The Neil Young Gambit

This week a boomer who stayed true to being a hippie became the main character of the internet for a day.

Neil Young did a Neil Young thing.

He threatened to pull his music off Spotify because he didn’t want to share a platform with Joe Rogan. His issue with Rogan is the podcaster is fanning anti-vaccine sentiment through his own actions and via the guests he invites.

I’ll walk you through my reaction to the reactions.

I preface this by saying I love Neil. 10 years ago when I moved to CA, he was the soundtrack to my first year here. I learned some of his songs in guitar, Yinh and I would attend the Bridge School Benefit Concerts (these are amazing shows for an amazing cause) at Shoreline for years. Out On The Weekend was the lullaby I sang to my oldest before setting him in the crib.

I even tried to drive out to his neighborhood just to see if I could get a glimpse of Broken Arrow Ranch (I’ve also done this near Axl Rose’s Malibu house, you know the one from the Estranged video. I promise this impulse is more groupie than stalker.)

Ok back to my indulgent “reaction to the reactions”:

  1. I saw the headline Monday night and shrugged. Look Neil, you do you. You’re pissing in the ocean. This feels like a strange hill to die on.
  2. I log on to Twitter and see some tweets reacting to the ultimatum from what we expect Spotify to do: “Well Neil, there’s been good times, there’s been bad times [Tidal anyone?], we hate to see you go. Take care of yourself”. I would describe this reaction as poundcake. A benign, consensus prediction of how Spotify will react.
  3. But there was another type of reaction. The tone channeled Chazz Reinhold proclaiming “What an idiot, what a loser”.

Umm, what?

Sitting in your bathrobe calling Neil Young a “loser” is what the kids might call… a mood.

The dude has done everything. He has nothing to gain and given Spotify’s reach and the prices that old artists are getting for back catalogs today you could say he has a fair amount to lose. My main point is that he owns the risk of his own protest.

So you have the “you idiot, don’t you realize Spotify is gonna deep-six you for this” reaction.

I would be willing to bet that a fair amount of those people also moan about the NBA selling out to China.

Bystanders cannot have this both ways.

To be clear, I am focused on the metadiscourse. I’m not drawing any moral equivalence between Rogan’s views and China’s behavior. I’m ambivalent about Rogan. He’s an entertainer. If you watched Phil Donahue or Ricki Lake too seriously, I don’t know what to tell you. And as Neil goes. He’s fighting windmills, but the cost is his.

Alas, my personal view is irrelevant. Any equilibrium where mocking someone for costing themselves something in the name of their beliefs is worse than just having a strange belief.

[Neil, indeed pulled his catalog from Spotify. I fully expect that he knew Spotify wasn’t going to dump Rogan. I wonder if Neil knew that Joni Mitchell was gonna pull her catalog as well. She announced that Friday.]

A Few Loosely Adjacent Thoughts


This got me thinking about virtue-signaling or what I learned might be more aptly named “moral grandstanding”. You can learn more about that in this interview.

🎤 How Moral Grandstanding Is Ruining Our Public Discourse (Art of Manliness)

Grandstanding, getting “canceled”, freedom of speech, and how these issues are seated on our left/right axis are multi-layered and complex.

I don’t feel equipped to draw strong opinions on it but I’m happy to share looser ones that the Neil Young thing brought to mind.

I saw someone on Twitter mention that they were trying to figure out Neil Young’s angle. I called this “fintwit disease”. But really, it’s wider than that. We are trained to see any non-profit-maximizing act to “have an angle”. I’m not throwing stones, I do this all the time.

It’s a shame.

Part of the reason we have this reaction is that it’s an adaptation to counter the sociopaths who do use virtue-signaling to gain power or profit. The well is poisoned.

Let’s iterate a rung higher. If standing up for what you believe in draws ridicule, scorn, or suspicion then good actors are deterred from sharing. This is a disaster because I think leadership and stewardship of our children is all about modeling. We have the power to inspire and motivate. Durable learning doesn’t come from “being told”. We learn by imitation. We grow by aspiring.

Role models are important. They give you a template you might not have seen otherwise. If you are a parent, you get this. You are counting on osmosis. Your kids inspire you to be better because the stakes are higher than yourself.


One can be repelled by someone announcing they are making a large donation or volunteering. You suspect they are using that to gain status. But I don’t feel like that is the majority of cases and the cost of that thinking outweighs the benefit.

I believe most of us want to give and help. So when others make us aware of how they are helping they are doing us a favor. “Hey, that sounds like a cool cause, how can I get involved?” Most of us don’t sit around searching for ways to help even though we’d like to, so the awareness is convenient.

I’ve said this before.

✍🏽 A Simple Rule For Giving (1 min read)


The older I get the more forgiving I am of hypocrisy. It’s more like I recognize that it’s a matter of degree. Kind of like Eddie Izzard’s joke about perjury:

“If you commit perjury I don’t care. Don’t give a shit. I don’t think you should because you grade murder. You have murder One. Murder Two. You realize that there can be a difference in the level of murder. So there must be a difference in the level of perjury. Perjury One is when you’re saying there’s no Holocaust when, you know, 10 million people have died in it, and Perjury Nine, is when you said you shagged someone and you didn’t.”

So let’s suppose Neil Young’s protest is part-earnest and part virtue-signaling. Pretend there’s something oblique to gain..he’s trying to impress a girl, I don’t know. The conservative media will love to overplay the “virtue-signaling is evil” hand, in the process, inching us ever closer to only-sociopaths-talk-about-the-good-things-they-do equilibrium. We’ll all be worse off because “stories of virtue are actually evil” prophesy is literally self-fulfilled in that world.

Sometimes announcing charity or moral good is bad, but it’s probably mostly good. When people cry about virtue-signaling everywhere I get suspicious. It’s like they make “imperfect be the enemy of the good” when it suits them and they tolerate the misuse of a tool when it’s convenient to their overall stance. If a hunting rifle is used to kill an innocent person or a vehicle is used to run someone over, we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The standard of being ethically pure and consistent is beyond any of us. But applying the standard selectively is a dishonest arguing maneuver very similar to what’s known as an “isolated demand for rigor”.

Just as Izzard feels about perjury, I feel about hypocrisy. If you hunt for inconsistencies you’ll always find them. A full picture is opaque to outsiders. Norms change. People change. Don’t equate a first-degree hypocrite with a veterinarian that eats chicken.


I’m particularly fond of this slightly deeper Neil cut.

Stay groovy ☮️

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