Oliver Anthony performs at Eagle Creek Golf Club on August 19, 2023 in Moyock, North CarolinaMike Caudill/Billboard courtesy of Getty Images hide title
Mike Caudill/Billboard courtesy of Getty Images
Oliver Anthony performs at Eagle Creek Golf Club on August 19, 2023 in Moyock, North Carolina
Mike Caudill/Billboard courtesy of Getty Images
Rich Men North of Richmond - written and performed just a few weeks ago by an artist almost no one has heard of - topped the Billboard Hot 100. This was before its creator, who went by the pseudonym Oliver Anthony, took center stage at the GOP Debate on Wednesday evening. It wasis emphasizedbefore the candidates even speak.
Antoniposted the videoon Friday, two days after the debate, distancing himself from politicians and other personalities trying to capitalize on the success of "Rich Men North of Richmond", stating that it was "ridiculous" to watch the candidates talk about his song on the stage of the debate.
"I wrote this song for these people," he said. "I hate when this song is used as a weapon."
Anthony already has the first success for any musician working in any genre: out of nowhere he topped the charts. His song has never charted and "Rich Men North of Richmond" was released just over two weeks ago.
"Rich Men North of Richmond" seems to fit into the deep current of protest music condemning fat cats who exploit an employee. At first glance, Anthony's song follows generations of singer-songwriter tradition. Lyrics celebrating the working man have a long history in American music, thanks to artists such as Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Bill Withers and Bruce Springsteen.
However, if you scratch the surface, you will also find extremist and conspiracy stories.
One particular sentence stands out for its connection to a well-known conspiracy theory: "I wish politicians would pay attention to the miners / And not just minors on some island." It's a reference to the Jeffrey Epstein scandal: Epstein died in prison four years ago this month, but conspiracy theories about the circumstances of his death are still circulating in far-right circles. Anthony also made derisive remarks about being overweight that seem to evoke Reagan-era symbolsqueens of prosperity"Well, my God, if you're 170cm and 300lbs," he scolds, "taxes shouldn't pay for your bags of fudge."
Elsewhere, Anthony talks about human trafficking and child abuse, which is baseless but commonQAnonstories. In a newer song released on Wednesday entitled"I want to go home,"warns that the United States is now on the brink of a new world war. (NPR contacted Anthony multiple times for an interview, but received no response.)
In his video response published on Friday, Anthony disagreed with the reading that "the rich north of Richmond" are against the poor. "It simply says that the government takes the destitute and dependent and makes them destitute and dependent."
Jared Holt is a senior fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. He said that this is nothing new: political movements, including extremist ones, have always understood how objects of culture, such as music or films, can normalize their views.
Holt says it's worth noting that the song has been used by some far-right influencers, including those who have created divisions in the US with misinformation about things like the Covid-19 vaccine and LGBTQ people.
"If these far-right figures can directly connect with this song," says Holt, "it could potentially open up to a wider audience that they otherwise wouldn't have access to."
However, Anthony's meteoric rise has a very special context this summer. Earlier this month - also for the first time in Billboard magazine history - three country artists took the top three spots on the Billboard 100, with Jason Aldean's "Try That in a Small Town" at number one and Morgan's "Last Night" at number one. Wallen at No. 2, and a cover of Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" by Luke Combs at No. 3. The pump was ready for the next big country music hit.
Two of these artists also sparked much discussion about politics and racial tensions. In 2021, a video of Wallen using the n-word went viral and became the best-selling album of 2021 in any genre. Aldean's video shows him singing outside the courthouse where a black teenager was lynched.
Meanwhile, Anthony benefited from a significant signal boost. Although the music video for "Rich Men North of Richmond" hit the Internet just two weeks after the work of an almost anonymous colleague, within days commentators such as Joe Rogan, Laura Ingraham and Matt Walsh publicly praised it.
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Natalie Weiner is a journalist specializing in country music. He notes that music fans sometimes play with this ranking algorithm, comparing Oliver Anthony's new fans to the legions of fans of pop artists like Korean band BTS.
"Armies of fans have been buying downloads for a long time because it matters more in the charts," notes Weiner. "So if they want to woo an artist, they'll just buy the downloads - you vote with your wallet."
For such ventures to succeed, a large chunk of the music industry is usually required, and it's unclear if Anthony's fans are as organized as BTS - at least not yet.
Marissa R. Moss, another well-known country music journalist who writes an article on countries with Weiner"Don't touch your inbox"has a different theory. He believes that Anthony's meteoric rise to fame is the opposite of what happened to the country trio The Chicks, known two decades ago as the Dixie Chicks. In the early 2000s, the Chicks criticized the invasion of Iraq. People became nervous about their politicsboycottthat band and destroying their CDs. They got kicked off country radio.
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"There were some country fans who went crazy and destroyed their records," recalls Moss. However, he says, the foundation of the movement was not devoted music fans. Instead, he says, this reaction was triggered by “extremists in the early stages of online chat rooms and message boards. It wasn't specifically about the chicks themselves."
In both cases, he adds, the product being sold is less important than what it signals.
Fans of Oliver Anthony claim that his lyrics express the feelings of people who are often overlooked in popular discourse and pop culture. Natalie Weiner points out that every performer, regardless of genre, creates a public figure - and Oliver Anthony is no exception. He adds that he is given additional credit for the "authenticity" of country music because of how it presents itself and how the person is connected to the position of mainstream country music.
"The reason country works so well for this," he notes, "is because people assume that country music is 'real' and 'authentic'. He's a heterosexual, white, cisgender man singing in the woods on a guitar. I. It will always be coded as true for people, even those who don't like country music and know nothing about it. It's so deeply ingrained in the recesses of our collective pop culture."
Andrew Limbong contributed to this story.