Oliver Anthony is the dog that caught the car.
He has scored 31 million YouTube views (to date) on the first song he recorded with a professional microphone. In 13 days. God knows how many more streams he’s had on Apple Music, Spotify, and all the other streaming services carrying “Rich Men North of Richmond.” And God knows how many more he will have by the time this chapter in his life is said and done.
He is the first artist ever to make his debut on the Billboard Hot 100 at number one. That’s right. His first song to be recorded with something other than a cell phone microphone is the number-one song in the United States.
And with all that unanticipated success, Anthony has yet to decide what to do. He has, it seems, decided what not to do, turning down some $8 million to continue living in his $750 camper.
But I’m not here to talk about Oliver Anthony. He’s more than capable of doing that himself if he wants. I’m here to talk about the 31 million, and a good number of other people besides.
Anthony has clearly caught some kind of lightning in some kind of bottle. And just about everybody is angry, either with him or about him. That millions more people find and listen to the song every day is clear evidence that it resonates with them, and the song is pure anger.
It’s a damn shame what the world’s gotten to / For people like me and people like you / Wish I could just wake up and it not be true / But it is, oh, it is.
And we can argue about where the shame is. We can point out that people live a long time compared to their forebears, that they eat better and have more comforts than at any time in human history, that literacy rates are high, that children are not forced to work long hours in mines, factories, or on farms, that our houses are bigger, our cars are safer, our food is cheaper. We can point all of that out, but the simple fact of the matter is a sizable minority of our population isn’t taking part in the spoils of modern life, and an even bigger subset, perhaps even a majority, are convinced they aren’t either.
And they’re getting angrier.
So when Oliver Anthony confirms one group’s experiences, and the other group’s biases, they all listen. With a vengeance.
But here’s where the story gets interesting, because Anthony doesn’t go for the usual villains. He doesn’t point his accusing finger at the one-percent or evil corporations, he goes right for that 68-or-so square miles of land sandwiched between Virginia and Maryland and the sort of people who inevitably find their way there.
These rich men north of Richmond / Lord knows they all just wanna have total control / Wanna know what you think, wanna know what you do / And they don’t think you know, but I know that you do / ‘Cause your dollar ain’t shit and it’s taxed to no end / ‘Cause of rich men north of Richmond.
And when he went for the politicians, tribalism kicked in about as fast as the IV chord follows the I.
The left-leaning media (read: the media) pounced fast and hard.
New York’s Intelligencer led with “Oliver Anthony and the Incoherence of Right-Wing Populism.” Variety came up with “Oliver Anthony’s ‘Rich Men North of Richmond’ Is an Instant Smash Among Conservatives, While Progressives Wonder if He’s a ‘Plant.’” Britain’s The Guardian, still not understanding much about the former colonies, came up with “Rich Men North of Richmond punches down. No surprise the right wing loves it.”
You would be forgiven for thinking this was some sort of new right-wing national anthem, given the breathless coverage.
But who wouldn’t want you to think that? Oliver Anthony. He says he’s been “middle of the road” most of his life, and he makes his political point of view pretty clear in another song, “Doggonit.”
And Republicans and Democrats / Lord I swear they’re all just full of crap / I ain’t never seen a good city-slickin’ bureaucrat
And that’s the real appeal, and the danger moving forward. If the rich men north of Richmond don’t find some way to rise above their self-serving antics, we can expect this anger to grow, and nothing good will come of it.