Track of the Day: 'Rockin’ in the Free World'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In my earlier note featuring “Born in the U.S.A.” and “America,” I asked readers if they knew of other songs that convey the kind of complicated patriotism their refrains might betray. One reader who delivers via hello@:

Next in line has surely got to be “Rockin’ in the Free World” by Neil Young. The chorus itself is a great cheer of ambiguity and willful ignorance.

Another reader notes:

You don’t need to read far to get what Neil Young’s saying, but don’t miss the second verse, featuring a hopeless crack addict throwing her infant in a trash can. Uplifting!

Full lyrics below. Here’s some context for the song:

The lyrics criticize the George H. W. Bush administration, then in its first month, and the social problems of contemporary American life, directly referencing Bush’s famous “thousand points of light” remark from his 1989 inaugural address and his 1988 presidential campaign promise for America to become a “kinder, gentler nation.” Despite this, the song became the de facto anthem of the collapse of communism, because of its repeated chorus of ‘Keep on rockin’ in the free world’.

The song 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 Trump's use of “Rockin’ in the Free World” was not authorized.

David Graham covered that controversy back in September. Here are the full lyrics:

There's colors on the street
Red, white and blue
People shufflin' their feet
People sleepin' in their shoes
But there's a warnin' 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,
any way I can.

Keep on rockin' in the free world,
Keep on rockin' in the free world
Keep on rockin' in the free world,
Keep on rockin' in the free world.

I see a woman in the night
With a baby in her hand
Under an old street light
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
There's one more kid
that will never go to school
Never get to fall in love,
never get to be cool.

Keep on rockin' in the free world,
Keep on rockin' in the free world
Keep on rockin' in the free world,
Keep on rockin' in the free world.

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.

Keep on rockin' in the free world,
Keep on rockin' in the free world
Keep on rockin' in the free world,
Keep on rockin' in the free world.