Neil Young’s song Rockin’ in the Free World rose to fame in 1989 in the wake of the George H. Bush administration, and became an anthem for a generation that was dissatisfied with their government and what it stood for. The song’s lyrics reference a nation asleep at the wheel, plagued with social inequality, overlaid with the catchy and ironical chorus. It was this chant that not only garnered a following at home, but released only weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall, became the unofficial and arguably misplaced soundtrack to the fall of communism in eastern Europe.
This week when the song was used to launch the presidential bid of Republican candidate Donald Trump, it left a taste in the mouth so bad it made the Sex Pistol’s branded credit card seem like lemonade. The song’s raw vigour, when contrasting with the toupee-wearing magnate, seems to be so diametrically opposed it is hard to conjure an image where they might intersect. It is like trying to push two magnets together; a basic universal force exists to push them apart.
Young openly came out after the event and assured that the usage of the song was unauthorised. “Had I been asked to allow my music to be used for a candidate – I would have said no,” he declared in the official statement he released on his Facebook page pictured in full below. “Increasingly, democracy has been hijacked by corporate interests. The money needed to run for office, the money spent on lobbying by special interests, the ever increasing economic disparity and the well funded legislative decisions all favor corporate interests over the people’s.”
It begs the question of how the song came to be used in such a contextual faux pas in the first place. It certainly isn’t the first time that politicians have taken the liberty of employing music to win over supporters – Springsteen had a similar spat with Reagan over his song Born in the USA in 1984 when the then presidential candidate clearly misunderstood the song, which at it’s core portrays another critical reflection of the times.
Springsteen says of the track: “In my songs, the spiritual part, the hope part, is in the choruses. The blues, your daily realities, are in the details of the verses. The spiritual comes out in the choruses, which I get from Gospel music and the church.” It feels the same for Young, but this format makes it easy to filter out the message in favour of a driving refrain and is the exact formula that politicians seek.
Earlier this year, the Dropkick Murphys also tweeted at Governor Scott Walker after the use of track I’m Shipping Up to Boston with the statement:
— Dropkick Murphys (@DropkickMurphys) January 25, 2015
So like those before him, Trump and his people may have had no idea what the song really meant to the creator. Or, maybe they did, and decided to use it anyway as a cheap advertising gimmick to garner the favour of an audience, otherwise untapped through the use of buzzwords that resonate little with actual policies of paradigms. One only needs to take a superficial look at Trump’s policies to see the disparity. As an example, in an interview with Bill O’Reilly he says on ISIS:
“I say that you can defeat ISIS by taking their wealth. Take back the oil. Once you go over and take back that oil, they have nothing. You bomb the hell out of them, and then you encircle it, and then you go in. And you let Mobil go in, and you let our great oil companies go in. Once you take that oil, they have nothing left.”
And that is just the tip of a vitriolic and dangerous set of ideas that are clearly manufactured to appeal to a portion of the American public dredged in fear and hatred. In contrast, Young has a strong stance on the environment having released an album about his electric car, another about the Monsanto issue, and just yesterday supporting the recent statement on global warming from the Pope. With that in mind alongside his Rockin lyrics the whole issue becomes a saddening loop. The message of the song rings truer than ever, and the perpetrators employ it to push the very ideals it speaks out against.
We got a thousand points of light
For the homeless man
We got a kinder, gentler,
Machine gun hand
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.
–excerpt from Rockin in the Free World
Unsurprisingly, Trump isn’t the only one using famous songs to win fans. Democratic opposition Hillary Clinton recently used a play on the words from a classic Beatles track to strengthen her case:
“Now, there may be some new voices in the presidential Republican choir, but they’re all singing the same old song…A song called “Yesterday.” You know the one — all our troubles look as though they’re here to stay … and we need a place to hide away… They believe in yesterday.”
All this use of musical diatribe from another time comes while right here in the present the USA continues to grapple with the Charleston shootings, a topic that deserves a conversation all of it’s own. Musicians like Killer Mike, Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco have spoken out, using their platform to broadcast social commentary like those before them. The white placards of Dylan are now easily replaced with those of twitter.
Young signs off in his statement with the mandate to “Keep Rockin’ in The Free World” and we are reminded that music isn’t a currency that can be stolen to buy support. It will continue to be a free market where artists and audiences can exchange commentary on collective issues, in an attempt to make a little bit of sense in this maddening world. A world where another megalomaniacal billionaire candidate runs for the White House, and it’s just another day in the office.