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Both Left and Right get Oliver Anthony wrong

Oliver Anthony described the attempt to 'wrap politics' around his song as 'aggravating'

August 28, 2023 - 1:00pm

Oliver Anthony — whose smash hit “Rich Men North of Richmond” is still number one on the iTunes music chart and now number one on the Billboard Hot 100 — cannot seem to escape the spotlight.

For an artist with zero history on the charts this is unprecedented. However, Anthony hasn’t just become a musical sensation, but also a political football. Thanks to the widespread misinterpretation of his lyrics, many on the Left have condemned him, while the Right have claimed him as one of their own. With hilarious lack of self-awareness, the song was even played at last week’s Republican Primary debate in Milwaukee.

As I argued last week, there’s a yawning gap between between Anthony’s authentic populism and the confected version offered by Donald Trump and his acolytes. So I wasn’t at all surprised when he set the record straight. In a message from his pick-up truck, he described the attempt to “wrap politics” around his song as “aggravating”. Furthermore, in a direct reference to the Republican debate, he made it clear that his song was “written about the people on that stage…not just them, but definitely them”.

Needless to say, the abuse he’s now getting from the Right doesn’t mean he’s safe from the other side. At no point has Anthony gone along with anyone’s political agenda, but that hasn’t stopped Left-wing critics from suggesting that his music serves reactionary interests. For instance, David Cantwell in Time, said that his song leans “hard into some of the genre’s nastiest impulses”. An NPR piece discerns “extremist and conspiratorial narratives”. Paul Waldman for MSNBC thinks that “Rich Men” fails to “adequately call out the powerful” and “also targets the powerless”. Louis Chilton for the Independent dismisses the lyrics as an “artless, blunt-force hissy fit”, while noting a “sense of dog whistle paranoia”.

And then there’s general outrage at Anthony for daring to lament the failures of the welfare system (specifically, by subsidising junk food for the morbidly obese). In the Guardian, Billy Bragg insists that “Anthony really does punch down on the poor.”

Except that, from the perspective of the working poor, people on welfare aren’t necessarily “down” from them. Indeed, they might be living on the same street, in a near identical house and trying to get by on similar budget. However, while the one household is working for its money, the other is not.

The Left-leaning elites just don’t understand why fairness might mean more to the working poor than equality. It’s not just the next-door proximity of welfare dependency that sensitises the issue, it’s also the nature of the work at stake. Right after those lyrics about welfare for the obese, the next line in “Rich Men North of Richmond” is “young men are puttin’ themselves six feet in the ground” — a reference to physically gruelling labour in dangerous occupations. Anthony was himself badly injured in a workplace accident, so he knows what he’s singing about.

When the welfare state does nothing (and sometimes less than nothing) to get people out of their dependency, then, yes, the working poor are going to get angry about it. However, the emotion that Anthony channels isn’t directed at the workless, but instead at those who control a system that inverts the incentives that the middle class takes for granted.

The other day, the singer decided to spell out his political views: “I. Don’t. Support. Either. Side. Politically. Not the left, not the right. Im about supporting people and restoring local communities.” Given what he’s had to suffer through over the past week, I don’t blame him for being blunt. Still, it’s a shame when a songwriter has to resort to mere prose.


Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

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Barry Dixon
Barry Dixon
10 months ago

My take on this song is that the plebs, the demos or the masses are now subjugated, not by the conservatives (the Tories) or the toffs but by the new managerial class, the technocrats who think they know better than the plebs. The technocrats or the new ruling (pseudo) elites are the corporatists, those in positions of new power centres. The pseuds are educated but with useless qualifications in ‘studies’, in ‘project management’, in ‘administration studies’ who have moved from higher education with a free pass into management that allows them to look down on us plebs, we of the demos
These new technocrats (the new ruling class) have no knowledge of the travails of the people nor any wish to understand. They want to align with other corporatists and the state. In a symbiotic relationship … and we know another description of that as outlined by Mussolini.
The new order was foretold by Huxley in Brave New World … If the UN and the EU and other similar groups have their way, just take your pill and all will be well.

