Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'” Lyrics Meaning
Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'” is a song which apparently has two different meanings or narratives that are rolled into one. The first centers on this concept of the singers and others like him being “bad boys” who break the hearts of “good girls”.
But this isn’t something that he’s celebrating or anything like that. Instead it’s more like a general observation he makes initially, and a regret he possesses later on. Or let’s put forth that on one hand, he relishes the freedom of being able to move around as he pleases. But concurrently he is also “free falling”, a term whose definition is not explained but considering the track’s romantic narrative doesn’t come off as if it is anything good.
Or perhaps the best way of describing it within this context is that the vocalist also perceives the disadvantages of not having any definitive direction or commitment in life.
But again, that is just one meaning of the song. In fact the whole “good girl” storyline came about as sort of a freestyle, not pertaining to any actual relationship Tom Petty had ever been in.
Story Behind “Free Fallin'”
And Genius defines the lyrics as being “an escapist’s ode to Los Angeles”, not even mentioning anything about romance or the “good girl”. And yes, as the story behind the song goes Tom Petty actually conceptualized it based on his daily commute down Ventura Boulevard, a famous street in Los Angeles.
Said locality is even given a shoutout, as with some other locations in L.A. They are present throughout, i.e. making appearances in all three verses.
And that would also be why some of the lines, most notably the first of the second verse, come off sort of like observations made completely out of the blue. And if a listener is more inclined to pay attention to the romantic storyline, which is logical, then they don’t really come to the forefront. But if instead the audience is familiar with these localities, then it would perhaps feel more like a travel song to them.
And the term “free falling” may rather be understood as alluding to the idea, considering the sound of the track and all, to the vocalist enjoying the open road or however it is he deems the freeways of L.A.
What “Free Fallin'” is all about
So conclusively, the simplest way of describing “Free Fallin'” is as it being focused on the narrator’s observation of different places in L.A. But at the same time, his thoughts are largely preoccupied with his relationship with a particular woman whom he knows he did wrong.
Indeed it would appear that one of the reasons he may be idealizing a “free” type of lifestyle, as implied at the end of the third verse, is to escape this feeling of regret and guilt that is plaguing him in regards to the aforementioned “good girl”.
So it’s almost as if the title itself has two different meanings. On one hand, it connotes this sort of chillin’-on-the-road, free-from-burdens’ type of sentiment. But on the other, it’s like the singer is reeling from doing a quality romantic interest wrong.
The vocalist’s fondness of Los Angeles intertwines with strong feelings of uncertainty because he did a resident “good girl” wrong.
Tom Petty and the Release of “Free Fallin'”
The featured vocalist is a singer who made a name for himself as part of an act known as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. The crew stayed together for about 30 years, from 1976 to 2017, even with Petty (1950-2017) concurrently dropping a few solo albums later along the way.
And it was alongside the Heartbreakers that he scored his only Billboard 200 number 1 with the last album they dropped, 2014’s “Hypnotic Eye”. However, that was not his most-successful album commercially. Rather it was Petty’s first solo joint, “Full Moon Fever” (1989), which went quintuple-platinum in the US and sextuple-platinum north of the border.
And that also happens to be the same album upon which “Free Fallin’” served as its third single, via MCA Records, on 27 October 1989.
“Free Fallin’” is also the first song on the playlist of “Full Moon Fever”.
Achievements of “Free Fallin'”
And yes, this track did contribute to the success of the overall project. For instance, it topped Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart stateside. It also enjoyed a gold certification across the pond.
But those do not do full justice to just how popular this song was and is. For instance peaking at number 7 on the Billboard Hot 100, it marks the highest Tom Petty placed on that list throughout his 50-year career, Heartbreakers or no.
Also it managed to make it onto the Hot 100 year-end chart for the entirety of 1990. Or simply put, some people would consider this to be Petty’s signature song.
Indeed Rolling Stone even deemed this to be one of the “500 Greatest Songs of All-Time” in 2003.
Moreover Tom Petty had the honor of performing this tune alongside Guns N’ Roses’ Izzy Stradlin and Axl Rose during the 2008 Super Bowl. And it should be noted that the Super Bowl tends to be the most-watched television program in America perennially.
More Interesting Facts about “Free Fallin'”
Petty also rendered this song once on a 1989 episode of Saturday Night Live, another major venue of exposure for musicians. And he actually did so even though MCA did not want him to. Rather they wanted him to perform “I Won’t Back Down” along with “Runnin’ Down a Dream“, i.e. the first two singles from “Full Moon Fever”, both being songs which, unlike this one, most people probably never heard of.
In fact MCA had sort of a love/hate relationship with “Free Fallin’”. Indeed at one point the label rejected it and the entirety of “Full Moon Fever” altogether. And it wasn’t until six months after the original rejection that they actually saw the light.
Coldplay is on record as covering this song a couple of times. They notably did so once alongside R.E.M.’s Peter Buck in the wake of Tom Petty’s death at the age of 66.
And John Mayer’s 2008 project “Where the Light Is: John Mayer Live in Los Angeles” features an acoustic version of this song. And Mayer’s rendition managed to make it onto the Billboard Hot 100.
But oddly enough, Tom Petty had put forth that he didn’t like this song as much because it “(became) this huge anthem”.
Tom, who hailed from Florida, wrote “Free Fallin’” alongside an English musician by the name of Jeff Lynne. And the two of them also produced the track, doing so in conjunction with a member of the Heartbreakers, guitarist Mike Campbell.
Julien Temple, an English filmographer who sort of specializes in music-related product, directed this song’s music video. And it featured a young Mark “Gator” Rogowski, a professional skateboarder who was convicted of murder a couple of years later, in 1991.