There are obvious explanations for the podcast’s success: the amusing absurdity in considering that a cheesy power ballad might have such nefarious origins, or the simple dose of early ’90s nostalgia in our pandemically-challenged times. But is there more to its timely resonance?
“One reason the podcast’s so ripe for right now is the re-emergence of conspiracy theories in general, and conspiracy theories about Russia and the United States in particular,” says Dr Nicholas Tochka, head of ethnomusicology at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music – citing the scrutiny around Donald Trump’s 2016 election win.
There’s also a renewed focus in the media on the idea of battling superpowers evoked by the podcast, he says, “that Cold War way of thinking about the world as separated between the Communist world and the free world.”
“We do see a lot today, from across the political spectrum, that appeals to that oversimplified thinking: especially in the dynamic between Australia and China, or the US and China,” says Dr Tochka.
In a week that found the Morrison government commit to broadcasting local TV shows such as Neighbours and The Voice in the Pacific in an apparent bid to counter Chinese influence in the region, there’s also a history of governments, institutions and corporations using pop culture to “persuade” populations that may lend the podcast’s pulpy tone some weight, says Dr Liz Giuffre, a senior lecturer in communications at the University of Technology, Sydney.
“There have been rumours like this for ages. Do we want to say that because Mozart was commissioned by the church that he was spreading propaganda for them? I mean, maybe?” laughs Dr Giuffre. “Or when [Men At Work’s] Down Under was played during Australia’s America’s Cup win, was that just to celebrate or was it to promote tourism? People respond to these things in different ways.”
Online, some of the podcast’s listeners have responded in unique ways, picking up Keefe’s threads and going further. One Twitter user, an American sociology professor, uploaded freedom of information papers he’d obtained showing that as recently as 2011 the US government “funded rock groups in Venezuela to write songs about freedom of expression”, in an apparent bid to destabilise Nicolas Maduro’s regime.
Tochka says there’s a history of the US State Department openly sending artists abroad for “cultural presentation” programs – including musicians like Louis Armstrong and Nina Simone, which the podcast cites – that while “not nearly as nefarious or secretive [as the claims around Wind of Change], are ripe for conspiracy theories.”
“My gut feeling is that often times we read into these things the narrative that we want, to a greater extent than maybe what’s there,” he says.
Responding to the podcast on Sirius XM’s Trunk Nation last week, Scorpions frontman – and Wind of Change’s credited songwriter – Klaus Meine laughed off its suggestions. “It’s very entertaining and a really crazy story, but it’s not true at all. Like you American guys would say, it’s fake news.”
Well, what else would you expect him to say? As ever, a mystery lingers.
Robert Moran is a culture reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age