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Neil Young Takes Political Turn in the Song “Rockin’ in the Free World”

Neil Young + Rockin' in the Free World

Together with the band The Restless, legendary country-rock musician Neil Young played “Rockin’ in the Free World” in a surprise performance that astounded the audience of Seattle Seattle’s Paramount Theater on February 21, 1989. The title was inspired by his failed attempt to hold a cultural exchange tour with the Soviets. When Young got scammed by a Russian concert promoter, The Restless’ guitarist, Frank “Poncho” Sampedro said, “I guess we’re just gonna have to keep on rockin’ in the free world.” Young later used the line to compose the lyrics of the song.

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The song was one of the tracks on Young’s third compilation album in 2004, Greatest Hits, and reached No. 2 on the Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Tracks chart. 

Meaning of the Song

In writing “Rockin’ in the Free World,” gruff rocker Neil Young makes an explicit reference to mock President George W. Bush’s political slogan “kinder, gentler nation.” He added sneering lyrics such as “a thousand points of light” and “a kinder, gentler machine gun hand” in response to Bush’s promise. 

Young critiques America’s rampant consumption during the 80s with the lines “department stores and toilet paper” and “styrofoam boxes for the ozone layer.” The record became a protest song against the nation’s politically conservative values and the social inequities of a grim world.

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The folk-rock legend sets an adrenaline-pumping guitar riff paired with vocal growls that demonstrate his anger and resistance to the backward ideas of his nation. The lyrics are an indictment of alarming transitions and problems in American politics during the 80’s, leaving a cautionary note on what the world is becoming.

Pump up your stereo with Neil Young’s performance of “Rockin’ in the Free World” in the music video below.

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