Free Speech

My My, Hey Hey, Neil Young's Songs Are Here To Stay (Just Not on Spotify)

Three and a half lessons about Neil Young, Joe Rogan, Spotify, and our age of cultural plenitude


Some of music legend Neil Young's very best songs are angry and filled with howling, so it kind of makes sense that the two-time Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee's biggest burst of publicity in years comes courtesy of an ALL-CAPS ultimatum to the streaming service Spotify.

"I want you to let Spotify know immediately TODAY that I want all my music off their platform," he wrote to his manager in a since-deleted public letter on his website. "They can have [Joe] Rogan or Young. Not both." Young was popping his gaskets over Rogan's controversial and sometimes misinformed takes on COVID-19, which have led a bunch of doctors to demand that Spotify, the exclusive host to the planet's most popular podcast, "immediately establish a clear and public policy to moderate misinformation on its platform" (emphasis in original).

Spotify's response both to the M.D.s and "Mr. Young" (as Lynyrd Skynyrd once mockingly called him) was basically See you later! "We have detailed content policies in place and we've removed over 20,000 podcast episodes related to covid-19 since the start of the pandemic," a Spotify spokesperson told The Washington Post. "We regret Neil's decision to remove his music from Spotify, but hope to welcome him back soon."

That seems unlikely, at least in the near term. What Young's convictions may lack in detailed understanding of a given topic, they more than make up for in moral certitude. (Check out his 2009 financial crisis song "Cough Up the Bucks" and let me know what you think.) But who knows? In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Young was one of the first big rock stars to sonically enlist in the Global War on Terror, a position he ultimately reversed without much explanation.

His November 2001 song "Let's Roll" didn't charge the charts like hijackers piling into a cockpit, but it left absolutely no question about Young's point of view. The title came from the last known words of a passenger on United Flight 93 as he and others attacked the hijackers, crashing the plane in rural Pennsylvania rather than letting it fly into the White House or the Capitol. "You've got to turn on evil," sang Young, who had long cultivated a fringe-wearing, peace-and-love persona. "When it's coming after you/You've gotta face it down/And when it tries to hide/You've gotta go in after it." As he received a "Spirit of Liberty Award" from the liberal group People for the American Way in December 2001, he endorsed the PATRIOT Act and told the surprised crowd that "to protect our freedoms it seems we're going to have to relinquish some of our freedoms for a short period of time." Just a few years later, Young reversed course and became an outspoken if clichéd critic of the new security state, even calling for the removal of President George W. Bush in a (not very good) song called "Let's Impeach the President."

So who knows where the artist nicknamed Shakey will land in a few months or a few years? Regardless, there are more than a few lessons to be learned from this contretemps. Here are three-and-a-half at the front of my mind.

First: We live in an incredible world of cultural plenty, one simply unimaginable in 1966, when Neil Young joined a group called the Mynah Birds that featured future felonious funkmaster Rick James, a couple of guys who would help form Steppenwolf, and an eventual Buffalo Springfield bandmate. For all the controversy over how Spotify pays artists, the service itself is a universal jukebox that gives listeners access to more music than they know what to do with. (As of yesterday, before it complied with his request and took down his catalog, Spotify said Young pulled over 6 million monthly listeners.) At the start of this century, even in a piece extolling the vast proliferation of culture, I couldn't imagine a free (well, ad-supported) streaming service that gathered virtually all the world's songs in a single app that you can access on your phone. It also hosts an endless number of podcasts, too. And of course, Spotify is just one platform among countless others that allow creators and audience to meet.

Indeed, Neil Young's complete catalog is easy to find, usually for free, elsewhere on the Internet. (If you want to, for 20 to 100 bucks a year at his website, you can get something approaching personal access to the man himself.) I spent a good chunk of today roaming around YouTube listening to and watching Neil Young clips, such as a strange, wonderful, batshit-crazy duet he did with Devo for the 1982 cult movie Human Highway.

That leads me to my second point: Generally speaking, it's a mug's game to demand that a given platform, service, record label, publishing house, or whatever conform to your singular moral demands. I hesitate to point out something that Neil Young, who has an official YouTube channel, probably already knows: Joe Rogan is also on that platform, with nearly 12 million subscribers. Should Neil Young, in the name of consistency, issue an ultimatum to YouTube and then bolt when the service refuses to yield to his demand? Where exactly does this sort of thing stop? Maybe all of us at our own paywalled sites, secure in our purity of association but with much less to talk about.

And that leads me to my final lesson-and-a-half: It's a damn shame that Neil Young, age 76, is throwing one of the great OK, Boomer rage quits in recent memory. Talking with some of the younger people in my life (with "younger" generously defined as anyone born after the 1983 release of Everybody's Rockin', the album that led Geffen Records to sue Young for producing "not commercial" music), most of them had little to no idea who Neil Young was until this moment. If you are of a certain age, Neil Young was not simply one singer among many; he was a titan among gods. He reeled off a string of records from the late 1960s through the mid-1980s that helped define the upper limits of what rock music could accomplish as an art form. All at the same time, he could be folk, country, psychedelic, punk, and metal. Arguably, no male performer gave greater voice to the great cultural letdown after Woodstock while also embracing the still-underappreciated lifestyle liberation that made the '70s a fantastic time to be alive. (Joni Mitchell would be the female equivalent.) Just as important, if anything about rock music can be said to be important, he served as a bridge into the future, adopted by bands such as Pearl Jam as the grandfather of grunge and what came next in the alternative '90s.

The cranky old man we see in front of us is not the whole person. We do well to remember our heroes in their prime as well as their dotage. And—this is the half-lesson I warned about—we also do well to remember that we listen to musicians for the best music they make, not the worst fits they throw.