Wednesday, country artist Oliver Anthony burst from obscurity to capture the popular imagination of much of working-class America with a song titled “Rich Men North of Richmond.” Anthony, who hails from Farmville, VA, in the heart of depressed Southside Virginia, managed to not only touch heartstrings, as my colleague Jim Thompson says in Oliver Anthony’s Viral Song ‘Rich Men North of Richmond’ Is Music That Pulls at America’s Heartstrings, but he also managed to draw a lot of anger in the process.
The song’s lyrics broadly condemn our culture and government as viewed by someone who is decidedly not privileged despite being a rural, White Southerner. So it’s no shock when his song is characterized by progressives as a “right-wing anthem” and bookended with Jason Aldean’s “Not in My Small Town” (Last Word on Jason Aldean’s ‘Not in My Small Town’ Fake Controversy—the Left Resorts to Threats of Violence) as problematic if not actually racist.
So it was something of a surprise to me when Reason, allegedly a libertarian outlet, slammed the song in a story headlined, Fun, Silly Anti-Tax Ballad ‘Rich Men North of Richmond’ Goes Viral for Some Online Reasons.
Contra [Matt] Walsh, the right-wing meme politics running through the lyrics is exactly why the song resonates with people. If the song were instead an authentic recounting of getting drunk or being unemployed, the track probably would have gotten about as much attention as Anthony’s earlier releases.
Sad country songs speaking to poverty and social anomie didn’t start with food stamps and “Epstein didn’t kill himself” memes. Something tells me that the people who kept coal country folk songs like “Which Side Are You On?” alive had some economic and cultural anxieties as well. And the fact that Anthony has the musical equipment and technology necessary to sound good and reach a mass audience from his backyard suggests the times we live in aren’t so lean after all.
And while it gives me no pleasure to burst the bubble on Murphy’s working-class realignment, not every song sung by a sad guy with a guitar is a window into the soul of blue-collar America. The Epstein lyrics probably should have made that clear.
Still, just because Matt Walsh and Chris Murphy like the “Rich Men North of Richmond” doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Like other pieces of right-wing musical media (think MAGA rap), it’s catchy and fun. It’s even more fun when you don’t take it that seriously.
Maybe I shouldn’t be shocked that a libertarian would get their undies bunched over people complaining that the elites can jet off to a pedophilic island playground. That is sort of on-brand for most libertarians.
More curious to me was the reaction at that flagship of the Mitt Romney wing of the Republican party, National Review. They cover the song in Oliver Anthony’s Fuzzy Lament.
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.
There’s plenty of them out there — jobs that don’t require a college degree, that offer good pay (especially in this tight labor market) and great benefits, especially if you’re willing to get your hands dirty by doing things like joining the Navy, turning wrenches, fixing pumps, laying pipe, or a hundred other jobs through which American men can still make a great living. If you’re the type of guy who’s willing to show up on time, every time, work hard while you’re on the clock, and learn hard skills — there’s a good-paying job out there for you. Go find it.
And if you go home and spend all night drowning your troubles away — either on TikTok or by drinking too much — my friend, that’s your fault, not Washington’s. Not that Washington is helping any — it’s not. But when we waste our lives, it’s still our own fault.
I appreciate the sentiment and even wish it was true, but it’s not. Those “good paying jobs” the writer talks about no longer have a lot of security or upward mobility. Most companies don’t offer “great benefits.” That’s why there is a constant push for federal legislation to require paid sick leave and family medical leave. I also think that a lot of the young men who head to the oil fields or do construction work look to their left and right and see what’s in store for them when they are 45 or 50. There’s no place in those jobs for older men. If you do make it through until you’re 67 or whatever the age is for Social Security, you’re broken down. I’m still in touch, via a Facebook group I started, with about 100 guys in the infantry company I commanded. Nearly all the guys who retired from the Army in their late 40s have the bodies of 70-year-olds. The guys who went into business as plumbers and electricians are no better off.
Many of the ills Anthony enumerates in his song are caused by despair. You can casually dismiss the problems as “drowning your troubles away — either on TikTok or by drinking too much,” but when 1 in 8 babies born in West Virginia have mothers who test positive for opioids or meth at the time of birth, you can’t dismiss it as all “your fault.”
Next time, National Review should consider putting gutter criticism like this where it belongs — in the garbage can.
“He should’ve written a song about this instead of that,” is no different than a food critic trashing a steak restaurant because he wanted something vegan. It’s a… https://t.co/DGJEPJfWGn
— Sean Davis (@seanmdav) August 14, 2023
To a great extent, the dismissive attitude towards a song that resonates deeply with millions of people mirrors this same outlet’s attitude toward J. D. Vance’s populist campaign.
Whether you support Trump or not, you should never be confused by his popularity on the Right.
If you’d like to know why there’s an appetite for someone like Trump, just read this. This is why. https://t.co/fF9V676Gy5
— Jesse Kelly (@JesseKellyDC) August 14, 2023
Anthony’s song, or more accurately, the grievances voiced in his song, threaten the status quo. None of them can take it seriously without putting their own perquisites and prerogatives on the line. So all of them are trying to make it into a caricature. By treating it as cartoonish instead of a reflection of the lived experience of millions of working-class Americans of all races, they think they can ignore it. I think they may be proven wrong.