With the Fourth of July right around the corner, it seemed like an appropriate time to cover some ‘patriotic’ songs. More accurately, we’ll be looking at some songs that are frequently misunderstood as patriotic. The one we’ll be looking at today is a classic, “Rockin’ in the Free World”, written by Neil Young.
While there are many people out there who firmly believe this is a “Go Team America” anthem, it’s actually filled with ironic commentary on both American society and the government.
But before we get into the lyrics, let’s take a look at Neil Young’s work, and the historical context in which “Rockin’ in the Free World” was made.
There aren’t that many artists through the years who have been as influential and universally celebrated as Neil Young. Throughout his career, Young has bounced back and forth from folk and country rock to loud electric, brushing up against genres like jam, blues, and rockabilly throughout multiple albums.
The constant threads that run through Young’s work are those of emotional depth, powerful songwriting, and a value placed on honesty and passion over anything else.
Rockin’ in the Free World
“Rockin’ in the Free World” was released as a single for Neil Young’s 1989 album, “Freedom”. The song was inspired by political changes going on at the time, most notably the recent election of George Bush Sr.
As we’ll see when we discuss the lyrics, Young’s songwriting draws from the charged political climate of the time. He takes words straight from presidential speeches and other international affairs, and wraps them in a scathing commentary.
“Rockin’ in the Free World” was a massive success, and went on to become Young’s most famous and widely-received song. In the year of its release, it peaked at the No. 2 spot on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart.
The huge success of “Rockin’ in the Free World” may have something to do with the common misunderstanding of its meaning. When people hear songs playing on the radio, sometimes the only thing they take away is the chorus, and use that to project their own preferred meaning on the song.
We’ve even seen this in recent events, when Donald Trump used “Rockin’ in the Free World” during his presidential campaign. The song was also used by Bernie Sanders in his campaign, who Young supported. But considering his pattern of behavior and level of intelligence, it’s not too surprising that the real meaning flew over Trump’s head.
As always, let’s start off our look at the lyrics by examining the first verse. First verses are key, as they usually set up the context for the rest of the song. And “Rockin’ in the Free World” is no exception.
“There’s colors on the street
Red, white, and blue
People shuffling their feet
People sleeping in their shoes”
In the first few lines, we’re given both the topic and the angle of “Rockin’ in the Free World”. They highlight the colors of the country, while at the same time drawing attention to the suffering and poverty of the time.
In the third verse, Young quotes Bush Sr’s “thousand points of light” speech, which included a move toward a “kinder, gentler nation”.
“We got a thousand points of light
For the homeless man
We got a kinder, gentler machine gun hand
We’ve got department stores and toilet paper
Got styrofoam boxes for the ozone layer”
Neil Young takes the president’s words here and reveals the brutal truth of reality. What he highlights here is that despite the sugar-coating, the problems of American society are still very real.
Another interesting thing to note, is that the problems Young draws attention to here seem to be very similar to the problems we’re facing today. With poverty, police brutality, climate change, and now locking away children in concentration camps, one could argue that things haven’t really changed. It’s another reason why this song is just as relevant today as it was in 1989.
I don’t want to be that guy who ruins the party by talking about politics, but if the Fourth of July isn’t an opportunity to reflect on our nation’s past and present, what good is it really? Celebrating independence isn’t enough when that independence isn’t being used to better the people of the country. At its best, the Fourth of July is a nice distraction. An opportunity to get drunk and light fireworks and forget your troubles.
So if that’s what your fourth will look like, and you end up hearing this song, at the very least remember what it’s actually about. And ask yourself whether it’s worth celebrating at all.
That about wraps up our discussion for today. Tomorrow we’ll look at another ‘patriotic’ song to play while you celebrate the Fourth of July.