World

Blinken's Kyiv song choice raises eyebrows as Ukraine fights fierce Russian attacks

KYIV, Ukraine — (AP) — Fresh from a day of delivering optimistic prognoses about how Ukraine would fare in the war with Russia despite gloomy news from the front lines, U.S. Secretary of State and amateur musician Antony Blinken may have thought he had the perfect upbeat song to perform with a Kyiv bar band on his fourth visit to the capital since the conflict began in 2022.

"I know this is a really, really difficult time," Blinken told a packed crowd in the subterranean club Barman Dictat on Tuesday night.

“Your soldiers, your citizens, particularly in the northeast in Kharkiv, are suffering tremendously,” he said. “But they need to know, you need to know, the United States is with you, so much of the world is with you. And they’re fighting not just for a free Ukraine but for the free world, and the free world is with you, too.”

With those words and strumming a red guitar, Blinken and the local group 19.99 launched into Neil Young's hit "Rockin' in the Free World," ostensibly to encourage Ukrainians to keep up the fight against Russia and hold to their Western aspirations, despite numerous battlefield setbacks that led President Volodymyr Zelenskyy a day later to cancel all his upcoming foreign trips.

With its refrain “Keep on rockin’ in the free world,” Young’s 1989 song sounds like it should be an homage to the glory of living in the West, uncompromised by communism or authoritarianism. In fact, as numerous social media critics noted, the tune is a lament about despair and misery caused by homelessness, drug addiction and poverty in the celebrated free world.

A charitable interpretation might be that Blinken chose to perform the song to underscore the importance of overcoming adversity by sticking to ones’ dreams of peace and freedom. After all, that had been the general theme of his remarks at events in Kyiv since his nearly pre-dawn arrival after an overnight train trip from Poland and it would continue to be on Wednesday.

"I've come to Ukraine with a message: You are not alone," Blinken had told an audience of students and educators at the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute shortly before taking to Barman Dictat's basement stage.

“Never bet against Ukraine,” he said at a Wednesday news conference with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.

But as Blinken sang the “keep on rockin’ in the free world” chorus, which is repeated 12 times in the 4-minute 40-second song, Russian troops were advancing near and around Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, and Zelenskyy was in the process of deciding to put off a planned trip to Spain and Portugal later this week to deal with the crisis.

Thus, any intended musical encouragement — in both content and venue — left at least some observers scratching their heads.

Kyiv-based analyst Oleksandr Kraiev, director of the North America program at the Ukrainian Prism think tank, said Blinken’s visit was welcome but pointed out that he and many Ukrainians were puzzled by his two-day stay, including his stop at Barman Dictat, which was seen as inappropriate by some, given the current fraught wartime climate.

“From my point of view, and generally speaking from the point of view of common Ukrainians, it was not a very appropriate sign to go to the bar to have a small song with our band,” he said, noting that Ukrainian military recruitment officers are known to go to bars and nightclubs to check documents and catch draft dodgers.

“So (for the) secretary of state of the United States also to go to a bar, to have a small concert for people who are blamed for not enlisting in the Ukrainian army,” Kraiev said, "it's not, let’s say, a catastrophe, it’s not a faux pas, but it’s something that is not very desirable from the point of view of common Ukrainians.”

U.S. officials with Blinken shrugged at the online criticism the secretary was receiving about his song choice and decision to sing at a bar. They also said he wouldn’t have done the event if he had thought it was inappropriate.

More broadly, the possible disconnect between the week’s battlefield developments and Blinken’s optimism was reflected in his activities and the size of his delegation.

Unlike on all of his three previous wartime trips to Kyiv, Blinken brought a full complement of staff and press with him. And while security was tight, he spent a good deal of time away from meetings with government officials, engaging with university students, civic leaders, local businesspeople and, of course, bar-goers. And, unlike on all of his previous visits except his last visit in September, he chose to spend the night in the city.

Yet, it may be “Rockin’ in the Free World,” its chorus and opening stanza — “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.” — that the visit is remembered for.

As the band hit the opening notes, Blinken commented wryly: "I don't know if we can pull this off." And, then, according to the official State Department transcript: "(Music was played.)"

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Samya Kullab contributed.

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