Barry Dixon
Barry Dixon
10 months ago

My take on this song is that the plebs, the demos or the masses are now subjugated, not by the conservatives (the Tories) or the toffs but by the new managerial class, the technocrats who think they know better than the plebs. The technocrats or the new ruling (pseudo) elites are the corporatists, those in positions of new power centres. The pseuds are educated but with useless qualifications in ‘studies’, in ‘project management’, in ‘administration studies’ who have moved from higher education with a free pass into management that allows them to look down on us plebs, we of the demos
These new technocrats (the new ruling class) have no knowledge of the travails of the people nor any wish to understand. They want to align with other corporatists and the state. In a symbiotic relationship … and we know another description of that as outlined by Mussolini.
The new order was foretold by Huxley in Brave New World … If the UN and the EU and other similar groups have their way, just take your pill and all will be well.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
10 months ago

“Needless to say, the abuse he’s now getting from the Right doesn’t mean he’s safe from the other side.”

This bugs me. The author mentions abuse from the right, and then every single example he cites is from the left. What exactly is the abuse he’s getting from the right?

This is not honest or accurate. I’m sure there’s some unhinged right winger attacking the guy, but the attacks have come almost exclusively from the regime media that pretends to represent he left, but actually carries water only for the toxic blob of privileged technocrats in Washington.

The GOP certainly proved it lacks even basic self awareness for playing his song at the debate – very few people on that stage are there to truly champion the working class – but the attacks are coming from the left.

T Bone
T Bone
10 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

It has to be brutal to be Left-Center right now. They want to be considered “true centrists” so much but objectivity is now considered “Right wing.” So to appear Centrist they write titles and conclusions with two belligerents as a sandwich around the main body which clearly demonstrates the Left is far more responsible than the Right.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
10 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

And why is it considered right wing to point out utter hypocrisy and bold faced lies? I think people like Anthony are just plain sick with being told something by the elites and seeing the complete opposite with their own two eyes.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
10 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

And why is it considered right wing to point out utter hypocrisy and bold faced lies? I think people like Anthony are just plain sick with being told something by the elites and seeing the complete opposite with their own two eyes.

T Bone
T Bone
10 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

It has to be brutal to be Left-Center right now. They want to be considered “true centrists” so much but objectivity is now considered “Right wing.” So to appear Centrist they write titles and conclusions with two belligerents as a sandwich around the main body which clearly demonstrates the Left is far more responsible than the Right.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
10 months ago

“Needless to say, the abuse he’s now getting from the Right doesn’t mean he’s safe from the other side.”

This bugs me. The author mentions abuse from the right, and then every single example he cites is from the left. What exactly is the abuse he’s getting from the right?

This is not honest or accurate. I’m sure there’s some unhinged right winger attacking the guy, but the attacks have come almost exclusively from the regime media that pretends to represent he left, but actually carries water only for the toxic blob of privileged technocrats in Washington.

The GOP certainly proved it lacks even basic self awareness for playing his song at the debate – very few people on that stage are there to truly champion the working class – but the attacks are coming from the left.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
10 months ago

What Oliver’s song perhaps unconsciously points up is the relatively new phenomenon in our times (though it was a commonplace in the late days of Rome) whereby the ultra rich form an alliance with the very poor against the working middle. You have, for example, the billionaires of Silicone Valley effectively paying criminals to attack small businesses in the George Floyd riots. You have Wall Street hedge funds financing the election campaigns of District Attorneys who, once in office, deliberately foment crime waves in the inner cities by emptying the jails. Meanwhile the upward transfer of wealth continues quite unopposed by the so-called ‘left’.
It’s a new and particularly brutal form of class war.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
10 months ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

I wonder how completely brain dead one has to be to believe any of this nonsense?
I suppose if you believe anything Donald Trump says then you’ll probably believe anything!

