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.
The song was written in February 1989, as Neil Young toured the Pacific Northwest. Iran's Ayatollah Khomeni had just issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill Salman Rushdie because of his controversial novel The Satanic Verses and Russia had recently withdrawn its forces from Afghanistan. Meanwhile Young and his guitarist Frank "Poncho" Sampedro, were musing on global events as they traveled to Portland.
"There was supposed to have been a cultural exchange between Russia and United States," Sampedro recalled to Mojo in a 2018 interview. "Russia was getting Neil Young and Crazy Horse and we were getting the Russian ballet! All of a sudden, whoever was promoting the deal, a guy in Russia, took the money and split. We were all bummed, and I looked at him and said, 'Man I guess we're just gonna have to keep on rockin in the free world. He said, 'Well, Poncho, that's a good line. I'm gonna use that, if you don't mind.'"
"So we checked into the hotel in Portland," the guitarist continued. "And we needed a song. We needed a rocker. We'd written some songs and they were good but we didn't have a real rocker. I said, 'Look man, tonight, get in your room, think about all this stuff that's going down - the Ayatollah, all the stuff in Afghanistan, all these wars breaking out, all the problems in America… "Keep On rockin in the free world," you got that: put something together man, let's have a song!' And the next morning, we got on the bus to leave and he says, 'OK, I did it!'"
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.
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
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.
The track was used in Donald Trump's announcement that he will run as a Republican candidate for the 2016 presidency. Young, a longtime supporter of Bernie Sanders, said that the mogul was not authorized to use the song.
Trump's campaign responded by saying it did pay to use Neil Young's tune at the presidential announcement, but won't use Young's music at any future events. "Through a licensing agreement with ASCAP, Mr. Trump's campaign paid for and obtained the legal right to use Neil Young's recording of 'Rockin' In The Free World,'" the statement read. "Nevertheless, there are plenty of other songs to choose from. Despite Neil's differing political views, Mr. Trump likes him very much."
Trump later hit back, posting a photo of him and Young shaking hands, and explaining that Young asked him for financing on an audio deal and invited Trump to a concert. In a Tweet, Trump called Young a "total hypocrite," adding, "'Rockin' In The Free World' was just one of 10 songs used as background music. Didn't love it anyway."