In May 1970, the National Guard shot and killed four Kent State University students protesting the Vietnam War. Soon after, supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young released “Ohio,” a punchy, upbeat critique of Richard Nixon and the American government. Though delivered with purposeful repetition and skillful harmony, the song sees self-proclaimed “Canerican” Neil Young rise to the surface with unabashed anger. More than 50 years later, “Ohio” remains an anthem of protest and sticking it to the government, and Young a champion of free speech.
Recently, Young pulled his music from Spotify for the streaming platform’s role in the spread of misinformation. Though unexpected, the move was not entirely surprising. It seemed packed to the brim with ironies, but to long-term fans, it also seemed the most Young thing to do. For many, it has spun a web of ambivalence, dissolving into the ever-expanding gray area in which we find ourselves.
Young’s decision comes days after a coalition of doctors, nurses, researchers and educators penned an open letter to Spotify, criticizing the platform for allowing Joe Rogan to spread misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. In their statement, they stated “Though Spotify has a responsibility to mitigate the spread of misinformation on its platform, the company presently has no misinformation policy.”
The case of Rogan and Spotify folds into an ongoing conversation surrounding the role of tech companies in the spread of misleading information. Especially in the midst of an ongoing public health crisis characterized by conflicting claims of doubtful scientific backing, the question lingers of what constitutes free speech — and what must be regulated to protect general wellbeing. Facebook and Twitter have already faced public scrutiny and legal repercussions for their role in the spread of misinformation; now, it seems, Spotify must face its reckoning.
It should be noted that Young is not one to shy away from controversy. After all, it was his scathing critique “Southern Man” that led Lynyrd Skynyrd to pen “Sweet Home Alabama.” While Young’s move could easily be brushed aside as the impulsive decision of a man who once wrote an entire album criticizing Monsanto, what followed was even more striking: Joni Mitchell, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Nils Lofgren withdrew their music as well. Within the span of a few days, the music of these Laurel Canyon veterans evaporated from the streaming platform, receding back into the Los Angeles hills from which it came (and Apple Music, of course).
The conversation around misinformation and corporate culpability is nothing new, yet it seems to be cast in a new light when fixtures from the past assume a central role in the dialogue. An odd temporal shift occurs. It is as though we have come back full circle, navigating through the realities of partisanship and protest. However, while such artists once penned songs of anthemic rage, their new form of resistance is much more silent.
In 1970, Mitchell released “For Free” — a track that has been reiterated and reemphasized over the decades, notably by the likes of Crosby and Lana Del Rey. Throughout the song, Mitchell interrogates the spirit of songwriting — the force that drives one to compose not for profit, but for free.
With her retreat from Spotify, she centers these questions and puts her principles into practice. She shows that her music is much more than something to be simply consumed: Her work is an extension and expression of herself, and she has the power to decide where and under what conditions it can be played.
Just as Taylor Swift removed her music from Spotify in 2014, Mitchell and Young have claimed ownership over the fruits of their labor. As Young has stated on his website, “I support free speech. I have never been in favor of censorship. Private companies have the right to choose what they profit from, just as I can choose not to have my music support a platform that disseminates harmful information.”
In many ways, the musicians’ stand against Rogan is not so much “censorship” as it is a power play on the part of the artist. It is a calculated retreat from the structures they believe perpetuate the spread of harmful misinformation. Simply, it is a form of protest that has adapted to the age and ills in which it finds itself.
In a time when it truly feels like all that is solid melts into air, it is often difficult to discern right from wrong. Ethical lines have been drawn and redrawn since the ‘70s, and the concept of free speech has fallen prey to the fluidity of time. These days, it seems like no one has the right answer — not Young, not Mitchell and certainly not Spotify.
Yet, Young and Mitchell have encouraged us to look critically at the inhabited media environment and the ways in which it perpetuates harmful rhetoric. They target the issue at its source, and all the while, they reclaim the power of the artist. Their protest may be silent, but still, it manages to speak volumes.