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
10 months ago

I wonder how completely brain dead one has to be to not see what is happening with one’s own eyes in front of one’s own face?

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
10 months ago

I wonder how completely brain dead one has to be not to see what is actually happening with one’s own eyes?

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
10 months ago

Have you ever posted anything substantive ie: an argument with evidence? If so, perhaps you could point it out for me, because all I’ve ever seen from you is this sort of snotty adolescent drivel. The object of debate is to persuade not just to m@sturb@te.

Ems
Ems
10 months ago

Mr. Champs clearly has nothing better to do than troll the comments section of Unherd, generally to much contempt.
Is he a masochist? He clearly hates the readership of this site, so why on earth is he here? Some perverse desire to be regarded as annoying and unpleasant? I read a lot of articles, and he’s always being a bother in the comments section.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
10 months ago

I wonder how completely brain dead one has to be to not see what is happening with one’s own eyes in front of one’s own face?

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
10 months ago

I wonder how completely brain dead one has to be not to see what is actually happening with one’s own eyes?

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
10 months ago

Have you ever posted anything substantive ie: an argument with evidence? If so, perhaps you could point it out for me, because all I’ve ever seen from you is this sort of snotty adolescent drivel. The object of debate is to persuade not just to m@sturb@te.

Ems
Ems
10 months ago

Mr. Champs clearly has nothing better to do than troll the comments section of Unherd, generally to much contempt.
Is he a masochist? He clearly hates the readership of this site, so why on earth is he here? Some perverse desire to be regarded as annoying and unpleasant? I read a lot of articles, and he’s always being a bother in the comments section.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
10 months ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

I wonder how completely brain dead one has to be to believe any of this nonsense?
I suppose if you believe anything Donald Trump says then you’ll probably believe anything!

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
10 months ago

What Oliver’s song perhaps unconsciously points up is the relatively new phenomenon in our times (though it was a commonplace in the late days of Rome) whereby the ultra rich form an alliance with the very poor against the working middle. You have, for example, the billionaires of Silicone Valley effectively paying criminals to attack small businesses in the George Floyd riots. You have Wall Street hedge funds financing the election campaigns of District Attorneys who, once in office, deliberately foment crime waves in the inner cities by emptying the jails. Meanwhile the upward transfer of wealth continues quite unopposed by the so-called ‘left’.
It’s a new and particularly brutal form of class war.

David Morley
David Morley
10 months ago

If you’re fighting an intense but essentially phoney war based on empty slogans and cooked up concepts, there really is nothing more annoying, indeed distracting, than a message from anywhere on the front line saying – look guys were f-ing dying down here.

David Morley
David Morley
10 months ago

If you’re fighting an intense but essentially phoney war based on empty slogans and cooked up concepts, there really is nothing more annoying, indeed distracting, than a message from anywhere on the front line saying – look guys were f-ing dying down here.

Tony Price
Tony Price
10 months ago

It reminds me of when Ronald Reagan chose ‘Born in the USA’ as a patriotic anthem, and Bruce Springsteen (the writer of said song) pointed out that he had obviously not actually paid attention to the lyrics!

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
10 months ago
Reply to  Tony Price

Ol’ Ronnie wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer!

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
10 months ago
Reply to  Tony Price

Ol’ Ronnie wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer!

Tony Price
Tony Price
10 months ago

It reminds me of when Ronald Reagan chose ‘Born in the USA’ as a patriotic anthem, and Bruce Springsteen (the writer of said song) pointed out that he had obviously not actually paid attention to the lyrics!

Kevan Hudson
Kevan Hudson
10 months ago

Billy Bragg..lol
Has gone from the working class socialist to the preachy neoliberal. Never saw that trajectory.

Kevan Hudson
Kevan Hudson
10 months ago

Billy Bragg..lol
Has gone from the working class socialist to the preachy neoliberal. Never saw that trajectory.

