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Nobody really knows why a song becomes popular, especially now that record companies have mostly ceded their promotional efforts to the mysteries of social-media algorithms. When I start to hear a song more than a few times, I assume that it became popular on TikTok as part of some trend that I would rather not decipher. “Rich Men North of Richmond,” an overnight viral hit by an unknown country singer named Oliver Anthony, is the rare popular song that actually comes with a ready-made explanation. The track—which starts out with the lyrics “I’ve been sellin’ my soul, workin’ all day / Overtime hours for bullshit pay”—has racked up millions of listens across social platforms, and, as of Tuesday morning, was the most streamed song in America on the iTunes platform. The short time line around Anthony’s virality and the seemingly synchronized way in which right-wing pundits, such as Matt Walsh and Jack Posobiec, have tweeted enthusiastically and almost apocalyptically about “Rich Men North of Richmond” have turned the singer into a messianic or conspiratorial figure. Depending on your politics, he is either a voice sent from Heaven to express the anger of the white working class, or he is a wholly constructed viral creation who has arrived to serve up resentment with a thick, folksy lacquering of Americana.
Let’s get two obvious things out of the way. The chorus of the song, which goes, “Livin’ in a new world / With an old soul / These rich men north of Richmond / Lord knows they all just wanna have total control,” should rightfully perk up the ears of anyone who might wonder who those “rich men” might be. There has also been some online hand-wringing about a rant in the middle of the song against “the obese” who are “five foot three” and “three hundred pounds” and “milkin’ welfare.” Tax dollars, Anthony sings, should not be spent to buy them “bags of fudge rounds,” which, along with a line about how “your dollar ain’t shit and it’s taxed to no end,” is the only really explicit political comment in the lyrics. These specific complaints, I imagine, are not what titillated the conservative base, unless there’s some secret plan to cut people who are short or of unhealthy weight off of entitlements. What matters more is the part where Anthony proclaims: “It’s a damn shame what the world’s gotten to / For people like me and people like you.”
“Rich Men North of Richmond” appeared just a few days after Jason Aldean’s song “Try That in a Small Town” reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100. The popularity of “Small Town” was propelled, in no small part, by a great deal of anger about its lyrics, which warned people who “sucker punch somebody on a sidewalk,” “carjack an old lady at a red light,” or “pull a gun on the owner of a liquor store” that they wouldn’t get away with such things in a small town “full of good ol’ boys.” Aldean’s music video, which has been viewed roughly twenty-nine million times on YouTube, underscores the lyrics with a mélange of footage: convenience-store surveillance-camera footage that captures the moment of a robbery, video clips of young protesters flipping off the police and jumping on cop cars, and shadowy images of people, presumably the small-towners, armed with rifles. The message is clear: do not bring all that social justice and crime into our turf or you will get dealt with.
What seems to be happening is that a handful of conservative media figures who trigger the libs for a living have realized there might be good money in offensive or obliquely political music. “Try That in a Small Town” and “Rich Men North of Richmond” could be seen, then, as the conservative-media machine’s attempt to create their own gangster rap through easily manipulated viral channels. Instead of the violence and misogyny of the nineteen-sixties conservatism that worried boomers, you now have reactionary nostalgia that pines for the days of sundown towns, and, apparently, when people who are overweight did not receive welfare benefits. (The violence is the same.)
Whether this gambit will work or if Anthony is in on the trick is anyone’s guess. He has said that his political views are “pretty dead center,” and he does seem to rail against both Republicans and Democrats, but, until his big break last week, his songs were mostly apolitical small-town anthems that sounded like they were written with a fountain pen dipped in Merle Haggard’s ashes. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, for what it’s worth, but it’s certainly not novel. You can find sad, frustrated men singing Hank Williams’s songs in bars across America. So, why Oliver Anthony? “The main reason this song resonates with so many people isn’t political,” the conservative blogger and filmmaker Matt Walsh tweeted. “It’s because the song is raw and authentic. We are suffocated by artificiality. Everything around us is fake. A guy in the woods pouring his heart over his guitar is real.”
Anthony may very well be an industry plant sent to our social-media feeds to promote a nativist vision of this country, but, if a collection of right-wing Twitter accounts could boost any song to the top of the charts, Jack Posobiec would be the most powerful record executive in the country. There’s something else going on here that can’t be explained through some silly game in which you match the desires of a population with the words that appear in a song and then declare that a people—in this case the white working class—has found their anthem. Anthony might not be some “authentic” sensation, but that doesn’t mean he’s talentless. More than anything, he reminds me of the type of country singer who sings old songs to great acclaim on “American Idol,” but who may ultimately struggle when it comes time to cut a modern album. For the viewer, the delight comes in seeing someone make it but also in 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.
Much like “Idol” contestants, such as Bo Bice or Scotty McCreery, Anthony can really sing. His voice isn’t quite as smooth and virtuosic as the country star Chris Stapleton’s, but it carries a similar depth of tone and his screamy rasp never feels like the affectation of an amateur who is trying too hard, but rather does what it’s supposed to do: communicate emotion. What words are put to that voice are far less important than the nostalgia the music evokes, and, in Anthony’s case, the image of the authentic singer-songwriter.
“Authentic” is a loaded word in music, especially when it comes to country and the blues. It’s one of those things that you supposedly just know when you hear, but there’s a lot of image-making that goes into all that honesty. We commonly see it as a lone man with his guitar, preferably a strange one, standing in a field surrounded by the comforts of rural life. This vision is not only restricted to country. Les Blank’s short documentary, “The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins,” frames its titular subject in junk yards, on front porches, and in humble living rooms. When Blank’s camera is at its best, all this scenery gets blurred down into a pleasant, saturated bokeh. The video of Anthony performing “Rich Men North of Richmond” trades in these same motifs. We see Anthony standing at a microphone with a resonator guitar. There are three dogs of ambiguous breeds lying in the grass at his feet and, in the background, softly out of focus, we see the greenery of the rural South.
I should say here that I am not immune to these charms. When I first heard Townes Van Zandt, I felt that some truth had been revealed about how life can break and drag, but in a glamorous way. Lyrics like, “Well I used to wake and run with the moon / I lived like a rake and a young man” seemed to gesture toward some truth that sat deeper than most. The documentary “Heartworn Highways” captured Van Zandt in a kitchen with a beautiful woman and an old Black man in a cowboy hat who is reduced to tears when Van Zandt plays “Waitin’ Around to Die.” The markers of authenticity—the wood-panelled kitchen, the woman who alternates between cleaning dishes and smoking a cigarette, the grizzled Black man who, himself, also stands in for authenticity—could be pulled apart and declared problematic by any freshman in a critical-studies class. But they also work.
There are certainly better versions of the revanchist ethos found in “Rich Men North of Richmond,” but Anthony is neither the worst nor the most reactionary artist to sing about the plight of the common man. The pundits who may be trying to turn country music into gangster rap by fixating on a few, and in Anthony’s case, occasionally silly lyrics are vastly underestimating just how many country songs are about old-time feelings while also overestimating just how long a viral trend can last. In a year or two, Oliver Anthony may very well be playing to decent crowds and trying his best to distance himself from “Rich Men North of Richmond” so that he can play the types of folksy, “authentic” country songs that he seems to actually enjoy. I imagine this, ultimately, is what he might actually want. ♦