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.


Lyrics submitted by magicnudiesuit

Rockin' in the Free World song meanings
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  • +3
    General CommentThis song, one of Young's masterpieces, is both a celebration and critique of freedom and democracy. The chorus is exultant and cathartic, yet the verses hold a less-than-flattering mirror up to the U.S. as it was when the song was written in 1989. Like Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A.," this song is easy to misunderstand if you only know the chorus but don't examine the rest of the lyrics as well as the context of the era in which the song was written. Some of the references are dated and may need explaining, but the essence of the song still resonates today.

    First, a corrective note on the song's origins. As other commenters have pointed out, Jimmy McDonough's biography of Young, "Shakey," traces the inspiration of the song to a line uttered by guitarist Frank Sampedro, who was on tour with Young in early 1989. According to Sampedro, as he and Young saw news reports of Iranian mourners burning American flags after the Ayatollah Khomeini's death, Sampedro said, "Whatever we do, we shouldn't go near the Mideast. It's probably better to keep rockin' in the free world." Young then asked for and received permission to use the line in a song, and within a few days had created a rough version of "Rockin' in the Free World."

    However, there is a chronological problem with Sampedro's account: Khomeini died on June 3 of that year, but McDonough and other sources assert that "Rockin' in the Free World" was first performed at a concert in Seattle on February 21 -- more than three months before the ayatollah's death. An explanation that makes more sense is that Sampedro simply misremembered the news report that spurred the conversation between him and Young. That is, the flag-burners were not mourning the ayatollah, but protesting the publication of British author Rushdie's novel, "The Satanic Verses," which they viewed as blasphemous. Protests against the book by Muslim fundamentalists came to a head on February 12, 1989, when six protesters were killed by police and scores were wounded outside the U.S. Information Service building in Islamabad, Pakistan, during a violent demonstration against the book's U.S. publication. Two days later, Khomeini issued a call for Muslims to execute Rushdie and anyone directly involved in publishing the book. A shaken Rushdie then cancelled his U.S. book tour and went into hiding as an act of self-preservation. The ayatollah's fatwa had a chilling effect on U.S. booksellers, who were afraid to display Rushdie's book on their shelves. It also spooked many writers and publishers, who when asked to comment on the matter were reluctant to publicly defend Rushdie's right to free speech.

    The timing of the Rushdie affair, with several key events taking place just days prior to the debut performance of "Rockin' in the Free World," makes it -- not the ayatollah's death -- the event likely to have inspired the writing of the song. In the first verse, the "warnin' sign on the road ahead" and "people sayin' we'd be better off dead" represent the ayatollah's fatwa and other threats made against the U.S. by fundamentalist Muslims, and "Don't feel like Satan, but I am to them" is a reference to the ayatollah's labeling the U.S. as "The Great Satan" during his rise to power in the Iranian revolution of 1979 and thereafter.

    The rest of the first stanza sketches a troubled portrait of America. "There's colors on the street / Red, white and blue" evokes the U.S. flag and, by extension, pride in the nation and its people. But it could also refer to the burning of the U.S. flag by anti-American protesters around the globe. Another possible interpretation is that the colors represent gang activity and other problems of the inner city. This interpretation is consonant with the next two lines: there are "people shufflin' their feet" -- i.e., loitering, going nowhere fast -- and others "sleepin' in their shoes," homeless. Regardless of which meaning is implied, the tone is set: this is no patriotic paean to the glories of the U. S. of A.

    The first verse concludes with a reference to anti-Western attitudes, as explained previously, followed by Young's response: "So I try to forget it any way I can." Then he launches into the chorus, which is insistent in its exhortation to "keep on rockin' in the free world." "Rockin'," in this context, is freeing your mind of external troubles and conducting your life as you see fit without regard for what the ayatollah or anyone else thinks. From an artist's perspective, the chorus is a classic plea for the right to uncensored self-expression. More generally, it is a call for Westerners, and in particular Americans, to continue living the way of the free world -- the world consisting of nations with democratic, or at least non-totalitarian, political systems -- and not to be cowed by outside threats.

    But as the next verses show, not all is well and good in the free world. Reading the second verse, in which a drug-addicted woman disposes of her baby in the trash, we encounter a representative of two problems, unwanted pregnancies and illegal drug use, that were all too common in American inner cities during the 1980s. More specifically, the '80s saw the rise of crack cocaine use, and when scientific research suggested that prenatal cocaine exposure could stunt a child's development irrevocably, the children of crack users were labeled "crack babies." Much of that science has been tempered by later findings, but the prevailing fear at the time was that crack babies were destined for impaired lives. Although the child in the song is not explicitly identified as a crack baby, the possibility is strongly implied by the mother's drug use ("she's gone to get a hit").