David Mottershead
David Mottershead
10 months ago

Good for him.

David Mottershead
David Mottershead
10 months ago

Good for him.

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
10 months ago

‘punching down on the poor’
Hearing these phrases, and similiar, leads me to believe that there is a drawer of self-serving platitudes at hand for writers of that ilk.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
10 months ago

Since he’s poor, aren’t they punching down by criticizing him. Aren’t they speaking from a position of privilege? According to their own doctrines, shouldn’t they consider this a check on said privilege? Most of these writers have never been poor, and yet are judging this man who is. Isn’t that sort of like a white person criticizing black culture, or a straight person passing judgment on the gay community? Shouldn’t they instead just shut up for a change and listen instead? If they really cared about the poor, or had any sense of humility, they no doubt would, but they possess neither any real desire to understand and empathize with the actual lives of the people they profess to care about nor any doubt about their own superior ability to judge what is morally correct for everyone, including the poor. Most of them are self-important, pompous nobility wearing their sense of noblesse-oblige like a personal crown of thorns, sitting in luxury drinking wine and casually passing judgement on the angry masses gathering at their gates.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
10 months ago

Since he’s poor, aren’t they punching down by criticizing him. Aren’t they speaking from a position of privilege? According to their own doctrines, shouldn’t they consider this a check on said privilege? Most of these writers have never been poor, and yet are judging this man who is. Isn’t that sort of like a white person criticizing black culture, or a straight person passing judgment on the gay community? Shouldn’t they instead just shut up for a change and listen instead? If they really cared about the poor, or had any sense of humility, they no doubt would, but they possess neither any real desire to understand and empathize with the actual lives of the people they profess to care about nor any doubt about their own superior ability to judge what is morally correct for everyone, including the poor. Most of them are self-important, pompous nobility wearing their sense of noblesse-oblige like a personal crown of thorns, sitting in luxury drinking wine and casually passing judgement on the angry masses gathering at their gates.

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
10 months ago

‘punching down on the poor’
Hearing these phrases, and similiar, leads me to believe that there is a drawer of self-serving platitudes at hand for writers of that ilk.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
10 months ago

You do all realize that a plurality of voters in the US don’t actually belong to either party, don’t you? We are essentialy unrepresented in our “representative republic”. I can easily imagine how annoyed Anthony is about self-serving people trying to pigeon-hole him as either Red or Blue. No one actually hears us. It’s like being a ghost; only small children and a couple of dogs can even see us.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
10 months ago

You do all realize that a plurality of voters in the US don’t actually belong to either party, don’t you? We are essentialy unrepresented in our “representative republic”. I can easily imagine how annoyed Anthony is about self-serving people trying to pigeon-hole him as either Red or Blue. No one actually hears us. It’s like being a ghost; only small children and a couple of dogs can even see us.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
10 months ago

