The country singer's viral hit represents an authentic form of populism
If you haven’t heard it yet, here’s the video of Oliver Anthony singing his viral hit “Rich Men North of Richmond”. Uploaded to YouTube just over a week ago, it’s already had 15 million views. It is also number one on the US iTunes chart — with three more of Anthony’s songs in the top 10.
For any emerging artist this would be a remarkable achievement. But the Virginian singer-songwriter was a near unknown. He’s not a full-time musician, but a factory worker turned off-the-grid farmer. Therefore, his lament for the working man in 21st century America doesn’t lack for first-person experience. His powerful performance hits home in a way that a manufactured act couldn’t hope to.
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Then there are the lyrics — which are both personal and political. But what kind of politics are we taking about? The liberal Left, already alarmed by the message of the Jason Aldean hit, “Try That in a Small Town”, was quick to problematise Oliver Anthony’s song.
For instance, the reference to the “obese milkin’ welfare” has been condemned as fat-phobic, while complaints about working men’s pay being “taxed to no end” are seen pandering to the Republican agenda. A piece in Rolling Stone accused “Right-wing influencers” of “losing their minds” over the song.
However, the attacks have also come from the Right. First, the libertarian magazine Reason criticised the “anti-tax ballad” as “silly”. Then, in a rather condescending post for the National Review, Mark Antonio Wright had this to say to Anthony: “My brother in Christ, you live in the United States of America in 2023 — if you’re a fit, able-bodied man, and you’re working ‘overtime hours for bullshit pay,’ you need to find a new job.”
Apparently, there’s “plenty of them out there”. But I wonder if “out there” includes the swathes of heartland America devastated by Washington’s self-harming openness to Chinese mercantilism? Given that bankers and graduates have received multi-billion dollar bailouts, is it so unreasonable for the working poor to ask why their communities weren’t rescued?
In theory, Donald Trump was — and is still promised to be — their rescuer. But what did the New York property billionaire, a literal rich man North of Richmond, actually achieve for working class America?
Despite his theatrical confrontations with Beijing, there was no fundamental reordering of the trade relationship with China. There was nothing to speak of in the way of campaign finance reform, which is why Congress remains as much a money-go-round as it ever was. Trump also gave the wealthy a tax cut, while the strivers were left to a cost-of-living crisis that follows them wherever they seek work. Furthermore, for all the showy political incorrectness of the Trump years, the cultural elites remain openly hostile to the values of heartland America.
What ordinary citizens hear in “Rich Men North of Richmond” is real populism — as opposed to ersatz version. The establishment, whether in its Left-wing or Right-wing aspect, is therefore right to be wary of Oliver Anthony’s faith-infused cry for justice. It is, in the true sense of the word, prophetic.