‘Rich Men North of Richmond’ undermines solidarity

The Miscellany News.

Internet virality functions on an immense scale. Videos, photographs, memes, songs and more can be thrust into the spotlight with little financial backing, powered by users sharing and viewing content in a matter of hours. Although viral works may be simply comedic, enjoyable or bizarre, certain people reach stardom by capturing the collective attention and support (or condemnation) of millions. Recently, Oliver Anthony’s emotional track “Rich Men North of Richmond” achieved this status, making him the first ever artist to debut #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 without prior charting history. However, despite receiving the support of countless listeners, Anthony’s populist, anthemic lyrics deserve close examination regarding their potentially reactionary content.

American country and folk music have, throughout their history, been notably tinged with the social, political and economic conditions of their time. Folk music is particularly useful for disseminating political messages, with many artists encouraging audiences to collectively relate or respond to their lyrics. Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin” captures the social upheaval and hopes of the Civil Rights era, whereas Woody Guthrie often expressed anti-fascist views within his songs in the 1930s and ’40s. In a similar manner, “Rich Men North of Richmond” paints a snapshot of America’s current political moment. Over an acoustic resonator guitar, Anthony laments, “Well, I’ve been selling my soul, working all day/Overtime hours, for bullshit pay”. In a twangy voice, he makes a popular appeal to fellow workers—blue-collar Americans scrambling to make ends meet. The verse and pre-chorus are standard for country-folk music, perhaps being a bit more direct than the previously mentioned historical examples.

When the song enters its chorus, Anthony begins to directly blame those he sees responsible for the plight of the working class. As for the titular “rich men north of Richmond”—politicians in Washington, D.C.—Anthony sings, “Lord, knows they all just wanna have total control”. Decreased spending power is blamed on the dollar being “taxed to no end,” a somewhat confusing turn in the road for Anthony’s message. Although taxes are easy to track as a loss of income on one’s paycheck, Anthony does not attempt to question why he isn’t paid enough. Politicians are identified as an enemy in this regard, but it is not for a lack of necessary legislation around wages. Rather, Anthony chooses to place the brunt of the blame on taxation and government interference, failing to examine the benefits accrued by the CEOs and politicians who collaboratively ensure he receives his “bullshit pay.”

In the second verse, the song once again stumbles after its egalitarian opening. He acknowledges the homelessness crisis and food insecurity, noting that “Lord, we got folks in the street, ain’t got nothin’ to eat.” However, this is directly juxtaposed with his claim that the obese are “milkin’ welfare,” circling back earlier complaints with the line, “Taxes ought not to pay for your bags of Fudge Rounds.” These criticisms echo Reagan-era rhetoric surrounding “welfare queens,” women who supposedly collected enormous amounts of wealth through welfare. The phrase is, to this day, used as a racial dog-whistle to attack Black women in particular. Rather than acknowledging why welfare recipients need support (for reasons such as job loss, injury, disability or general assistance to stay afloat), Anthony chooses to sow divisiveness among impoverished Americans. He brandishes one group as the undeserving, lazy poor, whereas the the others “puttin’ themselves six feet in the ground” are the only people who deserve better living conditions. 

The implicit racial tensions within this dynamic are hard to ignore, demonstrating Anthony’s general ignorance around American labor history and the politics of poverty. Especially for groups who are unable to work and forced to subsist on the minimal benefits of welfare—such as the disabled—Anthony’s lyrics are baffling. This is especially ironic when one realizes that, according to American Songwriter, Anthony himself was unable to work for months due a job-related injury. Additionally, those who utilize the option of welfare do so because they are eligible and in need of support; they are not leeches to the system or less-than-human for requiring aid to make ends meet. Even as Anthony sets himself up perfectly to unite the poor against the creators of their inequality, he instead chooses to undermine class solidarity and punch down on particular groups of impoverished individuals.

The contradictory substance of “Rich Men North of Richmond” is perhaps key to the widespread attention the song has received. Various left-of-center listeners can easily support Anthony’s lyrics around working-class troubles, whereas conservatives feel their positions echoed in the lines on taxation and welfare. The song has recently been promoted by conservative politicians like Marjorie Taylor Greene, even receiving a shoutout during the first Republican presidential debate. In the wake of national attention, Anthony shot back with a YouTube video critiquing the GOP, saying he “wrote that song about those people” according to NBC News. Anthony has been quoted by The Messenger as saying he is “dead center” politically, rejecting both the left and the right in various comments and interviews. Recently, he has also expressed support for diversity, adopting the view of America as a melting pot as reported by People. 

In the end, the combination of Anthony’s views, priorities, interviews and statements paint a difficult picture without a divisive “side” being taken. This jarring culmination may seem opaque, but the popularity of Anthony’s work can be used as a view into the mind of the median American. Millions of people like Anthony are festering with a dual anger towards various enemies—some richer and some poorer than themselves—while completely renouncing politics. This collective neurosis demands political solutions to political problems without any desire to participate in political action. There’s partial validity when we consider how our governments fail us everyday; it is impossible to not feel exhausted by the slow pace of racial, economic and societal progress. However, this position is further undermined by the blame Americans like Anthony choose to place on others who share their struggles. Understood as a decisively indecisive and self-undermining musical anthem, “Rich Men North of Richmond” is far more valuable as a window into America’s current state of affairs (akin to Dylan and Guthrie’s work) rather than anything to do with its backwards messaging; the very appeal of the song lies within its contradictions. 

One Comment

  1. Saw him perform on a very hot day, August 13, 2023 at Morris Farm Store in Burgaw, North Carolina. His song had been released just five days earlier but there were massive crowds. People brought their babies. A wonderful crowd and day

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The Miscellany News reserves the right to publish or not publish any comment submitted for approval on our website. Factors that could cause a comment to be rejected include, but are not limited to, personal attacks, inappropriate language, statements or points unrelated to the article, and unfounded or baseless claims. Additionally, The Misc reserves the right to reject any comment that exceeds 250 words in length. There is no guarantee that a comment will be published, and one week after the article’s release, it is less likely that your comment will be accepted. Any questions or concerns regarding our comments section can be directed to Misc@vassar.edu.