    "A thousand points of light" in the third verse is an unmistakable reference to then-recently elected President George H. W. Bush, who notably used that phrase in his acceptance speech at the 1988 GOP convention to describe individual American citizens and organizations making a difference through service to their communities. During his time as president, the elder Bush frequently rehashed that bit of rhetoric by inviting exceptional citizens to the White House to award them a Thousand Points of Light plaque for their service. The phrase reflected Bush's conservative philosophy, which emphasized individual agency (in the form of free enterprise and volunteerism) to address society's needs, as opposed to reliance on government programs. In this vein he continued the policies of his predecessor, Ronald Reagan.

    Young doesn't denounce Bush's "thousand points of light" trope, but by juxtaposing it with the homeless man he appears to be questioning its adequacy as public policy. Over the previous eight years the Reagan administration had reduced federal funding to many social assistance programs, thereby creating large gaps in the support structure to be filled by the states, nonprofits, and individuals. One could argue, based on increases in homelessness, poverty, illegal drug use, etc., in America during the 1980s, that the state and nonprofit sectors were ill-equipped to fill the breach. Not that Reagan's economic policies were a total failure -- the U.S. economy as a whole grew during the 1980s -- but the poorest classes of American society did not enjoy the benefits of that growth nearly as much as the highest earners did during that time.

    Even while cutting social spending, Reagan significantly increased defense spending during his time in office, hence the lyric "kinder, gentler machine gun hand," a satirical take on Bush's line "I want a kinder and gentler nation" (also from his '88 nomination acceptance speech). The machine gun reference could also be a dig at the U.S. government's supplying arms to other countries in accordance with perceived U.S. interests. The most infamous case of arms-dealing was the Iran-contra affair of the mid-1980s, which revealed that the U.S. had secretly exported weapons to Iran and to Central American rebels in return for money and the release of American hostages. It was far from an isolated case, though: other nations, such as Afghanistan, also received arms and military support, thanks to American Cold War policies designed to thwart communism at every opportunity.

    To improve conditions for economic growth, Reagan ordered deregulation of industry, including relaxation of the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency to limit environmentally harmful practices by businesses. It's probably inappropriate to lay the blame on the Republicans for the ozone-layer-damaging chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used in Styrofoam ("Got styrofoam boxes for the ozone layer"), because that problem existed for years before it was finally brought to public attention in the mid-1980s, resulting in an international phase-out of the chemicals. However, it's no stretch to state that environmental concerns took on a lower profile in the 1980s as the culture embraced consumerism, which Young alludes to in his references to department stores, toilet paper, fuel to burn, and roads to drive.

    The "man of the people" who says, "Keep hope alive," can only be the black politician Jesse Jackson, who used the phrase often in his speeches. Jackson, a champion of civil rights for the oppressed, was a Democratic presidential candidate in '84 and '88 who attracted a modest share of support, even winning a few primaries, but failed to mobilize a large enough following to seriously vie for the nomination. A skilled orator and organizer, in many ways Jackson continued the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. as a spokesman for racial equality and social justice. But here he gets only a passing mention, his message overshadowed by Bush's rhetoric, the ills of the inner city, and images from the culture of consumption. In a larger sense Jackson represents the diminishment and fracturing of the American left, which had been in decline for some two decades. Even though it still held a majority in Congress, the Democratic Party's fortunes were at a low ebb in the wake of a third consecutive presidential election defeat. The idealism of the 1960s had receded, having been replaced by a more self-interested, pragmatic course in the 1980s.

    Throughout the song, Young refuses to whitewash or to sugar-coat his presentation of America. Instead of praising the virtues of the land of liberty, he holds up to scrutiny the troubles of the urban poor, who are subject to government policies that reward individual agency but do little to improve the lot of the marginalized. He points out the contradiction in America's status as a beacon for peace even as it throws its military weight around by stockpiling weapons and distributing them to other countries, in effect fighting shadow wars. He shines a light on modern consumer culture, with its focus on satisfying individual desires and needs perhaps coming at the expense of civic and planetary responsibility. A subtle line of sociopolitical criticism runs throughout the song, yet Young refrains from overt condemnation, letting the words and images mostly speak for themselves.

