It was inevitable that this week’s Saturday Night Live would address the country’s dual tragedies since last week’s show: the mass murder in Las Vegas and the death of Tom Petty. And much like the time they had Kate McKinnon–as–Hillary Clinton sing a Leonard Cohen song to mark the near-simultaneous deaths of Clinton’s presidential campaign and Cohen’s actual physical person, the solution they settled on was a mashup. Jason Aldean, the country singer who was onstage when Stephen Paddock opened fire on concertgoers at the Route 91 Music Festival in Las Vegas, opened the show by performing the Tom Petty classic, “I Won’t Back Down.” First, he offered the following remarks:
I’m Jason Aldean. This week, we witnessed one of the worst tragedies in American history. Like everyone, I’m struggling to understand what happened that night, and how to pick up the pieces and start to heal. So many people are hurting. There are children, parents, brothers, sisters, friends—they’re all part of our family. So I want to say to them: We hurt for you, and we hurt with you. And you can be sure that we’re gonna walk through these tough times together, every step of the way. Because when America is at its best, our bond and our spirit? It’s unbreakable.
Aldean and his band turned in a solid performance of Petty’s anthem of perseverance—although the nearly inaudible background singers suggest they might have skipped the sound check—and the link between the song and historical moment is definitely less thin than it was with Cohen and Clinton. And take it as a given that any performance of any Tom Petty song is moving this week. Still, Saturday Night Live could have gone for a political statement here—they were pretty frank about what happened and why during “Weekend Update”—but instead, made another toothless gesture of national solidarity. There’s no national solidarity to be had on the issue of mass shootings and the tools that enable them: Some Americans want an end to catastrophes like what happened in Las Vegas, some Americans want to hang on to their murder toys at all costs, and there doesn’t seem to be much common ground worth finding. So the next time a late-night show has the opportunity to comment on the gun lobby’s murderous reign and our wholly inadequate cultural and political response to it, through the medium of Tom Petty songs, they might consider “Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It),” “The Damage You’ve Done,” “You Wreck Me,” “Wake Up Time,” “Shadow People,” or, of course, “Two Gunslingers,” which is about laying down arms instead of stubbornly sticking to the same course of action as it leads us all straight to the gates of hell.