The funny thing about urban legends is that it doesn’t matter if they’re true or false. The urban legend that The Scorpions’ 1990 hit “Winds of Change” was written by the CIA as anti-Soviet propaganda is one such urban legend, where the veracity of it just doesn’t matter. Since New York Times journalist Patrick Radden Keefe proposed the theory in an eight-part podcast in 2020, it has been an indelible part of the song’s story. Asking if it’s true would be like asking if Scorpion's frontman Klaus Meine (who officially wrote the song) really followed the Moskva down to Gorky Park, as he says in the lyrics.
While researching this piece, I was surprised to learn that this legend is not even as old as the Covid-19 pandemic. I could’ve sworn that it was always the one thing most associated with this song. I suppose this is because it’s just such a good story. The CIA wouldn’t have done something like this if it wasn’t going to have any effect, so if the story is true, then the power of rock ‘n’ roll was used against a global superpower.
The story is even better for the fact that it seemingly worked. As Keefe told, The Guardian, “I interviewed people in Moscow and St Petersburg who’d risked arrest. That song meant a lot to them.” and “Soviet officials had long been nervous over the free expression that rock stood for, and how it might affect the Soviet youth,” confirming that the song at least played a role in the fall of the Soviet Union.
What I find strange about a lot of conspiracy theories is that they’re borne of a healthy awareness of what a strange and cynical place the world is. Yet they neglect to consider that the official narratives are often sufficiently strange and cynical. The official "Winds of Change" description is perhaps just as crazy as the conspiracy theory. Officially Meine wrote "Winds of Change" when he witnessed the mood for change in the Soviet Union after playing a music festival at Lenin Stadium. The 1989 Moscow Music Peace Festival featured Ozzy Osbourne, Bon Jovi, Mötley Crüe, and Skid Row, and was organized by the manager for all those bands, Doc McGhee. McGhee organized the festival as community service after being convicted of smuggling 40,000 pounds of cannabis into the United States, one of the biggest pot smuggling cases in American history. The festival was billed as an anti-drug benefit.
Scorpions’ Winds of Change conspiracy theory
Keefe’s source was one unnamed CIA agent who heard the story from another agent. The closest he comes to hard evidence is precedent. The CIA has been known to dabble in pop culture, actively producing movies that are flattering to the agency, such as Syriana and Academy Award Best Picture winner Argo. Perhaps the most relevant confirmed precedent is when the agency sponsored jazz legend Nina Simone to tour Nigeria. The country was decolonizing then, and there was speculation that the newly independent nation may ally itself with the Soviet Union. So the presence of an American artist with an African nationalist identity as a cultural ambassador was seen as beneficial.
Nina Simone was not exactly someone who would’ve happily worked for the CIA. The tour was sponsored by the American Society of African Culture, which was exposed as a CIA front seven years after the tour.
This raises the possibility that Meine was also an unwitting CIA asset and did not know his hit song was the work of the CIA. But the legend doesn’t say that the agency produced or promoted the song; the legend is that the CIA wrote it. You’d think that Meine would know whether he wrote the song or not.