Protest Song Of The Week: ‘The Last DJ’ by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Singer and songwriter Tom Petty penned a quadruplet of songs on corporate consolidation, the greed of music industry executives, and its impact on artists and fans. Of the four, “The Last DJ” is the most enduring but each song had quite a bit of edge.
Recorded in 2002, in the first two years of President George W. Bush’s administration, “The Last DJ” appeared on the album of the same title. It was apparently inspired by disc jockey Jim Ladd, who at the time was regarded as “the last commercial freeform jock working” in the United States. [Ladd was laid off in 2011.]
“It’s a story about a D.J. who becomes so frustrated with his inability to play what he wants that he moves to Mexico and gets his freedom back. The song is sung by a narrator who’s a fan of this D.J.,” Petty told journalist Jim DeRogatis in a 2003 interview.
The lyrics celebrate a DJ, who cannot be turned into a “company man” or a “whore.” The “top brass” don’t like him cause he talks so much. He will not play the songs they tell him to play.
In the chorus, Petty sings, “And there goes your freedom of choice / There goes the last human voice / There goes the last DJ.”
Petty’s indictment of corporate control over radio was banned by several radio stations controlled by Clear Channel.
“When I wrote that song, I swear I didn’t know much about Clear Channel, and I certainly wasn’t aiming it at any particular corporation. The words ‘Clear Channel’ never come up in my song, and I learned more about them when I started being banned by ’em! That’s when people came to me and explained,” according to Petty.
Petty added, “I thought that the disintegration of radio, where it pretty much became a joke, happened decades before this. In my mind, it started going downhill in the late ’70s, when I was also enjoying hit records, but that didn’t make me believe that radio was getting better.”
And, “I was fascinated the very minute the album came out and it was being banned. I have to admit, I was really pleased by that in a way because I thought, ‘I must have done something good, because there’s no dirty words, no violence or anything.’ If these people saw themselves in this work of fiction, it was like, ‘You’re all naming yourself; I certainly didn’t do it!'”
During the interview with DeRogatis, he insisted that the album, including “Last DJ,” was more metaphorical. The stories and direct jabs against “company men” were supposedly driven by a general decline of humanity in the world.
“Money Becomes King,” “Joe,” and “Can’t Stop the Sun,” each carry a tone evocative of the deep-seated resentment toward the Bush administration during the era. Yet, while Petty may have been incensed by the political moment, he was rather abstract when talking about issues. He even told DeRogatis that his style is not to get too specific about a problem.
“We went on a tour last summer and virtually sold every seat on the tour. And then I see the listings of the top tours and we’ll come in around 20,” Petty said. “The reason we come in like that is that it’s based on how much money the tour earns, and a lot of these acts are charging 100 bucks or more. I think our top ticket was $60 or $70–really low compared to everyone else–and we also had a scaled-down version where if your seats were further back, you could pay less. And you know what? We do fine. We take home plenty of money.”
Petty could rail against corporate control over music and how it was destroying what had made business vibrant because he cared enough about his fans to make sure he was not just playing to rich people at his concerts. He did not want to use his music to sell products to audiences. He was concerned with authenticity and finding freedom through exploring how a record could be textured and less interested in commodifying his band’s work.
That one radio station would only play rock n’ roll music and another only hip-hop, creating silos in music, didn’t sit well with him. It limits the freedom to curate playlists.
He said what he wanted to say and played what he wanted to play, even as the world around him across all sectors increasingly imposed restrictions on independence, showed less tolerance for dissent, and granted more power to management to leech off the people who do the work that keep them wealthy.
Listen to “The Last DJ”: