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.