The Virginia singer-songwriter speaks to the frustration of being poor in the South. But instead of blaming it on “rich men north of Richmond,” he blames it on other poor people.
The tragedy of Oliver Anthony’s smash song isn’t the co-opting by conspiracy theorists, politicians, and cable news networks with an agenda.
It’s this verse:
“I wish politicians would look out for miners
And not just minors on an island somewhere
Lord, we got folks in the street, ain’t got nothin’ to eat
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”
Until then, Anthony was on to something.
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Your social media feed’s probably obsessed with “Rich Men North of Richmond,” a song written and performed by a singer from Virginia who reportedly worked industrial in North Carolina.
In the span of a few hours, he went from part-time musician to top of the charts. People like Joe Rogan cosigned him. Last week, he packed a farmer’s market in Barco, a coastal community in Currituck County. Afterward, he talked online about the people who came up to him to bare their soul.
It’s almost inspiring.
“I’ve been sellin’ my soul, workin’ all day
Overtime hours for bullshit pay.”
Hear, hear. But poverty is complicated.
It’s built over generations, fostered by poorly funded education systems, exacerbated by regional instability, and survived by a whole lot of other things that’s hard to fit in a song — although if you’re looking for a song that does that, B.B. King’s “Why I Sing the Blues” is as good as it gets.
“Rich Men North of Richmond” isn’t a bad song, but that’s not really what this is about. Jason Aldean’s “Try That In a Small Town,” a less compelling cliché, was the song earlier this summer. Now it’s Oliver Anthony’s song. Anthony has a raw, bluesy yowl where Aldean sounds like he recorded it literally inside of a beer commercial.
What matters about Anthony’s song is how people take their well-worn myths as fact. That immigrants are stealing your job and ruining your life, that poor people on government assistance programs are lazy, dependent, Black, and not, in fact, poor.
Anthony’s song is doomed by its simplicity, and by a pain the singer seems to feel more than he understands.
And by its painful irony, that the audience it’s resonating with is obsessed with a rich man from New York who has a record of policy that makes it harder for working people to eat, see a doctor, or pay for childcare. In short, to live.
‘Just some idiot and his guitar.’
Anthony strikes a complicated pose.
He’s a self-described political centrist who claims to have turned down million-dollar recording contracts. Like Aldean, Anthony says he’s not interested in politics and divisiveness, but “Rich Men North of Richmond” is a political song even if Trump’s name or Biden’s name is never said.
In a follow-up video, he’s self-deprecating but speaks in the third person. He says we should try relating to people we don’t know, and we should be kind, but his song is as pissed as it is sad.
He takes long pauses before he speaks. He talks about religion. He’s quiet, but he crackles like the air before a storm. It’s profound and menacing.
I know these Southern men. They were fathers and uncles and brothers. We all have demons. But theirs’ feel like they might spring out and get you too.
What’s different, and potentially compelling, about Anthony is he talks about depression, addiction, and job loss—things intimately known but rarely spoken of by many families with a working class background, including mine.
But there are dog whistles too. Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy, something Anthony is almost certainly aware of.
The South is a place of great duality. Just because one thing is true doesn’t make another opposed thing not true. This song, which can—in one breath—speak truth, tells lies in the next.
It laments the frustration, sadness, and pain of working-class people in the South, something plainly obvious to newcomers and natives alike. And, like a reflex, lays the blame where that blame has been laid for generations—on other poor people, the ones who are Black or Brown.
Anthony forgets the “rich men north of Richmond” and fixates on poor migrants searching for a better life.
People receiving government benefits are a diverse lot, but it hardly matters that Anthony doesn’t name the race of his junk food-gobbling welfare recipient. There’s a mental image white Southerners have of the person Anthony’s describing, and that person is Black.
They’re the “welfare queen” Ronald Reagan campaigned on, the same one the journalist David Zucchino exposed as myth in his 1999 book. People on government assistance programs almost always need it, and they usually use it as a springboard, not a bed to lay in.
When Republicans—and Joe Manchin—torpedoed the extension of the 2021 child tax credit, they said they were axing another handout. They neglected to mention the program, which sent monthly checks to parents, slashed childhood poverty by 30%.
We all need to unpack our cliches. And the cliches repeated by Anthony’s song are as misleading as they are pernicious. They make poor people fight with each other and not the people who write the laws that hurt poor people the most.
The rich men north of Richmond, so to speak.
“Three chords and the truth,” goes the old saying about good songs. “Rich Men North of Richmond” seems to get a glimpse of the truth. Then it gets into all the same old stuff.