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The Misguided Debate Over “Rich Men North of Richmond”

The Misguided Debate Over “Rich Men North of Richmond”

Why is so much press coverage of this viral song focused solely on politics?

Singer-songwriter Oliver Anthony playing guitar and singing
Oliver Anthony / RadioWV / YouTube

Welcome to Up for Debate. Each week, Conor Friedersdorf rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Question of the Week

What do you think of the viral hit song “Rich Men North of Richmond”?

Send your responses to [email protected] or simply reply to this email.

Conversations of Note

Last Tuesday, an obscure YouTube channel was updated with a three-minute-and-10-second video of a man with a red beard and a guitar standing outdoors singing an original song called “Rich Men North of Richmond.” As I write, that video featuring the theretofore unknown singer-songwriter Oliver Anthony has exceeded 18 million views. The song has been uploaded to, and is thriving on, all the major streaming platforms. And it is selling copies. The song reached No. 1 on the all-genre iTunes chart, the Los Angeles Times reported; “Anthony’s other songs, ‘Ain’t Gotta Dollar’ and ‘I’ve Got to Get Sober’ have even relegated Jason Aldean’s controversial ballad ‘Try That in a Small Town’ to the No. 4 position on the chart.”

The song’s lyrics probe political themes as surely as Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” or Pulp’s “Common People” or Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” so it’s understandable that political magazines and commentators are talking about it. Still, I’m struck by how little coverage there is of “Rich Men North of Richmond” as art. No song goes this viral without resonating with listeners on an aesthetic level. Nevertheless, even publications that rose to prominence based on their art criticism are covering the song through the lens of politics. A headline in Rolling Stone reads“Right-Wing Influencers Just Found Their Favorite New Country Song.” An article in The A.V. Club poses the question, “So, how did [the song’s success] happen?” and answers, “It’s largely conservatives.” Here’s an excerpt from Variety:

Since the Virginia native’s “Rich Men North of Richmond” song began taking off from out of nowhere less than a week ago, the Appalachian country-folk singer has been acclaimed by freshly minted fans as a phenomenon of the people and accused by detractors of harboring ugly right-wing attitudes or suspected of being an “industry plant.”

The suspicions of progressive music fans have largely to do with the fast numbers he’s racked up as an independent artist with supposedly no industry backing … What’s known about Anthony … comes largely through a YouTube monologue he put up … “I sit pretty dead center down the aisle on politics and, always have,” Anthony says … “I remember as a kid the conservatives wanting war, and me not understanding that. And I remember a lot of the controversies when the left took office, and it seems like, you know, both sides serve the same master. And that master is not someone of any good to the people of this country.”

But if an artist is known by the fans they keep, the highest-profile fans Anthony has quickly accumulated are very much on the right … like former Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene … and far-right country figure John Rich … If Anthony wants to prove the centrism he professes by picking up some less partisan public figures as fans, he may have his work cut out for him, given the way he’s instantly been embraced as a hero to the right.

I struggle to imagine a mainstream media site reacting to Barack Obama or Nancy Pelosi’s praise of a songwriter by suggesting that the artist is therefore a presumptively leftist act who ought to be covered mainly as a political and politicized phenomenon. At the very least, Anthony should be judged by his own actions and words, not the social-media posts of right-wing opportunists with an incentive to associate themselves with anything popular that is not obviously left-coded. Preemptively assigning figures such as Anthony to existing ideological or culture-war factions is needlessly polarizing and can even be self-fulfilling. Mashable dedicates much of its coverage to the possibility that Anthony has some objectionable right-wing beliefs, whereas almost no one outside the most reactionary right-wing websites cares when a leftist singer-songwriter turns out to have some objectionable left-wing beliefs, because that’s not why millions were attracted to the music. Jay Caspian Kang’s reaction at The New Yorker––co-signed by Eric Levitz at Intelligencer––was among a minority of coverage that took the music seriously.

Kang wrote:

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.

A nuanced discussion of what “authenticity” even means in this context follows.

A Conservative Critique of “Rich Men North of Richmond”

Mark Antonio Wright published one in National Review:

In a world full of Nashville pop-country sludge, Anthony sings with an authentic passion, and many people were instantly taken with his raw and raspy voice. In just the time that you may have been on summer vacation, he came out of nowhere, going from a complete unknown to a musical celebrity as the song spread virally on YouTube and Twitter.

That’s a great American story, but I don’t understand the adulation on the right for this song’s message.

Anthony sings:

I’ve been sellin’ my soul, workin’ all day
Overtime hours for bullshit pay
So I can sit out here and waste my life away
Drag back home and drown my troubles away

My brother in Christ, you live in the United States of America in 2023—if you’re a fit, able-bodied man, and you’re working “overtime hours for bullshit pay,” you need to find a new job.

There’s plenty of them out there—jobs that don’t require a college degree, that offer good pay (especially in this tight labor market) and great benefits, especially if you’re willing to get your hands dirty by doing things like joining the Navy, turning wrenches, fixing pumps, laying pipe, or a hundred other jobs through which American men can still make a great living. If you’re the type of guy who’s willing to show up on time, every time, work hard while you’re on the clock, and learn hard skills—there’s a good-paying job out there for you. Go find it. And if you go home and spend all night drowning your troubles away—either on TikTok or by drinking too much—my friend, that’s your fault, not Washington’s. Not that Washington is helping any—it’s not. But when we waste our lives, it’s still our own fault … Washington is not the cause of our national sickness; it’s a symptom. We, as citizens, as men, still hold it in our power to ignore the corrosive effects of our politics and the popular culture and get on with living the good life: get a job, get married, raise your kids up right, get involved with your church, read good books, teach your boys to hunt, be present in the lives of your family and friends, help your neighbors.

