It’s easy when a song like Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” comes on the radio to roll your eyes and think, “What a lame, overplayed song.” As the familiar opening chords strum out, it’s easy to wonder how a song this ordinary, albeit catchy, could persist for so long when Petty has an entire catalog of better songs. It’s easy to realize that even Petty’s better songs are kinda cheesy, in the way that you roll your eyes and smile knowingly when you catch yourself enjoying them.
It could be how reliable the song is. It creates a framework in its opening moments. It tells you straight up, “This is gonna be a sort-of bittersweet song about remembering a girl I left behind to become a rockstar.” It expands on that theme a bit when it gets to the weird verse with the convoluted vampire imagery, but it doesn’t stray too far for comfort.
Maybe it has to do with the melody, how pleasant it is. Each movement of the song adds another simple layer or dynamic. We start with the acoustic guitar and Petty’s unmistakable voice, and some light notes from the bass. Ater the first verse, the drums kick in, the bass gets groovy, and they provide that calm rhythm that drives the thing forward. By the time the first chorus hits and the tambourine layers atop the beat, it’s genuinely hard not to tap your foot or bob your head, or at least make the decision not to. And the verse where the drums break down to that snare roll? Come on, that’s classic.
It’s easy to like a song like “Free Fallin’,” no matter how lame it is. It’s easy to forgive it for that cheesy ass music video. It’s easy to realize, even if you don’t like it, “Okay, I guess it makes sense that this song is so popular.”
It’s easy to remember when you were a kid, maybe five or six years old, and your mom was in the kitchen listening to “Free Fallin’” and making dinner. You don’t have many memories from this period, and even this one is vague, but you remember the smell of the roast beef, or the meat loaf, whatever it was. You remember the growling in your stomach as you anticipated the meal that awaited you on the other side of an hour. And for some reason, you remember very specifically that the soundtrack was Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’.”
It’s easy to remember the time you drove a friend home in high school and got on the wrong highway and accidentally ended up in Pennsylvania. The station on your grainy little radio played “Free Fallin’” three times in the three hours it took you to get home. It was easy at the time to swear vengeance on Tom Petty for writing such a contrived piece of crap.
Or when your friends took you to the diner the night you got dumped and “Free Fallin’” was playing when you guys walked in. Or that one bizarre party at the rowing team’s house during your freshman year of college wherein everyone went bananas when “Free Fallin’” came on the radio.
Like it or not, you realize “Free Fallin’” has been a part of your life at every stage thus far. Perhaps not a constant, like your family or your super good friends, but an acquaintance that pops up every now and then. You don’t seek one another out, but when you happen upon each other you smile and say hey, and every interaction is perfectly familiar.