Don’t you hate it when a song gets stuck in your head? And don’t you hate it even more when it’s a song that’s been adopted by tragic reactionaries as a call-to-action protest anthem? Unfortunately that’s what happened last week with the viral country song “Rich Men North of Richmond”. Recorded by complete unknown Oliver Anthony, it rails against taxes, “welfare cheats”, the obese. Endorsements duly rolled in from the right-wing media sphere: podcaster Joe Rogan said he “loved it”, while commentator Matt Walsh branded it “raw and authentic”. Since its release, it’s clocked over 30 million views on YouTube and has zipped to the top of the charts – first the iTunes country chart, then, in an unprecedented record for a previously uncharted artist, the very top of the Billboard Hot 100.
Fans of the song have hailed it as giving a voice to the disaffected working class; detractors have criticised it for dog whistle messaging. Leaving aside the politics, though, the song is… just not great. Musically, it’s fine. Anthony, a former factory worker and farmer who apparently lives off the grid in Virginia, has an unvarnished voice, and his guitar playing is competent. The tune is simple and melodic, if rather repetitive. But the words are where it comes unstuck. Lyrically, “Rich Men North of Richmond” is doggerel – an artless, blunt-force hissy fit.
Let’s break down the lyrics a bit, lest you think I’m being harsh. Anthony begins the song with a working man’s lament: “I’ve been sellin’ my soul, workin’ all day / Overtime hours for bulls*** pay / So I can sit out here and waste my life away / Drag back home and drown my troubles away.” So far, so fine. A lot of monosyllables, and the slightly dubious decision to rhyme “away” with “away”, but nothing ruinous.
Then we have the chorus. “Livin’ in the new world / With an old soul / These rich men north of Richmond / Lord knows they all just wanna have total control,” he sings. The use of a geological dividing line perhaps evokes the American Civil War, and the US’s intractable North-South political schism. It’s not clear exactly what he means by “old soul” (didn’t he sell his soul at the start of the song?), a phrase most often applied to a person wise beyond their years. Does he mean this? You suspect it may be “old” in a more atavistic sense – the suggestion that he must belong to that sweet, forgotten Southern past, before political correctness and big government came trampling through the wheatfields.
The “rich men north of Richmond” (this last word pronounced “Richmen” to concoct a sweaty homonym) is another phrase that’s insidious in its vaguery. Who exactly does he mean? Politicians? Perhaps. By leaving the lyric open to interpretation, Anthony allows listeners to align their own personal bêtes noires within the song’s crosshairs, whether that’s senators, coastal elites, or, as online antisemites are predictably claiming, “the Jews”. The chorus charges ahead, complaining that these wealthy north-situated men “wanna know what you think / wanna know what you do / and they don’t think you know / but I know that you do”. By this point, it’s clear the song is uninterested in any discernible rhyme scheme (“you do” is paired with “you do”), and has the ring of conspiracy about it. At least the songwriting is consistent: woolly and loaded “us against them” rhetoric, expressed with a vocabulary that a six-year-old could understand.
Anthony finishes the chorus with a jab at tax rates – a theme which he then expands upon in verse two. “I wish politicians would look out for miners / And not just minors on an island somewhere,” he continues. A clunky piece of wordplay, maybe, one which can be read as an allusion to Jeffrey Epstein and his network of child predation. The link between politicians and child sex trafficking is frequent fodder for American conspiracy theorists, and this line only heightens the sense of dog whistle paranoia that pervades Anthony’s lyrics. Something perhaps relevant: the musician’s official YouTube page features a curated playlist that includes two 9/11 “truther” conspiracy theory videos. The playlist is called “Videos that make your noggin get bigger”. It worked for me, though that might just be swelling from hammering my face into the wall after watching.
Much of the criticism of the song has focused on the next few lines. “Lord, we got folks in the street, ain’t got nothin’ to eat,” Anthony sings, “And the obese milkin’ welfare / Well, God, if you’re 5-foot-3 and you’re 300 pounds / Taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds.” This segment represents the nadir of his rhetoric – an ungenerous, fatphobic tangent which places the blame for society’s ills on the unhealthy poor, not, as his thesis originally proposed, the unspecified rich northerly men – but also the low point of his songwriting craft. “Obese” is stressed with a jarring first-syllable emphasis. Everything from “taxes” through to “fudge rounds” is almost laughably inelegant, a witless man’s clumsy stab at bon mot.
All of which is to say: “Rich Men North of Richmond” is not a good song. But its success points to a dispiriting trend in country music. The song it displaced at the top of the iTunes chart, Jason Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town”, is an even more controversial composition, a pro-gun anthem that has been branded a “modern lynching song” (Aldean has called this reading “meritless”). “Stomp on the flag and light it up… Well, try that in a small town / See how far ya make it down the road,” he sings. This song, too, is not just objectionable – it’s crap. Overproduced, naff, and linguistically insipid. There are plenty of country artists out there making accomplished, politically charged music – Jason Isbell, Margo Price, the Chicks – but almost always from the opposing aisle.
There is an irony too in the fact that the “new world” Anthony bemoans in the chorus of “Rich Men North of Richmond” is entirely responsible for his overnight success: where else could he have surged to such swift popularity, but along the internet’s algorithmic rapids? Conservatives have celebrated his song as a call for unity, a work of blue-collar solidarity – but its sudden popularity is still rooted in the bitter factionalism that continues to rot American politics. It has become a hit not because of its lyrical grace or musical exceptionalism, but because of what it represents. Underneath it all, Anthony’s song is a work of banal and unyielding affirmation. You’re good. They’re bad. Don’t change. Where’s the protest in that?
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