Whether he likes it or not, the right wing may have found its latest hero in Oliver Anthony in the culture wars that continue to split US politics. Last week, Anthony’s song Rich Men North of Richmond, which criticizes Washington and big government, was released on the YouTube channel of a West Virginia radio station, and the unknown singer-songwriter became a viral success, with more than two million views in two days and more than 20 million overall. Anthony, a hefty man with a huge red beard and a guitar, stands in a wooded area, appearing and sounding like an everyday blue-collar worker. “I’ve been sellin’ my soul, workin’ all day/ Overtime hours for bullshit pay,” he sings. “It’s a damn shame what the world has come to/ For people like me and you.”
But it wasn’t just the working-class “you” he was targeting who was paying attention. Within days, right-wing politicians were supporting the song, which fits perfectly into several conservative narratives criticizing government overtaxation and welfare recipients. Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, among others, termed the song “the anthem of the forgotten Americans.” Kari Lake, a Trump supporter who ran for governor of Arizona, called it “the anthem of this moment in American history.” The story was taken up by NBC News and labeled a “conservative anthem” on its website. On the left, Connecticut Democrat Senator Chris Murphy said that “progressives should listen to this,” and that the issues Anthony was bringing up were “all problems the left has better solutions to than the right.” The song received a lot of media attention.
In terms of the nature of that appeal, I believe Jay Caspian Kang is correct and conservatives are incorrect: Anthony’s popularity is driven less by widespread sympathy for his song’s jabs at obese welfare recipients and more by a combination of his singing voice’s genuine merits and the widespread delight that people take in the concept of an overnight sensation. As Kang points out, Anthony provides the same thrill to listeners as a standout American Idol contestant, providing both the novelty of “seeing someone make it” and “the reassurance that there are talented people all over this country who sing in anonymity and who do not bend themselves to fit every musical trend.”
Rich Men North Of Richmond
The topic of whether to treat reactionary folk song composers with contempt is normative, and rational persons may disagree. I can understand why folks who have suffered from fatphobia or our country’s meager safety net might be hesitant to approach Anthony with kindness. However, I believe that a fundamental premise of progressive politics is that individuals are essentially the products of specific social situations and, as such, do not have sole ownership of their virtues or pathologies. Neither the renowned surgeon’s skills nor the underprivileged adolescent’s criminal record developed fully formed from their intrinsic personalities. Rather, an individual’s chances of ending up in a prominent, well-paying career or in juvenile prison are substantially influenced by circumstances entirely beyond their control: the families and communities into which they were born, the historical legacies of segregation and deindustrialization, and so on.