August 12, 2009

LesiureRewind: Comprehending the Cultural Standing of Tom Petty and Huey Lewis

Today I'm going to spend my funemployment time writing about two popular bands from the 80's that I enjoy immensely, Huey Lewis and the News and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I have dedicated a significant amount of my leisure time to these guys, listening to their albums, playing their music, collecting their LP's, impersonating them in karaoke, and debating their pop icon status. Although both artists have well-named back-up bands and have produced impressive catalogues of excellent pop songs and creative videos, one is clearly dominating the other today. The question that I will be grappling with is: why does Tom Petty perform in the nation's premiere concert venues, selling out highly priced tickets, while Huey Lewis preforms in a dirt lot built for monster truck shows, free with admission, at the Ventura County Fair?

First lets examine the facts:
Tom Petty has never had a #1 hit single nor a #1 album, Huey Lewis has had 3 #1 singles ("The Power of Love", "Stuck with You", "Jacob's Ladder") and 2 #1 albums (Sports and Fore!). On average Huey's singles and albums rank higher overall.

Tom Petty has never written the theme song to a mega blockbuster movie. Huey Lewis has.

Tom Petty has never starred in a movie. Huey Lewis has.

Tom Petty has never been parodied by "Weird Al" Yankovic. Huey Lewis has.

Huey Lewis is a much better vocalist than Tom Petty.

Based on a list of accomplishments Huey Lewis should be making his acceptance speech the the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame right now, and yet his LP's are banished to the bargain bins at Goodwill, while Petty's are excessively priced collectibles. What went wrong? When the Apatow gang announced that Lewis would be writing the theme song to last year's Pineapple Express, the interwebs were buzzing with the possibility of a Huey Lewis renaissance, but, sadly that plan failed (especially because of the criminal absence of the song from the Academy Award's eligible nominee list). Why? The song was great!

Perhaps the answer to universal Tom Petty love and Huey Lewis ambivalence, lies in the style of their music. The News merge blues, pop, and doo-wap style vocals into synth driven power ballads and pop anthems while maintaining a subtle, cynical sense of humor, often criticizing the culture of corporate America. The Heartbreakers are a "heartland" rock band, often producing simple, acoustic guitar driven, tracks with a message of social injustice. Too put it more simply, Lewis is fun, irreverent, and does not take himself too seriously. Tom Petty is trying to change the world through serious blue collar music. Both philosophies are equally valid and I respect and enjoy them both, however, the populace does not agree.

If you were to make a graph of these two bands careers, you would see Tom Petty's slowly but steadily increasing up until the late nineties where it levels off at a substantial height and never decreases. Lewis's graph would be more like a mountain that reaches it's peak around 1986. There is no doubt that in the mid-80's Huey reached a level of fame higher than Tom ever will, but that is not the case today. The music of the Heartbreakers has permeated even the youngest generations of today, everybody know the chorus to "Free Fallin'", and has ingrained itself into the nation's musical consciousness. It somehow has a transgenerational appeal that may prove to be timeless. The music of the News, however, as was made so evidently clear while I waited in line with the Bluetooth sporting dads to be as close to the band as possible, will most likely die off with Mr. Lewis and will only be remembered in reference to Marty McFly, Doc Brown, and flux capacitors.

Perhaps its the heavy synthesizers, which give the News their distinctively 80's vibe, that make them out-dated and uncool. Or maybe the nation is just into socially conscious music, but I don't think so. I'm pretty sure the average listener is not analyzing Tom Petty's messages of moral decay or recognizing the hidden wit of Huey Lewis. It all has to come down to the music. The News sounds outdated, the Heartbreakers have a simple rock foundation that makes them sound contemporary in any musical climate. Also, both bands emit auras of different kinds of cool, unfortunately, Lewis's style has become somewhat of a punch line these days, while Petty's remains culturally relevant and hip. I obviously knew the answer to my question long before I started this blog post, but it was fun to write about and anyway I can promote the dancetastic, feel-good melodies of Huey Lewis is worthwhile. I guess all I can do to close this post is to tell you to familiarize yourself with both of these fine musicians, if you aren't already, because they are awesome! I can only hope these aging rockers continue to rock long into their Rolling Stones, geriatric ages! And remember: You don't have to live like a refugee and it is, in fact, hip to be square.

Leisure On!


  1. Huey Lewis has starred in a movie, but don't let's forget Tom Petty's sweet cameos in classics like "FM" (as himself) and "The Postman."

    I think the question of vocal talent is much more subjective. It really is tied up in stylistic differences. Huey's soulful rasp is great, but it's no match for Petty's voice when it comes to those "blue collar" tales of heartbreak, frustration, and decay. Maybe that's the key to Petty's enduring hipness--mild depression and artistic suffering are cool, earnest optimism (even when it really isn't) is not.

  2. In a competition judged by music academics based on vocal range, pitch, and tonal purity, Huey Lewis in his prime would win. Obviously which voice you prefer is subjective...of course, now they just sound like old guys.