But Petty contends that it shouldn't be viewed as a protest record.
"I never thought of it like that," says the 50-year-old singer and songwriter, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the Heartbreakers in March.
"It's a work of fiction, really. It came about over a long period of time as I was kind of watching American culture -- if that's not an oxymoron -- decay.
"I started to write songs, and this theme started to appear. I thought it was kind of an interesting idea, and I just followed it through."
The lyrics for many of "The Last DJ's" 12 songs belie Petty's claims, however.
The title track, which is also the album's first single, bemoans the fate of radio air personalities who have lost free choice over the music they play and now have to adhere to strict playlists. "Joe" is the crassest kind of record company executive, on the prowl for profits ("Bring me a girl/They're always the best/You put `em on stage/And you have `em undress").
And "Money Becomes King," one of the first songs Petty wrote for the project, takes a broad swipe at the entire industry, from money-grubbing performers to premium-priced concert tickets and even consumers for continuing to buy albums and go to shows despite these practices.
"I didn't want to leave the audience out, and I didn't want to leave the artists out," says Petty, who put the core of the Heartbreakers together in Gainesville, Fla., during the early `70s before moving to Los Angeles in 1974. The group has since released 10 studio albums, while Petty has also recorded two solo efforts.
"I think this attitude of 'We want to make all the money we can make, we want to get every cent that's out there' is dangerous. It's no longer OK to make a healthy profit; people seem to want to make all the money and at any cost -- and no matter what happens to anyone.
"We've all got to kind of come together if we want things to be better. And if the audience is just going to blindly accept what is put in front of them, they're not going to get stuff that's very good."
This is not the first time Petty has bared his knuckles at the music industry. During 1979 he filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy to fight the automatic transfer of his contract in a record company sale. And he withheld his 1981 release "Hard Promises" after his label announced plans to raise its retail list price by $1 to a then-high $9.98.
Because of those stands and a consistently high quality of music, Petty enjoys high integrity amidst his fans and peers. "It's a great band -- and he writes great songs, and they're great players," notes singer-songwriter Jackson Browne, who's opened shows for the Heartbreakers during the past two years.
"They've really just kept doing what they want to do for several decades now. Their agenda is entirely their own."
So it's not surprising that Petty doesn't fear any reprisals from within the industry for the sentiments he expresses on "The Last DJ."
"What are they gonna do to me?" he asks. "I'm at a point of not caring, y'know? I don't have many thoughts about the music industry as a business, per se. I'm fortunate; I'm at a point in my life where that doesn't affect me a lot.
"But as an observer, I think it's affecting the world a lot. I wouldn't want to hurt anyone's feelings; I don't think anyone wants to suck. I just think it's at a crisis proportion where somebody's gotta say something about it."
The music industry isn't Petty's only concern on "The Last DJ," however. Some of the album's other songs posit the redeeming power of love (Petty, who has two grown daughters from his first marriage, recently wedded for a second time). And others -- particularly "When a Kid Goes Bad" and the prayerful "Lost Children" -- express his concern about the state of youth in America today.
"I don't know if kids are being respected enough in America right now," Petty explains. "I see the fashion industry or Madison Avenue; they seem to dress up young women, young girls, to look sexy...the whole Jon Benet (Ramsey), that sort of thing. I think it's very dangerous.
"First of all, it's disrespectful to the children. And second, it doesn't take a lot of brains to see that it could have a correlation to this proliferation of child molestation that's going on. If (children) aren't safe 50 feet from their home -- or in their home for that matter -- I don't think we're doing enough for them."
Petty acknowledges that these are all serious themes for a rock 'n' roll album. But he's actually surprised he's not seeing a greater rise in socially conscious lyrics in light of the current economic malaise and the charged international political climate.
He doesn't claim to have any answers, but he does have a suggestion that he hopes comes through on "The Last DJ."
"I think that maybe peace and love is the answer, and we could use a healthy dose of that in the culture," says Petty, who's launching "The Last DJ" with an Oct. 15 concert at Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles that will be closed-circuit telecast to 36 movie theaters in the U.S. and broadcast on 125 radio stations.
"I think, as a culture, we've taken meanness as far as it can go, but truth and love is endless, and a much greater power.
"I think there's a lot to tell people about just how valuable it is to care about other humans, and it's a good time, I think, to talk about love -- even if it seems a little corny."
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