Oliver Anthony’s viral sensation, “Rich Men North of Richmond,” has ignited a fervent debate across the United States, underscoring the country’s deep-seated divisions. Caryn James delves into this cultural flashpoint and its unexpected impact.
In the ongoing cultural battle lines that cleave through American politics, Oliver Anthony has emerged as an unlikely figurehead for the right wing. Last week, his track “Rich Men North of Richmond,” a scathing critique of government and big institutions, was unveiled on a West Virginia radio station’s YouTube channel. Almost instantaneously, the relatively unknown singer-songwriter became an internet sensation, racking up over two million views within two days and amassing a staggering 20 million views to date. The music video features Anthony, a robust fellow sporting a fiery red beard, standing amidst wooded surroundings. His appearance and demeanor channel that of the everyday blue-collar worker. With his guitar in hand, he belts out, “I’ve been sellin’ my soul, workin’ all day / Overtime hours for meaningless pay,” capturing the frustrations of his peers. “It’s a lamentable state the world’s fallen into / For folks like me and folks like you.”
The resonating message didn’t solely capture the attention of the working-class “you” he directly addressed. Swiftly, right-wing politicians seized upon the song, which seamlessly aligns with conservative narratives critiquing government overreach and welfare programs. Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene hailed the song as “the anthem of forgotten Americans,” and Kari Lake, the Trump-endorsed Republican contender for Arizona’s gubernatorial race, hailed it as “the anthem of this juncture in American history.” NBC News covered the story, christening it a “conservative anthem.” On the left, Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut urged progressives to give it a listen, while pointing out that the issues Anthony raised were challenges the left purportedly has superior solutions for. The song’s media coverage exploded.
Yet, beyond its musical appeal, the song’s prominent political message thrust it into the limelight. Curiously, in a video posted a day prior to the release of “Rich Men,” Anthony stated, “I stand firmly in the center on political matters.” Since the song’s viral triumph, he’s chosen to stay mum, declining interviews and ignoring BBC Culture’s inquiry.
“Rich Men North of Richmond” is the latest addition to a series of contentious cultural touchpoints that underscore the intersection between pop culture and the deeply polarized American political landscape. Another recent case in point is Jason Aldean’s country hit, “Try That In A Small Town.” Its video juxtaposed scenes of violence and Black Lives Matter protests, with lyrics hinting that “good old boy” Americans can uphold law and order themselves. Critic Jon Caramanica dubbed it “dog-whistle material, catering to the [conservative] base.” However, Aldean refuted allegations of racial undertones, portraying the song as a tribute to small-town values, lambasting critics for their unfounded claims.
Similarly, the newly-released film “Sound of Freedom” experienced an unexpected surge in popularity, with some reviewers taking its anti-child-trafficking theme at face value, while others suggested it echoed the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory. Director Alejandro Monteverde expressed dismay at the erroneous QAnon label.
“Rich Men North of Richmond” embodies the image of the rural, beleaguered white working-class hero, aligning with the narrative of grievance championed by certain right-wing politicians. Anthony’s lyrics decry “the overweight milking welfare,” and he also voices, “I yearn for politicians to stand by miners / Not just minors on a faraway isle,” which some interpret as an allusion to the disgraced sex offender, Jeffrey Epstein. In a video, Anthony revealed that child abuse drove him to speak out, stating, “I couldn’t stand by as it became normalized.” Parallelly, when Aldean’s video faced backlash, his wife defended him on Instagram, imploring critics to focus on real issues like child trafficking. This mirrors the widely debunked QAnon narrative, as critics have noted.
Although CMT pulled the “Try That in a Small Town” video and excised six seconds of Black Lives Matter imagery due to copyright concerns, the controversy bolstered sales. Following the video’s backlash, which followed its release by two months, demand surged by a staggering 999%, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
This latest controversy could reshape Anthony’s trajectory. Previously known for songs about drinking and labor, he now represents the persona of a rehabilitated rural white worker, with his newfound sobriety and faith. His musical prowess might be harnessed as a weapon in the ongoing culture wars, especially if he decides to delve deeper into political themes. At present, “Rich Men North of Richmond” stands poised as yet another catalyst in this ever-expanding cultural divide.
If you enjoyed this narrative, subscribe to the weekly features newsletter by bbc.com named The Essential List. This curated compilation of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife, and Travel will arrive in your inbox every Friday. To share your thoughts on this story or anything else related to BBC Culture, visit our Facebook page or reach out to us on Twitter