We should think of “Rockin’ In The Free World” as a State of the Union speech given by Neil Young. The song served as an appraisal of Young’s adopted country that he delivered not once, but twice. He opened his 1989 Freedom album with a melodic and deliberate version of “Rockin’ In The Free World,” its unhurried pace ideal for Young’s keen assessment on the striking disparities in Reagan-Bush America. When bringing Freedom to a close, he delivered a lengthier rendition of the song which rocked with intensity, allowing him to articulate what he observed with tremendous passion. It’s something that comes natural for a plugged-in and committed Neil Young. The points he made hit home.
“Rockin’ In The Free World” enumerates the problems America faced in the late ’80s: homelessness, drug-addicted parents, abandoned children, the abuse of the environment and other afflictions, most of them still festering our nation. Young alludes to a society consumed with consuming; shoppers racing to the department stores for trinkets, baubles and whatnot in “styrofoam boxes for the ozone layer.” The restless consumers, as always, didn’t realize the things they owned actually owned them: those things packaged in the styrofoam boxes acquired the souls of the shoppers in takeovers that were less than hostile.
As the well-heeled and the wanna-be well-heeled in America jammed the parking lots of the malls surrounding the interstates, people in other parts of the world, far from any grand shopping experience, not only questioned American values, they questioned American motives and determined, sometimes rightly, that America was a cause of their troubles. The Iranian chant, “Death to America,” from the late ’70s continued to reverberate.
Neil Young surprised many in the early ’80s when he voiced support for Ronald Reagan, a politician who saw America as the shining city on a hill, sharing its bounty with the world, and certainly blameless for any of its travails. By the end of Reagan’s presidency, Young surely gave thought to the political metamorphosis he himself had experienced. Troubled by the indulgence of the Reagan-Bush years, Young likely pondered how Americans were perceived in countries where people struggled to feed and clothe their children. He contemplated the children struggling in America as well, when on “Rockin’ In The Free World,” he grieved for the baby of “a woman in the night near a garbage can.”
Now she puts the kid away
And she’s gone to get a hit
She hates her life
And what she’s done to it
That’s one more kid
That will never go to school
Never get to fall in love
Never get to be cool
In the lengthier version of “Rockin’ In The Free World,” he mocked a George Bush notion, made famous in his speech at the 1988 Republican convention, by singing, “We got a kinder, gentler machine gun hand.” As it turned out, machine guns and much worse would be pointed in America’s direction in the coming two decades. This would mystify and alter the lives of Americans, and not for the better. What happened? Had the world forgotten the Marshall Plan? Didn’t the world appreciate the generosity of our people, individually and collectively, when earthquakes, droughts and famines occurred? And what about Radio Free Europe? It’s no fun not being loved. America was having to deal with ugly truths, many of its own making. The vengeful ugliness that came our way grew from bad to worse, then unfathomable and unforgivable.
On “Rockin’ In The Free World,” Neil Young acknowledged the enmity felt by some toward America. He also noted, in the song’s first verse, how most of us didn’t want to think about it.
But there’s a warning sign on the road ahead
There’s a lot of people sayin’
We’d be better off dead
Don’t feel like Satan
But I am to them
So I try to forget it, anyway I can
On the driving, plugged-in version of “Rockin’ In The Free World,” the chorus, which is simply “Keep on rockin’ in the free world” repeated at least four times at the end of each verse, is all at once a summing-up and a declaration. The vitality and determination in the chorus create a classic rock and roll moment, and it’s even more than that for those who truly love and value freedom. Appreciating, understanding and sharing the true gifts of being free can inspire others to throw off what shackles them. Think back to when Marcos stepped down in the Phillippines or just recently when Mubarak fell from power in Egypt. All around the world those embracing liberty sensed the need to celebrate. The cause of freedom is lifted higher when more people are enabled to join the festivities.
America has rightfully taken comfort in the killing of Osama bin Laden, a tyrant who threatened freedoms long taken for granted. The evil he perpetrated against three thousand innocent victims on September 11, 2001 cannot be, in any way, considered similar to the actions of a freedom fighter or the representative of an oppressed people. Hatred and terror were his only devises in carrying forth a perverted cause. As President Barack Obama said, “the world is now a safer and better place” with bin Laden dead. Americans can feel justified in their relief and desire to celebrate. Still, the threat of terrorism is something we’ll be reminded of with each trip to the airport. Terror has not left the building.
As Neil Young alluded in “Rockin’ In The Free World,” to some, America is Satan. That notion rankles. All the same, resolving to no longer participate in “wars of choice” and to not be so ravenous with the world’s resources can only improve America’s image. Therefore, it’s a good time to realize that our feelings of pride, joy and love of country are not best displayed in gatherings that seem like boisterous frat parties. Along with our joy, there should be moments of reverence as we again honor the courageous actions of those who died saving others on 9-11: the first responders in New York City and the brave passengers of Flight 93. Their faith, courage and selfless bearing reflected the qualities free people hold dear.
In the long run, America’s new-found exhilaration can make the greatest impact as we celebrate the stirrings of democracy in the Mideast, the region where the now-vanquished terrorist first conjured his deadly games. He can no longer exploit those he claimed to be his people. Let us look forward to the day that they too are rockin’ in the free world.