If both sides hate you, you’re good in my book. I can see why the right leaning populists would embrace the song and why liberals would hate it though. The Republicans playing it at their debate is humorous, since MAYBE one or two of them supports a few mildly populist positions, but they desperately need populist leaning people to vote for them. Ramaswamy might be a populist, or he might be an opportunist trying to kiss Trump’s ass enough to be named successor or some such. Once Trump is out of the way, we’ll see if a competent populist comes along or the party as a whole is forced to move in that direction, but Trump, narcissist that he is, won’t give up the stage willingly for his own good or anybody else’s. Still, being a mortal, he has to die at some point.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
10 months ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Oliver Anthony came out and said in no uncertain terms that he basically considered everyone on that debate state to fall into the rich men north of Richmond category.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
10 months ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Can’t blame him for that. None of them are true populists of the type I feel we need. Honestly Bernie came nearer actual economic populism than anybody on the right Trump included. Perhaps we’ll get another left leaning populist, but I’m not holding my breath. Maybe once the left is forced to abandon all the woke nonsense, perhaps someone talking real issues can break through, but right now the left is just a circus of the nonsensical, the absurd, the meaningless, and worst of all, the undemocratic. As long as they can’t acknowledge the basic science of mammalian biology as it relates to sex and gender, and at the same time seriously talk about silencing ‘climate deniers’, canceling anyone whose opinions they don’t like, and pushing various kinds of censorship to ‘prevent misinformation’, I will continue to treat them as the threats to democracy and human rights they are. For all their many, many flaws, most of the Republicans at least aren’t that far gone.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
10 months ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Can’t blame him for that. None of them are true populists of the type I feel we need. Honestly Bernie came nearer actual economic populism than anybody on the right Trump included. Perhaps we’ll get another left leaning populist, but I’m not holding my breath. Maybe once the left is forced to abandon all the woke nonsense, perhaps someone talking real issues can break through, but right now the left is just a circus of the nonsensical, the absurd, the meaningless, and worst of all, the undemocratic. As long as they can’t acknowledge the basic science of mammalian biology as it relates to sex and gender, and at the same time seriously talk about silencing ‘climate deniers’, canceling anyone whose opinions they don’t like, and pushing various kinds of censorship to ‘prevent misinformation’, I will continue to treat them as the threats to democracy and human rights they are. For all their many, many flaws, most of the Republicans at least aren’t that far gone.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
10 months ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Oliver Anthony came out and said in no uncertain terms that he basically considered everyone on that debate state to fall into the rich men north of Richmond category.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
10 months ago

If both sides hate you, you’re good in my book. I can see why the right leaning populists would embrace the song and why liberals would hate it though. The Republicans playing it at their debate is humorous, since MAYBE one or two of them supports a few mildly populist positions, but they desperately need populist leaning people to vote for them. Ramaswamy might be a populist, or he might be an opportunist trying to kiss Trump’s ass enough to be named successor or some such. Once Trump is out of the way, we’ll see if a competent populist comes along or the party as a whole is forced to move in that direction, but Trump, narcissist that he is, won’t give up the stage willingly for his own good or anybody else’s. Still, being a mortal, he has to die at some point.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
10 months ago

The working class. The clue is in the name. It’s not the fudge eating on welfare class.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
10 months ago

The working class. The clue is in the name. It’s not the fudge eating on welfare class.

Dick Barrett
Dick Barrett
10 months ago

The singer is wrong to try and divorce his song from politics. Of course it is a political song, and the solutions to his complaints in the song are necessarily political. Otherwise, the song would be a pointless whine of impotence and resentment.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
10 months ago
Reply to  Dick Barrett

“…a pointless whine of impotence and resentment.”
That should be the title of a new song. The underclasses never had power and never will have power. It’s like writing about teenage love.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
10 months ago
Reply to  Dick Barrett

“…a pointless whine of impotence and resentment.”
That should be the title of a new song. The underclasses never had power and never will have power. It’s like writing about teenage love.

Dick Barrett
Dick Barrett
10 months ago

The singer is wrong to try and divorce his song from politics. Of course it is a political song, and the solutions to his complaints in the song are necessarily political. Otherwise, the song would be a pointless whine of impotence and resentment.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
10 months ago

His song is a little rude as well as amusingly cheeky.
It has that ruddy aspect that should appeal to Internet conservatives who adore The Daily Wire.
I tend to watch Peterson more nowadays, and spinning off that the YouTube contributors working in therapy today.
The digital Right always has that element of vulgarity. But the Internet is aware that it’s often fun and can throw little equivalent on the Left aside from Democrat cheerleaders on the heritage networks.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
10 months ago

His song is a little rude as well as amusingly cheeky.
It has that ruddy aspect that should appeal to Internet conservatives who adore The Daily Wire.
I tend to watch Peterson more nowadays, and spinning off that the YouTube contributors working in therapy today.
The digital Right always has that element of vulgarity. But the Internet is aware that it’s often fun and can throw little equivalent on the Left aside from Democrat cheerleaders on the heritage networks.