What If Your Favorite Song Is Propaganda?

Klaus Meine frontman of the German hard rock/heavy metal band Scorpions performs during the Peace Rock Festival attended by 250,000 youths on Sunday, August 13, 1989 at the Lenin Stadium in Moscow, Soviet Union. Guitarist Rudolf Schenker, right. (AP Photo)

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Klaus Meine frontman of the German hard rock/heavy metal band Scorpions performs during the Peace Rock Festival attended by 250,000 youths on Sunday, August 13, 1989 at the Lenin Stadium in Moscow, Soviet Union. Guitarist Rudolf Schenker, right. (AP Photo)

Think about a song that means something to you. It might not even be a good song. It might be a source of secret shame, just how much you love this song. But it plugs into your life in some particular way. Maybe a parent loved it, and played it for you when you were little, or it was on the stereo when you first fell in love, or it got you through some difficult juncture in your life. I’ve got a whole playlist of these songs: my junior high girlfriend singing “If I Had a Boat,” by Lyle Lovett; trying to pick out “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” by Nina Simone, on the piano in high school; riding around with my college roommate in his father’s convertible listening to “If I Ruled the World,” by Nas; singing “Blackbird,” by the Beatles, very softly to my newborn son.

Music has an unparalleled ability to shape our moods, even our outlooks. To get under our skin. So I was extremely intrigued, one day about a decade ago, when my friend Michael, who had been a longtime source for me in my job as a journalist for the New Yorker, told me a crazy story: The popular 1990 heavy metal ballad “Wind of Change,” by the West German hair band the Scorpions, had secretly been written by the CIA.

When Michael initially told me the story, I didn’t believe it for a second. It just sounded too absurd. The CIA writes songs? And uses music as propaganda? And the songs are actually popular? No way.

But then I started looking into the history of “Wind of Change.” I’ve never been a big metal fan, and hadn’t really understood the background of this particular song, but the Scorpions released the song right around the time the Berlin Wall fell, and it became hugely popular across Europe. “Wind of Change” is a power ballad, a hymn to peaceful transition and progress and the end of tyranny and Communist rule. For decades, rock music had been effectively illegal in the Soviet Union, because the Kremlin associated it with the United States, and worried about rock’s ethos of individualism and free expression. But the Scorpions had managed to build up a huge fan base behind the Iron Curtain anyway: Their music was smuggled in on cassette tapes and copied and re-copied, spreading hand-to-hand, via the black market, across the whole Soviet bloc. They were a very analog version of a viral hit.

So the story about CIA involvement actually made more sense than I had thought initially, even if the image of American spies collaborating with a band of German rockers with feathered hair and leather pants still seemed ludicrous and comical. But what really made me take this idea seriously was the source of the story: Michael heard it from a guy he knows who used to work for the CIA. And he heard it from another guy who worked for the CIA. So inside the CIA, this is definitely a story that gets passed around—the idea that the agency is responsible for an iconic metal ballad that helped to end the Cold War.

Over the years since Michael first told me the story, it became this backburner fixation for me—the puzzle my mind always seems to wander back to whenever I have a free hour. I filed Freedom of Information Act requests and sought out ex-spies and aging rockers and producers and started assembling this huge dossier of evidence and clues. In the process, I became a bit of a crazy person. If you’re imagining me, wild-eyed and unwashed, muttering to myself and pacing in front of a wall of photos and index cards all webbed together with yarn and thumbtacks, it wasn’t quite that… Okay, no. Yeah. That’s more or less what happened.

This apparently simple question—Could a rock song be used as propaganda?—led me down a winding path and through a series of crazy switchbacks, and made me question certain fundamental things I’d always taken for granted, about government, but also about music. It opened my eyes to a whole secret history of the ways in which the U.S. government tinkered in the world of pop culture during the Cold War, a history that goes far beyond the Scorpions to include artists like Louis Armstrong, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and even one of my lifelong favorites, whose songs I tried to pick out on the piano all those years ago, Nina Simone.

Last year, I decided it was time to get to the bottom of this story once and for all. I wanted to tell the tale of my own investigation into the CIA and “Wind of Change” on a big canvas, as an eight-part podcast, with a lot of amazing music, a bunch of crazy characters, and outlandish stories about spies doing the sorts of things you would not normally think of spies as doing. My producer and I traveled to ten cities in the U.S. and the former Soviet Union to meet with rockers and metal fans and ex-government officials and clandestine officers. We went to a Scorpions show, in Kiev—because, yeah, they’re still touring. And along the way we uncovered not just the secret backstory of “Wind of Change,” but a whole alternative history of pop culture and espionage influence operations in the battle between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

It’s a mindbender. (This is the way I talk now. I talk like a metal fan from the 1980s.)

I hope you’ll listen.

Patrick Radden Keefe is an investigative journalist and the host of Wind of Change. Wind of Change is an Original Series from Pineapple Street Studios, Crooked Media and Spotify. Follow Wind of Change on Spotify to binge the full season.