Saturday Night Live’s ham-fisted attempt to shoehorn a Tom Petty tribute into a segment honoring the victims of the Las Vegas massacre created an awkward scenario that may have inadvertently delivered a rallying cry for the very types of people Petty would have opposed were he alive to respond to the tragedy.
For starters, the shootings in Las Vegas and Tom Petty’s passing are two separate events. Both tragic, but there is absolutely no comparison between the horror of 58 American lives lost to gun violence and the untimely passing of a single American artist. Honoring the victims of a mass shooting must take precedence every single time, no matter how beloved and important the artist.
While the choice of Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down”, was intended to be a plea and a pep talk for American unity, in this context it could also be interpreted as a theme song for 2nd Amendment fundamentalists preparing to fight those who they imagine want to strip away their guns and their right to own them.
I cannot imagine what Jason Aldean and his band must be living through, but their performance of the song was rote and formulaic. It’s important that a singer makes an audience believe what he’s saying when singing any lyric, especially one as charged as “I won’t back down”. Aldean’s flat delivery lacked conviction and his band’s playing was tentative, making it hard to believe that they could commit to the song’s promise.
Wouldn’t it have been more fitting to allow Aldean to sing one of his own songs? Maybe the one he was performing at the time the shooting started? Taking that approach would have allowed him to reclaim the song from being forever associated with tragedy. In the wake of the Bataclan shooting, U2 offered its concert stage in Paris to the Eagles of Death Metal to do exactly that.
If Saturday Night Live felt it was that important to honor Petty, they should have done it in a separate segment. Previous episodes have spotlighted artists who passed by going to a commercial break with an excerpt from those artists’ SNL performances. That approach worked for David Bowie, Chris Cornell, Lou Reed and other musicians of stature; it would have served Tom Petty just as well.
I know that some will say Jason Aldean should get the benefit of the doubt in this situation, and I’m not trying to diminish anyone’s right to grieve in whatever way they see fit. But SNL and those who have the ability to present such tributes to a wide audience need to think more deeply about how they use their platform. These two unrelated events, thrown together by an unfortunate twist of timing, resonate to different degrees and for different reasons with everyone. The Las Vegas victims and Tom Petty each need to occupy a unique space within our hearts and minds; they should not be conflated in order to fit the superficial format of a television show.