The Impact of Tom Petty & the Legacy He Left Behind

By Catherine Frederick on October 8, 2017

Tom Petty’s music was often the background music of my childhood. On long car rides with my family or in peaceful, timeless moments on vacation, there was Tom Petty music drifting out of the speakers as if carried on the breeze.

We always listened to my father’s music when I was younger. It was the same music my mom listened to, too, but my dad was the one who found his perfect sound system and who carefully created playlists and who, for years, had a first generation iPod—the kind with the little wheel—plugged into his car, always ready to play music the moment we’d made it onto the highway.

My dad has a lot of the classics; The Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, Simon and Garfunkel. Wherever we went, quality music came with us, and later in life, I would remember sitting on the bleachers during a tennis match and discussing the music our parents listened to and that we loved with my teammates. A mom from the other team would break in, and she’d tell us how impressed she was that we even knew who some of these artists were. But, much like me, my teammates had grown up listening to the music that their parents had defined themselves with, and, in turn, this music defined us, too.

When I was 13 or 14, I was watching the show Scrubs. It’s a comedy show about working in a hospital. Scrubs always had an amazing musical score. In one episode, there was a character, a woman named Elliot Reid, who was at a rough point in her life. (I’d like to reiterate that I was 13 or 14, so that felt pretty relatable.) Elliot was having a run of bad luck, and her self-confidence was in the gutter and people were walking all over her. But that was all ending in this episode. Elliot was getting what was essentially a makeover montage, but instead of putting on makeup and realizing that she was pretty the whole time, she cuts her hair and tosses aside the parts of herself that she’s put forward so that she would be inoffensive and socially acceptable, and at the end of her makeover, she walks tall and she refuses to back down to things that would have intimidated her only hours before. I mention this, because this transformative montage took place to the tune of Tom Petty and The Heartbreaker’s American Girl. That was a big moment for me. Here was this smart, beautiful woman who shed all of her doubts and all of her insecurities and decided that she was done with being what everyone else needed her to be. That song, to me, will always carry the connotations of throwing off the opinions of others and breaking through walls and roadblocks that you’ve put in your own way, so that you won’t be an inconvenience to others. And I associate Tom Petty with that, too, and for that I’ll always be grateful.

Music defines you. The music that a generation listens will, consciously or unconsciously, define the generation that consumes it. Musicians, therefore, pave the way for an entire generation. They carry a heavy burden, and sometimes they do their job well and sometimes they do not. After all, no generation is perfect (sorry, Mom and Dad), and so there will be musicians whose music may reach us, but they will reach the worst parts of us. But with every generation, there are people who stand out. Bob Dylans and Kurt Cobains and Elvis Presleys. Tom Petty was one of those people. His music was more than just a passing fad or simple words pandering to a generation of restless, ambitious 20-somethings. When a musician is truly great, their words transcend generations. If music truly speaks to human nature, then the words will be as true to one era as it is to the next.

I want to thank Tom Petty for laying down the groundwork for a better generation. I’d like to thank him for doing his part in shaping me and people like me. People like Tom Petty, who rise to the top and who become known on a large scale, have an impact of society, the breadth and scope of which is impossible to predict. While they may not get into whatever industry to become role models, it is often an unintended side effect. They change the world unconsciously. We all do, really. Through our actions and our words, we all irrevocably change the world. Some of us more so than others. So, I want to thank Tom Petty for leaving the world better than he found it, which we should all strive to do.

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