This was inspired by the political changes going on at the time, and was highly critical of the George Bush presidential administration (the first one). Some of the lyrics mock Bush's campaign speeches: "We got 1,000 points of light, for the homeless man," "We got a kinder, gentler machine gun hand."
This was released a few months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. It became kind of an anthem for the event as freedom spread through Eastern Europe.
Frank Sampedro, who was in Young's band Crazy Horse, came up with the title when he and Young were watching Chinese protests on TV. Sampedro said their tour should just "Keep on rockin' in the free world."
Young used members of his former backing group The Bluenotes to record this.
Young performed this with Pearl Jam at the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards. He would join Pearl Jam on stage from time to time over the next few years. Additionally, they would collaborate to write and record Young's 1995 album Mirror Ball.
Young performed this at the 7th annual Bridge School benefit in 1993 with all the artists involved joining Young on stage to close the show. Young puts on the concert every year for the school, which serves children with special needs.
Pearl Jam has used this as the closing song in many of their concerts. The band has played several times at Young's Bridge School concerts, as has lead singer Eddie Vedder solo. (thanks, John - Lancaster, CA)
Neil Young played with Pearl Jam on 1995's Merkinball, a 2-song EP that featured the songs "I Got ID" on one side and "The Long Road" on the other. Merkinball was a case of Young returning the favor to Pearl Jam. They had served as his "backing band" on his 1995 album Mirrorball. Contractual stipulations prevented Mirrorball from being credited to both artists and recognized as the collaborative effort it actually was (The name "Pearl Jam" was not legally allowed to appear on either the album's cover or within its liner notes). "I Got ID" and "Long Road" were actually recorded during the Mirrorball sessions. (thanks, Tony - Sunshine Coast, Qld, Australia)
The song is on occasion used as a pro-America anthem, which ignores many of the ironic overtones of the lyrics. While the chorus does seem to celebrate the United States, it's juxtaposed with grim verses which paint a haunting portrait of life in modern America - the song is sometimes interpreted as a critique of the "keep on rocking in the free world" sentiment that US citizens use to ignore global problems that don't concern them.
Much like his seminal "My My, Hey Hey"/"Hey Hey My My" counterparts, the widely known version of "Rockin' In The Free World" is a loud, electric reprise of a stripped down acoustic version which opens the album.
This appears in the videogame Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock.
Rolling Stone rated this #216 on their 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list.
It also appears in the Michael Moore documentary Fahrenheit 9/11.