Why Tom Petty’s Death Might Feel Like You’re Losing A Part Of Who You Are

It's about feeling connected to people you've never met.

Photo courtesy of Flickr.

Tom Petty, the iconic Southern-meets-California rocker, is dead at 66.

He was, as Quartz’s Jenni Avins notes, one of the few cultural figures that urban liberals and heartland conservatives could agree on. 

The comedian Marc Maron may have captured it best: “Everybody loves Tom Petty and burritos,” he said in a recent standup special. “I don’t think Petty is enough to bridge this gap. I just don’t think that he has this power at this juncture.”

Petty, who was hospitalized after a heart attack in his home in Santa Monica, California, was the fifth-biggest artist in classic rock. One in every forty songs you hear on classic rock radio come from Mr. Petty and his Heartbreakers—including “I Won’t Back Down,” “You Wreck Me,” and, my personal favorite, “Free Fallin.’”

If you feel a great sense of loss around Petty having left this plane, it’s because, as social scientists call it, you have a “parasocial relationship” with him. The sociologists Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl coined the term in 1956. They used it to describe the “intimacy at a distance” that fans have with musicians, actors, and other artists and celebrities. (If only Horton and Wohl were around to help us make sense of Instagram.) More recently, academics argue that the icons we relate to become a part of our identity—being a Tom Petty fan means something to you. He’s a part of who you are.

The New Yorker’s Nicholas Dawidoff said in a column two months ago that Petty trafficked in an “aggrieved feeling of victimization.” Indeed, it’s hard to make it through adolescence—or much of adulthood— without feeling victimized at some point. The brilliance of Petty was mixing bright chords and big hooks with simply stated, widely accessible emotional expressions. It’s popular rock in the best meaning of the term: “You don’t know how it feels to be me” and “I stand my ground / And I won’t back down.” Everybody faces challenges, everybody wants to find ways to overcome them. Petty put those feelings into words you can sing along to. And we will be for years. 

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