Garth Brooks has no intention of shying away from his beliefs. In 1992, the star released the social justice anthem “We Shall Be Free,” which was immediately controversial. But he didn’t back down. And 25 years later, he now doubles down on the message, releasing an updated video that is both more political and provocative than the original.
“We Shall Be Free”
The song wasn’t a money maker. It was actually Brooks‘ least successful single while also being one of the most controversial. Originally released in 1992 on his album The Chase, “We Shall Be Free” carried a message of inclusiveness that touched on some sensitive topics.
The lyrics address several social ills, including poverty, homelessness, and basic human rights. But they also hit some nerves with topics such as racism, religion, and environmental concerns. For example, lines include “When the skies and the oceans are clean again / Then we shall be free.
But without a doubt, the most controversial line of the song (especially in 1992) was “When we’re free to love anyone we choose.”
In a 1998 appearance on the Donny and Marie Show, Brooks defended that line. He quoted lines from the New Testament to justify his beliefs, saying that of faith, hope, and love, “the greatest of these is love.” Then he alluded to letting god judge the rest. He also said he was surprised that the song became so controversial.
Brooks wrote the song with Stephanie Davis, who collaborated on several other of his songs. In a 1996 radio interview, Brooks explained the original inspiration of the song.
He and his band were leaving Los Angeles in 1992. This was during the riots which broke out over the Rodney King verdict. The city was literally on fire. As buildings burned and the shops were looted, Brooks remembered how frightening the day was. “It was pretty scary for all of us, especially a bunch of guys from Oklahoma,” he said.
Here is the full video #WeShallBeFree love, g
Posted by Garth Brooks on Monday, March 6, 2017
The original 1992 “We Shall Be Free” video includes cameos from several powerful figures, including former Secretary of State Colin Powell. In 2002, Brooks added new material, including footage from the 9/11 attacks. However, there were some legal issues that prevented the release of the new version– until this year (this is also why Brooks looks noticeably younger in the video, despite it being an “updated” version). Other additions include words from his wife, Trisha Yearwood.
What’s really interesting is that it isn’t that the video isn’t controversial now– it’s just controversial for different reasons.
On a whole, the country is much more reconciled on the issue of gay rights than it was in 1992. But the environmental debate has changed dramatically since then. 25 years ago, the lines about clean skies and oceans were merely addressing pollution. Now, those concerns are an extension of the American political debate over climate change.
Likewise, the lines about religious freedom are set against footage of Muslims worshipping. This is far more incendiary in 2017, given that the 9/11 attacks hadn’t occurred in 1992 and there were no debates as to Muslim travel bans.
The updated video doesn’t seem to have brought the same level of reaction as the original. It’s difficult to say exactly why, but it could simply be that with his status cemented in music history, he can really make almost any statement he wants.
And maybe it’s not that fans don’t have a reaction– maybe they are just willing to overlook it. Music is a place of escape, of connecting to feelings we love. Social justice doesn’t provide much escapism. So we just let this song pass us by.
Regardless of whether fans love him because of this song or in spite of it, at the end of the day, we all love him.