After a lot of pushback from readers, he doubled down.

“Typically Terrible Arguments”

Songs are ill-suited to ground political debates, Jonah Goldberg argues in a newsletter from The Dispatch:

Now, if the claims of the song were an op-ed, I’d agree pretty much entirely with National Review’s Mark Antonio Wright, who apparently has caught holy hell for daring to disagree with, for want of a better term, the policy substance of a frick’n song. But I find this sort of grading of songs pretty tedious. Give me an hour and I can give you 1,000 words explaining why Lennon’s “Imagine” is otherworldly, romantic claptrap. But why bother? I can give you another 1,000 words on why Edwin Starr’s “War (What Is it Good For)?” would not be well-received by Holocaust victims, American slaves, or Ukrainians resisting Russian genocide.

But songs are typically terrible arguments, so it’s better to spend time debating actual, you know, arguments not set to music. This isn’t a criticism of Wright, who was responding to all of the people hailing “Rich Men North of Richmond” as some bold truth-telling anthem. It is for some people, and that’s fine. That doesn’t mean the people who take the song literally are right about their preferred policies—or that they’re wrong.

I agree. But if you disagree and want to read people who use the lyrics as the basis of political analysis, then see Hamilton Nolan and Noah Smith for two extremely different perspectives.

Some Like It Hotter

Olga Khazan argues in The Atlantic that the growing population of the Sun Belt is explained by three of its features:

The South may be approaching the approximate ambient temperature of Venus, but that’s no deterrent. People keep wanting to move there. (I count myself among these people, as someone who has dedicated the past year of my life to finding a house in Florida.) This unstoppable appeal of Sun Belt cities rests on three factors: These places tend to have less expensive housing, lots of jobs, and warm winters. None of these is sufficient to attract people in large numbers, but together they seem to generate an irresistible force, sucking up disaffected northerners and Californians like a fiery tornado.

These days, you don’t have to wonder how the other half lives. You can open up Redfin and see how much house you can get in Dallas for less than your New York rent. The median home price in Los Angeles is $975,000. The median home price in the Phoenix suburb of Chandler is $520,000. Once you have this knowledge, it can be hard to evict it from your mind. What would you do with an extra half a million dollars? …

The Sun Belt cities that have soared are mostly in states with low taxes, which helps attract businesses. But many are also home to prominent universities that churn out highly educated workers. They’ve successfully created “agglomeration economies” of lots of similar types of companies in close proximity. Austin has the University of Texas, an Apple campus, and throngs of upwardly mobile Californians and New Yorkers who have fled high house prices …

Warm winters seem to act as an accelerant on cheap housing and plentiful jobs. People will vaguely consider a place with lots of new businesses and $300,000 homes, but once they see a few hundred Instagram posts of 70-degree February days, they call the moving company.

“Does Color-Blindness Perpetuate Racism?”

The writers Coleman Hughes and Jamelle Bouie squared off in a debate about that question that you can watch here.

Provocation of the Week

In an Atlantic article titled “I’m a Black Professor. You Don’t Need to Bring That Up,” Tyler Austin Harper argues that “anti-racists are overcorrecting.” He writes:

As a Black guy who grew up in a politically purple area—where being a good person meant adhering to the kind of civil-rights-era color-blindness that is now passé—I find this emergent anti-racist culture jarring. Many of my liberal friends and acquaintances now seem to believe that being a good person means constantly reminding Black people that you are aware of their Blackness. Difference, no longer to be politely ignored, is insisted upon at all times under the guise of acknowledging “positionality.” Though I am rarely made to feel excessively aware of my race when hanging out with more conservative friends or visiting my hometown, in the more liberal social circles in which I typically travel, my race is constantly invoked—“acknowledged” and “centered”—by well-intentioned anti-racist “allies.”

This “acknowledgement” tends to take one of two forms. The first is the song and dance in which white people not-so-subtly let you know that they know that race and racism exist. This includes finding ways to interject discussion of some (bad) news item about race or racism into casual conversation, apologizing for having problems while white (“You’re the last person I should be whining to”), or inversely, offering “support” by attributing any normal human problem you have to racism.

The second way good white liberals often “center” racial difference in everyday interactions with minorities is by trying, always clumsily, to ensure that their “marginalized” friends and familiars are “culturally” comfortable. My favorite personal experiences of this include an acquaintance who invariably steers dinner or lunch meetups to Black-owned restaurants, and the time that a friend of a friend invited me over to go swimming in their pool before apologizing for assuming that I know how to swim (“I know that’s a culturally specific thing”). It is a peculiar quirk of the 2020s’ racial discourse that this kind of “acknowledgement” and “centering” is viewed as progress.

My point is not that conservatives have better racial politics—they do not—but rather that something about current progressive racial discourse has become warped and distorted. The anti-racist culture that is ascendant seems to me to have little to do with combatting structural racism or cultivating better relationships between white and Black Americans. And its rejection of color-blindness as a social ethos is not a new frontier of radical political action.

No, at the core of today’s anti-racism is little more than a vibe shift—a soft matrix of conciliatory gestures and hip phraseology that give adherents the feeling that there has been a cultural change, when in fact we have merely put carpet over the rotting floorboards. Although this push to center rather than sidestep racial difference in our interpersonal relationships comes from a good place, it tends to rest on a troubling, even racist subtext: that white and Black Americans are so radically different that interracial relationships require careful management, constant eggshell-walking, and even expert guidance from professional anti-racists. Rather than producing racial harmony, this new ethos frequently has the opposite effect, making white-Black interactions stressful, unpleasant, or, perhaps most often, simply weird.

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