Religion & Liberty Online

“Rich Men North of Richmond” Is Whatever You Want It to Be

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Oliver Anthony’s controversial #1 Billboard hit stands in a long line of protest songs. But doth he protest too much?

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A song addressing such salient political issues as currency debasement, the displacement of miners in our green economy, and the Fudge Rounds Question achieved a feat Taylor Swift’s “Anti-Hero” and Miley Cyrus’s “Flowers” could not.

Oliver Anthony’s “Rich Men North of Richmond” hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for the second consecutive week. It looks unlikely to abdicate its position soon. As Billboard points out, “Of the 34 songs to premiere atop the Hot 100 this decade, it’s just the second to increase in streams (17.5 million to 22.9 million) in its second week.” In other words, in contrast to Swift’s and Cyrus’s recent monster hits, it gained rather than lost momentum after its first week.

The temptation to group “Rich Men North of Richmond” with Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” and Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee”—country songs delving into political controversies in a similarly explicit way—appears understandable. But this sensation seems a closer fit to what some call “topical songs” and others “protest music.”

About half of all country music covertly fits that latter label. Country singers speak truth to power, calling out the forces so effective in impeding people from their pursuit of happiness that few understand those forces as oppression. Webb Pierce protested the King James Bible’s Sixth Commandment in “Back Street Affair,” Kris Kristofferson protested hangovers in “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” Jerry Jeff Walker protested the cruelties of Father Time in “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” Johnny Paycheck protested bosses in “Take This Job and Shove It,” and Garth Brooks protested the turned-up noses of fancy people in “Friends in Low Places.”

In “Rich Men North of Richmond,” Anthony protests wealthy Washingtonians who feel entitled to the money, the privacy, and, ultimately, the dignity of people who live elsewhere. As with Pierce, Kristofferson, Walker, Paycheck, and Brooks, critics question whether what he describes amounts to oppression at all. But surely the tyrannies these men sing about vex them as much as fatphobia and misgendering do others.

Ironically, Anthony spent his first weekend atop the Billboard Hot 100 lamenting that political people politicized his very political song.

“That song has nothing to do with Joe Biden,” he explained on social media after “Rich Men North of Richmond” became a talking point at last week’s Republican presidential debate. “You know, it’s a lot bigger than Joe Biden.”

He subsequently felt compelled to quash any talk that he supports the president.

“Rich Men North of Richmond is about corporate owned DC politicians on both sides,” the bearded redhead wrote on Facebook. “Though Biden’s most certainly a problem, the lyrics aren’t exclusively knocking Biden, it’s bigger and broader than that. It’s knocking the system collectively. Including the corporate owned conservative pol[i]tic[i]ans that were on stage that night.”

Perhaps Anthony finds his admirers more irksome than his critics.

As for the latter, Billy Bragg, a protest singer of another era, wrote a response song, “Rich Men Earning North of a Million,” that fell short of his own “Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards” as well as Anthony’s hit. It almost sounds like a song AI might have written in the voice of Robot Billy Bragg. Its solution seemed not of this era or his era but of Joe Hill’s: “Join a union, fight for better pay/Join a union, brother, organize today.” Not through bimetallism or the single tax but through unionism does working-class salvation come.


Bragg is not the only leftist who claimed that a song attacking rich men by name really “punched down” on the working class.

“Sexism and classism is a two course meal served only to working poor women, the lowest rung on our societal ladder,” Cyrus Cordon wrote for Newsweek. “Everybody, and I mean everybody, loves stepping on them on their way up. Nowhere in my hand-to-mouth existence have I benefited from the cruel stereotypes my mama endured.”

Anthony’s song does not refer to women directly, but the Newsweek writer assumes, perhaps correctly, that “five-foot-three” and “300 pounds” necessarily falls under that label. A Huffington Post writer takes a further leap in logic to see not just a woman but specifically an African American woman (“the racist, Reaganite image of ‘welfare queens’”) as the Fudge Rounds enthusiast.

Misinterpretation seems an eternal occupational hazard.

Weatherman expropriated song lyrics as they hoped to expropriate rich people’s bank accounts. The terrorist organization took its name from “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and titled communiques “Break on Through to the Other Side,” “Hot Town: Summer in the City,” “Honkey Tonk Women,” and “New Morning—Changing Weather.” It seemed an effort to make Marxist nerds cool by glomming on to Mick Jaggar, Jim Morrison, and other rock stars.

The Manson Family, whom Weatherman and other radicals embraced, found in the Beatles not peace and love but coded instructions for murdering wealthy white people to start an apocalyptic race war. If that does not clue one into the mental condition of the various players, then consider the testimony from the guy who paid for Charles Manson’s recording sessions that the five “White Album” songs the Family put on heavy rotation included “Revolution 9” and “Helter Skelter” but excluded “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “I’m So Tired.”

What occurred back then involved not so much interpretation as projection. “Rich Man North of Richmond” seems less a victim of this than, say, the esoteric “Stairway to Heaven” (“hedgerow” being its “Fudge Rounds”), which, like most songs, lends itself in its vagueness to whatever the listener wants to hear in it.

Anthony can thank himself for his song’s not requiring a dime bag of marijuana to deduce its message, even if the halfway-Delphic, clever title takes a second to resolve. He set densely packed direct lyrics to the sonic sparseness of a lone resonator guitar. This juxtaposition works in highlighting the words. The passion in his voice puts the exclamation mark to them. An industrywide rather than a musical juxtaposition—his sincerity to their autotune, their backing tracks, and their songwriting-by-committee—also helps explain the song’s success.

Is “Rich Men North of Richmond” art or merely an op-ed set to music? Seventy-seven years ago, Albert Maltz explored such a question with much insight in, of all places, the Communist Party organ New Masses. Before the party forced him to recant, he took the position of “art for art’s sake” over the party mantra “art as a weapon.” He wrote, “When the artist misuses his art, when he practices journalism instead of art—however decent his purposes—the result is neither the best journalism, nor the best art, nor the best politics.”

Anthony accomplished something rare among topical singers in producing great art. Bob Dylan does this on “With God on Our Side.” But he seemed wise enough to realize the limitations of restricting lyrics to political commitments in largely abandoning this approach by his fourth album (recalling in the goodbye-to-all-that “My Back Pages”—a more drastic if less noticed career change than going electric—“lies that life is black and white spoke from my skull”). Not just artistic but commercial reasons petition Anthony to look to art rather than to Breitbart or Newsmax TV for inspiration for future songs. Release “Rich Men South of Richmond but North of Salinas” and become Carl Douglas following up “Kung Fu Fighting” with “Dance the Kung Fu.”

If the man with two first names wishes to avoid remaining a political football, then maybe next sing about drinking, loose women, or snobs. As demonstrated by Webb Pierce, Kris Kristofferson, and the rest, such subjects make for the best protest songs, even though the listener inevitably regards them as just plain country songs.

This current song that highlights welfare programs, currency devaluation, and high taxes naturally attracts the attention of the people professionally tasked to pay attention to such issues. Anthony certainly hoped for, though did not perhaps expect, this. Yet he laments, “The one thing that has bothered me is seeing people wrap politics up into this.”

Why complain that they talk about your song this way or that way when they at least talk about your song? To borrow a phrase familiar to many of his fans: shut up and sing.

Daniel J. Flynn

Daniel J. Flynn, a senior editor with The American Spectator, is working on his seventh book, a biography of Frank Meyer.