    Young leaves us with the sense that freedom is not a panacea, but a double-edged sword that should not be taken lightly. In a democratic, capitalistic society such as the U.S., benefits redound to those who are able to take advantage of their freedoms. Yet those freedoms can also be taken to excess, leading to destruction and tragedy, as painfully illustrated by the case of the drug-addicted mother and her ill-fated child. Free-market capitalism, though clearly a more sustainable economic system than the state-run socialism that was on its way out in 1989, also has notorious drawbacks, among them stark social inequality and environmental degradation. So the song's repeated mantra, "Keep on rockin' in the free world," can be taken as an injunction to exercise one's freedom as a force for good, keeping an eye out for others who may not share the same rights and privileges.
    drewdcon August 28, 2011   Link
  • +3
    General CommentI can't believe how many people have missed the point. The chorus is stingingly sarcastic - the song is attacking the way the US high-fives itself about being the leader of the free world at the same time as it has profound sickness within its society. The versus point out some of the failures and sickness within this society, and some of the ugliest elements of humanity. Then, in the chorus, it is basically saying "but yeah, keep telling yourselves we're awesome and somehow better than everyone else because we declared ourselves so".
    MrBuffleon November 18, 2012   Link
  • +2
    General Commentone more kid that'll never get to fall in love never get to be cool
    bkabbotton August 27, 2012   Link
  • +1
    General Commenti think its a song about homeless people. the rockin in the free world part is kinda sarcastic. its sayin we live in a free country, but it isnt that way for many people
    beemer11on May 15, 2002   Link
  • +1
    General Commenti got the version with pearl jam
    StevieFroon June 05, 2002   Link
  • +1
    General CommentThis song is all about America and its faults. I think the first stanza is mostly about our sometimes oppressive foreign policy. The people saying that we, Americans, would "be better off dead" are people in other countries who have been affected (probably not in a good way) by our foreign policy. The line, "Don't feel like Satan, but I am to them" probably refers to the people in the Middle East who refer to us as "The Great Satan," and who are certianly among those who think we would be better off dead. The second stanza takes aim on our domestic policy, how we neglect the most poor and needy members of our society. The last stanza seems like an indictment of President Bush (the first one) who I assume was the president at the time Neil wrote this song. There are several allusions to his speeches and catchphrases. That's just what i think. The song could actually be about our "sending aid to those f*ckfaces in other countries." Only one man knows the answer for sure.
    Higgs68on March 04, 2003   Link
  • +1
    General CommentThe line 'Keep on rockin in the free world' is half sarcastic and half anthemic as you'd expect it to be.

    It's half about America's external conflict and half about America's internal conflict.

    I think Higgs more or less correctly explained the reference to external conflict.

    It strongly questions America's social values. There's people 'shufflin there feet', when i hear this i always think of a lot of busy black shoes on their way to an office job, walking past the homeless man 'People sleepin in their shoes'

    The second verse raises prostitution and heroin addiction in a heart wrenching scenario. A girl putting her baby in the trash can so she can get another hit.

    The third verse raises environmental destruction.

    The song is about being free, but being free responsibly.
    boozmon June 09, 2003   Link
  • +1
    General Commentstoolhardy: I think you need your hearing examined by a doctor or stop pirating 48 bps MP3s

    OpinionHead: Why? He ended "Bowling For Columbine" with a tune from the USA...

    I wonder why it wasn't included on the Fahrenheit 9/11 soundtrack or equivalent.
    elwyn5150on December 25, 2004   Link
  • +1
    General Commentgreat song, I think we all know what it means. Fuck Fahrenheit 9/11, form your own fucking opinion. I have a feeling Neil Young gives a heads up to Michael Moore for spreading a thought-invoking message, but he's no worshipper.
    fugazion February 07, 2005   Link
  • +1
    General CommentThe newspaper USA Today has called the song:

    "a savage attack on the policies of Ronald Reagan and the first President Bush ... (and) anything but a celebration of democracy."

    On the contrary, a strong case can be made that the song is NOT "anything but a celebration of democracy." In fact, an argument can be made that the song is very pro-democracy and is a protest song that has advanced the argument about inequities in society. The song is clearly the work of someone who could be called a courageous patriot.

    The song's lyrics contain the lines:

    "We got a thousand points of light
    For the homeless man
    We got a kinder, gentler,
    Machine gun hand"

    The lyrics are a direct reference to President George Bush's (#41) campaign pledge to create a compassionate citizenry volunteering to help cope with society's ills. The "thousand points of light" symbolize the American citizen's spirit and a shining example of giving selflessly to care for one another's neighbor and brother. Along with "a kinder, gentler hand", Bush believed that each American could contribute to helping make the United States -- and the world -- a better place to live and work.

    The song is strongly democratic and with pro-American ideals in that it is a condemnation of the supply-side/trickle down politics of President Ronald Reagan. "Reaganomics" involved massive tax cuts in the wealthiest brackets which supporters claimed would trickle down to lower brackets. In fact, the policies led to huge federal deficits and exploding unemployment and social decay, particularly in large urban American cities.

    The economic realities of the 1980's with increasing social problems -- such as homelessness and drug abuse -- made Young mock the campaign promises of President Bush as hollow rhetoric. The drug problems ("she's gonna take a hit") refer to the crack epidemic which swept large American cities during the 1980's.

    The lyrics of "Rockin' In The Free World" also refer to the rampant consumerism of American culture and the rise of the disposable society based on waste and pollution.

    "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."

    The lyrics "Got a man of the people, says keep hope alive" refer to the Reverand Jesse Jackson's signature phrase to "Keep hope alive." Young contrasts President Bush's rhetoric and Rev. Jackson's religion as solutions to society's ills, when in actuality, they are nothing more than "feel good" slogans with little results to show.
    phisherofsoulson November 22, 2007   Link

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