Released in 1985, “Southern Accents” is regarded as one of the few failures in Tom Petty’s checkered career. The consensus was that he bit more than he could chew, as he tried to write a conceptual album about the South just to end up painting a sort of contemptible caricature. Now, I am also a Southerner – but from another part of the world. As you know, I live in a country named Uruguay, tucked at the bottom geographical end of South America. That puts me in an interesting position since I can easily understand how certain traditions and conventions are easy to be mocked by people from other parts of the continent, and even the whole world.
I would feel a little miffed if some local musician recorded a conceptual album about people who drink mate and eat dulce de leche indiscriminately while talking about past achievements as far as soccer is concerned. For your information, in that sentence I mentioned our natural infusion (“mate”), one of the endemic dairy products of the country (“dulce de leche”) and I referred to one of the pet themes of conversation among old and young people alike: preterit soccer successes (with Uruguay’s defeat of Brazil in 1950 at Maracaná preeminently among them).
I would be miffed if that happened because setting that down as an album would only perpetuate an image of the country that most people (notably the younger generations) try to elude.
Or do they? As much as some mock drinking mate, when we are traveling abroad and we see someone with a thermos flask (something essential for drinking mate) underneath his arm then we rush to embrace him, proclaiming eternal friendship and a bond that will last through generations to come. And as much as some claimed to hate the talk about soccer, they were the first to post images and slogans on their Facebook profiles about Peñarol (one of the two giants of Uruguayan soccer along with Nacional) when FIFA named it the best team of the 20th Century.
So, there are aspects of every culture that lend themselves to constant mockery. It happens in Uruguay, it happens in England and in happens in Dixie. Yet, if these very same aspects are so prominent it is because they define the way in which people there have always visualized the world. An older generation reveres those things, but the one who comes afterwards looks askance on them. They see it all as a foot rooted in the past, and however brilliant (or not) that past was they just feel the urge to carry on. In a certain way, I guess it is a dialectic process – a source of pride ends up begetting a source of contempt. And (in direct dialectic manner) that source of contempt gives way to something veritable again. And the process of associations and oppositions always revolves around the same items. And those items are like sacred cows. We can talk about them, we can joke about them and it is okay – as long as we are the ones making the jokes. But woe betide the foreigner who makes fun of us based on them.
This introduction was necessary for understanding why an album like Petty’s “Southern Accent” rubbed people the wrong way. Capturing stereotypical elements on a piece of vinyl opens the door to foreign perceptions that end up being a total affront.
Couple the above with the fact that the record is A) the most ‘80s album of his career, and B) the slickest-sounding album he issued, and then the reason why “Southern Accents” failed to connect with punters like previous albums did is more easily discernible.
Continue to part 2: “Southern Accents” analyzed song by song.