When Tom Petty Presaged the #MeToo Movement

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In the 1990s, Tom Petty continued to add to his canon as one of the great American rock songwriters of his generation. As the decade came to a close, a new Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album arrived on April 13, 1999. Echo was the first studio album from the band since 1991’s Into the Great Wide Open. (Yeah, we know… 1996’s She’s the One album is a band effort, but it’s a soundtrack to the Ed Burns film.)

Echo features some terrific Petty compositions including the underrated lead track, “Room at the Top,” and the melancholy, “Swingin’,” the latter of which makes clever references to such “swingers” as Glenn Miller and Sonny Liston.

And then there is “Free Girl Now.”

The song starts innocently enough, with those jangly guitars and a shout from Petty: “Hey!”

The narrator gets right to the point: I remember when you were his dog, I remember you under his thumb.

In the next verse: I remember when he was your boss, I remember him touching your butt. Yeah honey, you had to keep your mouth shut.

Whoa! Echoes of the #MeToo movement. But, wait… that wouldn’t take hold until October 2017, nearly two decades later (and ironically the very month of Petty’s untimely death). #MeToo had a groundswell that autumn with the accusations against Hollywood studio chief Harvey Weinstein, who was found guilty of many charges on Feb. 24, 2020, and it’s continued ever since as more victims of sexual harassment and assault have come forward against their predators, all over the world.

Petty, in the official live video for “Free Girl Now”

Back to “Free Girl Now.” After the bridge, the tempo slows. Petty’s vocal stands out over the spare instrumentation as he sings: No longer will you be a slave, no longer will you have to craaaawl. No longer will you suffer.

And then it begins to build again, with the super tight band rocking out. When you walk from the table, no longer will you bow down.

Hey baby, you’re a free girl now, he sings over and over.

Listen to the studio version

Petty’s wife, Dana York Petty, has acknowledged that her husband wrote “Free Girl Now” about an experience she had.

She tells us, “He wrote this song about my boss who was sexually harassing me. He’d say he was going to walk in and pick me up and carry me out of there, like the final scene in the film, An Officer and a Gentleman. (He would have too! He was totally serious.) Oh, how I loved that man of mine! My protector. 💪🏼❤️ ”

She later added, “I am confident [TP] would have brought the song back out during the start of the #MeToo Movement. He was a big supporter of equal rights.”

It appears that “Free Girl Now” wasn’t included in Heartbreakers’ setlists for decades. The band’s 40th anniversary tour, which ended September 25, 2017, exactly one week before Petty died, presaged the #MeToo movement. We’ll obviously never know if he would’ve added it to future setlists.

Watch the official live clip of the song from way back when

Thanks, Tom.

Echo was Petty’s tenth studio album with the Heartbreakers, and the last with bassist Howie Epstein who died in 2003.

Petty’s extensive recording library is available in the U.S. here and in the U.K. here.

Greg Brodsky

4 Comments so far

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  1. Steve G.
    #1 Steve G. 27 August, 2019, 15:10

    After the Echo Tour of ’99, he never again played any songs from this album. Not because he didn’t like the album, but because it was made during the darkest period of his life, including the end of his first marriage and the drug and alcohol problems that came with that. Still, this is one of my favorite albums.

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  2. Bomber
    #2 Bomber 25 February, 2020, 11:30

    A track on the Eagles album Long Run titled The King Of Hollywood could have easily been about Harvey Weinstein or any other sleaze bag director/producer.

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  3. Bob Sled
    #3 Bob Sled 14 April, 2022, 13:56

    As the article mentions, the last album with Howie; some may not notice Howie’s absence on the album cover photo – as a testament to his substance struggles, Howie missed the photo session.

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    • Chris
      Chris 14 April, 2024, 02:19

      Yes, I heard that about Howie and the album cover. One of my many concerts with Petty and the Heartbreakers was in Scranton, PA in June of 2001 and Howie almost didn’t make that concert. Tom even joked when introducing the band that Howie was just fresh out of the shower. Little did we know at that time he was arrested hours before the show and just made it in time after taking a flight from New Mexico. Sad. Miss his vocals.

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