Neil Young’s song “Rockin’ In The Free World” from the album Freedom is one of his most popular, prophetic and important songs.
So on this July 4th weekend, it seems like a good day to reflect on the meaning of freedom, independence and what Neil Young is trying to tell us all.
The song is prominent in director Michael Moore’s film ‘Fahrenheit 9/11′ where “Rockin’ in the Free World” runs over the closing credits. A re-release of the song and a new music video directed by Moore is scheduled for the Summer of 2004.
The song has become an iconic anthem and it’s status continues to rise as more and more artists cover the song. Young’s lyrics are considered to be an indictment of the politics of the 1980’s. The newspaper USA Today called the song:
- “a savage attack on the policies of Ronald Reagan and the
first President Bush … (and) anything but a celebration of democracy.”
On the contrary, a strong case can be made that the song is NOT “anything but a celebration of democracy.” In fact, an argument can be made that the song is very pro-democracy and is a protest song that has advanced the argument about inequities in society. The song is clearly the work of someone who could be called a courageous patriot.
The song’s lyrics contain the lines:
- We got a thousand points of light
For the homeless man
We got a kinder, gentler,
Machine gun hand
The lyrics are a direct reference to President George Bush’s (#41) campaign pledge to create a compassionate citizenry volunteering to help cope with society’s ills. The “thousand points of light” symbolize the American citizen’s spirit and a shining example of giving selflessly to care for one another’s neighbor and brother. Along with “a kinder, gentler hand”, Bush believed that each American could contribute to helping make the United States a better place live and work.
The economic realities of the 1980’s with increasing social problems — such as homelessness and drug abuse — made Young mock the campaign promises of President Bush as hollow rhetoric. The drug problems (“she’s gonna take a hit”) refer to the crack epidemic which swept large American cities during the 1980’s.
The lyrics of “Rockin’ In The Free World” also refer to the rampant consumerism of American culture and the rise of the disposable society based on waste and pollution.
- We got department stores and toilet paper
Got styrofoam boxes for the ozone layer
Got a man of the people, says keep hope alive
Got fuel to burn, got roads to drive.
The lyrics “Got a man of the people, says keep hope alive” refer to the Reverand Jesse Jackson’s signature phrase to “Keep hope alive.” Young contrasts President Bush’s rhetoric and Rev. Jackson’s as solutions to society’s ills, when in actuality, they are nothing more than “feel good” slogans with little results to show.
On June 9, 1989, Chinese authorities confronted student protesters in Tiananmen Square, which led to the deaths of an untold number. From this event, the picture of a student standing before a line of tanks became the image that was broadcast around the world.
Neil Young, upon seeing this photo and video, began commenting before performing “Rockin’ In The Free World” that the song was going out to that “Chinese boy in Tiananmen Square who stopped the tanks.”
Similar to Young’s ’70’s political protest anthem “Ohio”, the song has become associated with peaceful, non-violent protest.
On Saturday Night Live in September ’89, Neil served notice that he was back with a vengeance with his legendary performance of ‘Rockin’. Considered to be one of the most intense live television studio performances ever, Young seemed possessed as he throttled his Les Paul guitar and shredded its strings before the audience. Wearing a Elvis Presley T-shirt, Young seemed to be bridging his 1970’s classic “Hey, Hey, My, My” with the lyrics “The King [Elvis] is gone but not forgotten, this is the story of Johnny Rotten” with the end of the 1980’s and the impending advent of the grunge-alternative music explosion.
In October, 1989, the album Freedom was released to considerable critical acclaim. A review on Pagewise declared: “If ‘Freedom’ is the first true alternative album, ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’ is the first true alternative song.”
Little did critics and fans realize that the album’s signature song soon would be heard around the world.
On November 9, 1989 The Berlin Wall fell and Young’s song lyrics “Keep on Rockin’ In The Free World” could be heard over newscasts of the historic occasion. The song has since been established as a beacon of hope for repressed people throughout the world and a soundtrack for freedom – in it’s every manifestation.
In the music video for “Rockin'”, the performance footage is intercut with scenes of Neil as a homeless person pushing a shopping cart through city streets. As a homeless person, Neil encounters numerous pitiful situations but manages to inject some humor. For example, at one point as he pushes his worldly possessions along a sidewalk, he encounters an elderly woman who he gives money.
Among the many bands performing “Rockin’ In The Free World” are Pearl Jam who have covered the song over 100 times in concert, often as final encores.
Again, during the second war with Iraq, Young featured the song “Rockin’ In The Free World” prominently during encores for the 2003 Greendale tour. The lyrics to the song were altered in the Greendale concerts to: “Boys are dying everyday because we didn’t have a plan”. The additional lyrics were censored for the Farm Aid 2003 broadcast on PBS on Thanksgiving Day.
In the post 9/11 world, the lyrics take on a sinister new meaning:
- ‘There’s a lot of people sayin’ we’d be better off dead.
Don’t feel like Satan but I am to them.’
It is very hard to listen to these words today and think about what they mean to people of various religious beliefs. How could Neil have possibly known the prophetic power which these lyrics hold today?
The song “Rocking in The Free World” continues to be a standard encore for Neil Young’s concerts and most likely will continue as long as there is a need to rock in the free — or more or less free — world.
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