain by finding another person to connect with. Feeling pain often causes one to feel helpless. As Petty reflects in his writing, people have a distaste for helplessness, and prefer to mask their helplessness by finding a person who can offer them the validation they need. In fact, people are expected to avoid contexts that they consider conducive to helplessness. One would expect an avoidance of even thinking about realms that evoke feelings of helplessness (Kaplan). Petty further exemplifies the idea that humans try to protect themselves from the obstacles of life through the lines, “You were so sure not to have your spirits dampened / But you’re just a poor boy alone in this world” (17-18). Petty’s usage of the words “poor boy”, indicates that there is a sense of helplessness even in the best of the people who seem the most satisfied. Petty comments on the fact that while the tendency of people is to protect themselves from feeling discouraged, these feelings are inevitable and a constant factor in a person’s life. Furthermore, despite people’s attempts to surround themselves with fulfilling factors such as love, wealth, and success, they are still navigating through life on their own, where hardships are bound to occur. This same idea is reflected in his lines, “Well, if he gets lucky, a boy finds a girl / To help him to shoulder the pain in this world” (23-24). Petty again emphasizes the ideal that humans tend to protect themselves from the harsh pain of life by confiding in and surrounding themselves with other people. People want to participate, to play a role, in what is going on around them; they hate being incompetent or helpless (Kaplan). They have a strong distaste for feeling isolated in their sense of helplessness, and have a tendency to turn to others for validation and guidance.

In Petty’s work “Time To Move On”, Petty writes from the point of view of someone who’s decision to remove themselves from their personal turmoil allows them to live a more fulfilling life.

It's time to move on, time to get going
What lies ahead, I have no way of knowing
But under my feet, baby, grass is growing. (1-3)

In these lyrics, Petty writes with a more sagacious tone, and proves that he is finally able to successfully navigate through the obstacles of life through his understanding that it is time to move on and find something better for himself. When Petty writes, “But under my feet, baby, grass is growing” (3), he is utilizing the saying grass is growing, which means that he is going to act without delay, and not let himself suffer any longer. Understanding that one must move on, is a healthy and beneficial step towards overcoming obstacles (Hall). When Petty writes, “Broken skyline, movin' through the airport / She’s an honest defector / Conscientious objector / Now her own protector” (5-8), it is revealed what Petty is moving on from: damaged love. Petty writes of a broken skyline as a symbol for his damaged love. He then continues to expand on this broken love through his usage of loaded words such as “honest defector” and “conscientious objector” in order to characterize this girl as a deserter and difficult, to emphasize why Petty must leave her behind. We know that Petty must leave her behind for he writes the line that she is “now her own protector” (8), indicating that he no longer will be. Petty further portrays the concept of being able to successfully navigate through life when he writes, “Which way to something better / Which way to forgiveness / Which way do I go” (10-12). Rather than being spiteful about his struggles, Petty attempts to be self healing. He offers himself two directions to go from there, either something better, or forgiveness. Rather than contributing to his helplessness, Petty offers himself quality-of-life-enhancing solutions (Kaplan). Throughout his lyrics, Petty illustrates someone who has the ability to make healthy decisions when it comes to overcoming the obstacles in their life.

Petty utilized his lyrics to portray a truth about human nature that people could find deep relations to. The inherent unfairness and harshness of human nature can be found throughout multiple of Petty’s works. From unrequited love, to living and dying alone, Petty’s expressive lyrics directly reflect the fears and truths every person holds within them. One’s ability to successfully navigate through the common struggles of life is prominent in his work, as he depicts stories of those who turn to marijuana for comfort, and those who find the ability to remove themselves from the turmoil in their lives.

Works Cited

Concepcion, Jason. “How Tom Petty Wrote Songs for Everyone.” The Ringer, The Ringer, 6 Oct. 2017, www.theringer.com/music/2017/10/6/16439034/tom-petty-songwriting.

Hall, Karyn. “Overcoming Obstacles.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 12 May 2016, www.psychologytoday.com/blog/pieces-mind/201605/overcoming-obstacles.

Kaplan, Stephen. “New Ways to Promote Proenvironmental Behavior: Human Nature and Environmentally Responsible Behavior.” Journal of Social Issues, vol. 56, no. 3, 2000, pp. 491–508., doi:10.1111/0022-4537.00180.

“Tom Petty.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 3 Oct. 2017, www.biography.com/ people/tom-petty-201299.

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