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Poor scapegoats in all directions from Richmond
What the hit song, and the liberal critique missed about the rich men north of Richmond.
This is where I hastily scribble about what’s going on. May include righteous anger and typos.
Three weeks ago, no one had heard of Oliver Anthony. Then he wrote a song about working-class woes, posted it on the internet, and rocketed into the public discussion.
Rich Men North of Richmond gained more than 46 million views on YouTube, topped the Billboard Hot 100, and was brought up in the first few minutes of the Republican presidential debate last week in addition to smashing all kinds of records.
I asked John Russell for his take on the song. Russell is a bartender in West Virginia with a Substack about class politics called The Holler. Coincidentally, Russell, like Anthony, got famous a couple of weeks ago, after he went to a Trump rally in Erie, Pa., to see if he could overcome what he calls the “engineered division” of the working class into right and left. To the amazement of many liberals, he got Trump rally-goers talking about monopolies, corruption, and corporate greed.
Russell cautions liberals against throwing the baby out with the bathwater just because some of the lyrics assign misplaced blame. “The working class’s reaction is a big fat ‘yes,’ and everyone who wants a working-class movement should pay attention to it,” he told me. Were he in command of the Democratic Party, he’d make sure candidates show up in all the forgotten places and keep reminding folks that it’s the rich men north of Richmond who are ruining their lives.
Well-to-do liberal pundits say it blames the poor for what the super-rich did. They’re right. But instead of assigning blame more accurately, or trying to understand the genuine working class approval of the song, they stopped at the familiar pompous finger-wagging. Right-wing elites tripped over themselves trying to grab the coattails of the song in their increasingly desperate attempts to hide the fact that their agenda only benefits about 1,000 of the most disgustingly rich people on earth.
Oliver Anthony took to the internet after the spectacle to put a pox on both houses. From the cab of a truck, he said his song criticized “corporate-owned D.C. politicians on both sides. … It’s knocking the system collectively.” And that, “It was funny seeing my song … at the presidential debate because it’s like I wrote that song about those people, you know, so for them to have to sit there and have to listen to that, that cracks me up.” Lastly, “It’s aggravating seeing people on conservative news try to identify with me, like I’m one of them.”
Nice. I’ll take it.
You can’t blame conservative news figures for thinking they had a friend in Anthony. He penned a song about obese people gorging themselves on government-funded fudge rounds while the virtuous working class can’t get ahead no matter how hard they grind. Whether intentional or not, it was a pitch-perfect ode to the song Fox News has sung since before Oliver Anthony was born. Most importantly, it let the real villains off the hook - something Fox News was designed to do that Oliver Anthony may have repeated unintentionally (to give the benefit of doubt).
That’s the genius of right-wing propaganda. It gives us people to be mad at when we want to be mad.
All day long it whirs away, manufacturing scapegoats to stock the screens and broadcasts all around us. It’s insurance against social change in the internet era so that when some red-bearded bard in the Virginia woods picks up a guitar to sing the late-stage capitalism blues, the easiest group to blame, the one that the masses know, the one that fits in a hit song, is the one that right-wing media made for us - the welfare queen.
Never mind that people with little power have little power to ruin your life. If you say something enough times, it becomes true.
Winners write the stories and the stories we hear most are written by the super-rich. In a parallel universe free from a half-century of billionaire-funded propaganda, we may have heard a song about how the Sacklers pumped 5 million pills they knew were addictive into a town of 400 people in Kermit, WVA. Or how Dupont knowingly poisoned the blood of 99.7% of people on Earth. Ludlow, Matewan, and Homestead would be household names. Our overnight stars might breathe life into an inclusive working-class movement for dignity and respect rather than the cheap self-worth that comes from knowing someone is lower than you.
I think Oliver Anthony used what was lying around him to make a song - a guitar, a lot of pain caused by late-stage capitalism, and a familiar story about the undeserving. It was a smash with the broad working class, and the political left should take it as a sign that people are ready for a movement to right the wrongs of the Rich Men North of Richmond.
The wonders of the World Wide Web catapulted Oliver Anthony into the public discussion and it can help us tell a truer story with more deserving villains.
Oh and P.S. - if you’re a country music fan or even country curious, check out my playlist on Spotify “Country for Commies”
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Video and Transcript
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There's a baby floating around in the bathwater around this song but let's start with the...
“And the obese milkin' welfare. God if you're five foot three, and you're 300 pounds, taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds.”
People have dragged this and they should, because A. punching down is not cool, especially not when it's against the working class that you're in, and it's the least cool when your downward punches land you a shit pot of money.
B. It just don't make no damn sense. People with little power have little power to ruin your life.
But the thing that chaps my butt about the song and the liberal response to it in most big media is that there are so many good villains... there are so many villains... and we just let them off the hook!
The villains are overpopulated bud. It's not catch-and-release. You can play for keeps. And they go un-named both in the song and most of the liberal responses in big media to the song. There's finger-wagging about punching down and blaming the poor as there should be, but why stop there? Why? Why not name the villains they're right in front of us.
You gave us a smash title and lines like:
I've been selling my soul, working all day, overtime hours, for bullshit pay. These rich men north of richmond lord knows they all just wanna have total control.
Right here baby. We are ready for the justice.
I say it a lot. I'll say it again: name the Sacklers. They pumped 5 million pills into one town of 400 people in Kermit, West Virginia. They knew it was addictive. They made all the money, no jail. Name them.
Blame DuPont. The chemical they invented is in the blood of 99.7% of people on Earth. It's in your blood, in my blood, in Walmart Tyler Childers blood, it's in all of our blood. And we found it out in Parkersburg, West Virginia! Put it in the song.
Tech CEOs. They're unelected government. They know more about you than you.
The billionaires that paid a lower tax rate than the whole working class in 2018. Thank you, Donald Trump.
Giant banks and Wall Street, always.
But you missed all of that and punched the people eating government snacks. It'd be a hilarious whiff but it's not funny. It's sad. It's really sad.
Alright, let's talk about the baby in all of this bath water. The song is a smash and it's a sign to me, you're lovable labor leftist, that people across the political spectrum are ready for a working-class movement to rein in the rich.
Yeah, took a gross turn when one member of the working class missed all the billionaires and punched people eating fudge rounds, but that's the oldest trope in the book. We have had 50 years of unanswered right-wing propaganda 24/7 on every single device, financed by billionaires, and and precision-engineered to keep the eyes of the working class off of the ball and onto the fudge rounds.
Was this dude thinking about all of that when he wrote the song? Probably not. But it's a good time to start.
And people will say "but it's true John, I work my ass off and I see people in the grocery store abusing welfare all the time."
Who cares? Who cares? Get a better cause. You know what you don't see? The middle class. Because it doesn't exist anymore. And weirdly, the wealth that used to be in the middle class is now in the hands of billionaires. What the [REDACTED] right?
"But John, people on welfare are living high on the hog off of other people's hard work." That is what a billionaire does. That's what a billionaire does. Their stocks multiply exponentially without them doing any work because you do that work. But you don't get any of the wealth. Which is weird, right?
Write a song about it, especially you Dollar General Tyler Childers.