Rich Men North of Richmond:The hit song that has divided the US

“Rich Men North of Richmond” by Oliver Anthony has achieved massive viral success, marking the latest entry in a series of cultural flashpoints that mirror a profoundly divided America, as discussed by Caryn James.

Rich Men North of Richmond: The hit song that has divided the US

Amidst the ongoing culture wars that are driving divisions within US politics, the right-wing faction seems to have discovered its latest figurehead in Oliver Anthony, whether he embraces this role willingly or not. Last week, Anthony’s song “Rich Men North of Richmond,” which offers critiques of Washington and big government, was released on a West Virginia radio station’s YouTube channel. Almost instantly, the relatively unknown singer-songwriter catapulted into the realm of viral sensation, amassing over two million views within two days and exceeding 20 million views overall.

In the simple, unrefined video, Anthony, a robust individual sporting a prominent red beard and wielding a guitar, positions himself in a wooded setting, exuding the appearance and demeanor of an ordinary blue-collar laborer. He croons, “I’ve been sellin’ my soul, workin’ all day / Overtime hours for bullshit pay,” delivering his message with a down-to-earth sincerity. “It’s a damn shame what the world’s gotten to / For people like me and people like you,” he continues.

 

However, it wasn’t solely the working-class demographic that he struck a chord with. In a matter of days, the song attracted the attention of right-wing politicians, aligning seamlessly with certain conservative narratives that critique excessive taxation by the government and those reliant on welfare. Notably, Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene dubbed the song as the “anthem of the forgotten Americans.” Kari Lake, a Republican supported by Trump who vied for the governorship of Arizona, hailed it as “the anthem of this moment in American history.”

NBC News seized upon the story, branding it a “conservative anthem.” On the flip side, even figures on the left, such as Connecticut Democrat Senator Chris Murphy, weighed in, suggesting that “progressives should listen to this” and asserting that the issues Anthony raised were “all problems the left has better solutions to than the right.” This explosion of media attention surrounding the song was unmistakable.

 

While the musical allure of Anthony’s song is undoubtedly a factor, its emergence in both news and culture owes much to its potent political message. Curiously, in a video posted a day prior to the release of “Rich Men North of Richmond,” Anthony stated, “I sit pretty dead center on politics.” Despite the viral triumph of his track, he has refrained from interviews and declined to respond to inquiries from BBC Culture for comment.

Rich Men North of Richmond” is the latest addition to a string of contentious cultural flashpoints that underscore the intersection between popular culture and the profoundly divided landscape of US politics. Another recent illustration is Jason Aldean’s country hit “Try That In A Small Town,” featuring a video that incorporates imagery of violence and Black Lives Matter protests, along with lyrics implying that “good old boy” Americans can uphold law and order themselves. Music critic Jon Caramanica characterized the song on his New York Times podcast as “dog-whistle stuff, red meat for the [conservative] base.” Nonetheless, Aldean refuted any racial connotations, asserting that the song celebrates small-town values and lambasting the criticism as “not only meritless, but dangerous.”

Rich Men North of Richmond
(The contentious video for Jason Aldean’s popular song “Try That In A Small Town” was removed from Country Music Television.)

The recently released film “Sound of Freedom” has unexpectedly gained traction in the US, with some critics accepting its anti-child trafficking narrative, while others have hinted that it aligns with the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory, suggesting that liberals endorse crimes against children. Alejandro Monteverde, the director of “Sound of Freedom,” has expressed his dismay at being falsely associated with QAnon in interviews.

Contributing to Sales

Oliver Anthony’s “Rich Men North of Richmond” presents an archetype of the rural, beleaguered white working-class hero, and its lyrics resonate with the narrative of grievance propagated by certain right-wing politicians. His verses reference “the obese milkin’ welfare” and highlight the need for politicians to address miners’ concerns rather than just those of minors on an isolated island, a possible allusion to the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Anthony claims that the issue of child abuse drove him to speak out due to its perceived normalization.

Similarly, when the Aldean video faced criticism, his wife defended him on Instagram, urging a focus on real issues like child trafficking. This notion of child abuse being overlooked or normalized echoes elements of the widespread but unverified QAnon narrative, as critics have pointed out.

The “Try That in a Small Town” video was pulled from Country Music Television, and the brief Black Lives Matter images were subsequently removed due to copyright concerns, according to Aldean’s record label. Despite this, the controversy contributed to increased sales. Following the backlash to the video, demand surged by 999%, as reported by The Hollywood Reporter.

This recent controversy could potentially reshape Anthony’s trajectory, considering that his earlier, lesser-known songs centered around themes of drinking and labor. In his personal video, he reveals his journey towards sobriety and religion. If and when he delves further into politics, we may gain more insight. Currently, his song could become yet another tool wielded in the ongoing culture wars.

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