Charlotte's Web Thoughts
Charlotte's Web Thoughts
The Far-Right's New Protest Anthem Punches Down (Of Course)

The Far-Right's New Protest Anthem Punches Down (Of Course)

Here we go.
(Anthony Oliver — image credit: radiowv)

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About ten days ago, Oliver Anthony, a farmer and former factory worker in Virginia, uploaded a casual performance video of his new song “Rich Men North of Richmond” to YouTube. As of this morning, it’s been viewed nearly 15 million times.

Mr. Anthony, with no previous experience in the music industry, now has the #1 song on Apple’s global music chart and may well top Billboard’s Hot 100 by next week.

It would be easy to claim this is the result of astroturfing (that’s when a “grassroots” campaign is fabricated), and sure enough, some progressive commentators have been loud in their suspicions. The overnight groundswell of support in rightwing media for Mr. Anthony’s debut—every far-right luminary from Kari Lake to Matt Walsh has spent the past week hyping the song—doesn’t help in that vein.

But there are two big things that undermine this theory. The first is that Mr. Anthony has a legitimately great voice and when set to a simple guitar accompaniment, there is an undeniable gravitas to his delivery. If some of the lyrics were different, it’d be easy to see this emerge as a mainstream, crossover chart-topper that appeals to folks across the political spectrum.

The second thing is authenticity. Unlike Jason Aldean’s hypocritical screed “Try That in a Small Town” (Mr. Aldean is neither from a small town nor has he ever lived in one, nor did he write the song), Mr. Anthony has plenty of blue collar credibility and penned his own lyrics.

There’s also the difference in aesthetics. Mr. Aldean’s music video for “Try That in a Small Town” (which clumsily uses stock footage from protests in Canada) feels like a weak-ass, racist clone of any given bro country music video on CMT.

Mr. Anthony’s video, on the other hand, is just him and his guitar and a microphone set up with the Virginia countryside in the background.

Where Mr. Aldean comes across as too corporate and pandering for his own good, Mr. Anthony, clad in a sweaty t-shirt, looks like he just told his buddy to set up a camera on the farm and get this all in one take. The visuals are simple and natural and powerful, which is, I strongly believe, partly what’s making this song go mega viral.

Hell, maybe we will find out that this is a particularly sophisticated campaign by the far-right to stir up nonsense, but I honestly don’t think that’s it. I think Mr. Anthony made an unusually compelling song with an unusually compelling video and it landed in the right hands at the right time.

Nevertheless, it’s unfortunate that Mr. Anthony’s song could have been a broad call to unite against corporate corruption but instead, he settled for a confused, distracted, and unkind broadside against vulnerable people.

The far-right appears to love this song not so much for its gorgeous melody and his voice but the dogwhistles strewn throughout the lyrics.

The first 45 seconds or so are pretty straightforward and, on their own, could even be mistaken for a leftist anthem:

I've been sellin' my soul, workin' all day
Overtime hours for bullshit pay
So I can sit out here and waste my life away
Drag back home and drown my troubles away

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

Livin' in the new world
With an old soul

And then, things take a sudden turn:

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

Obviously, those are references to cancel culture, censorship, and taxation being promoted by politicians in D.C. (a few hours north of Richmond, Virginia). Still, even so, these are pretty garden variety conservative lyrics.

But suddenly, without warning, things go off the rails:

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
Young men are puttin' themselves six feet in the ground
'Cause all this damn country does is keep on kickin' them down

You caught all that, right?

The “minors on an island somewhere” is referencing Jeffrey Epstein, the infamous, dead pedophile-rapist-trafficker whose name has become synonymous with the most shameless QAnon conspiracy theories.

In fairness, the welfare bit could be an honest condemnation of all welfare by Mr. Anthony, but in a conservative context, it’s almost always a dogwhistle referencing “welfare queens,” the term popularized by then-candidate Ronald Reagan to horribly, implicitly slander Black mothers.

(Then again, if Mr. Anthony is condemning all welfare, how would that work out for folks in the street who ain’t got nothin’ to eat? Hmmm. Also: Republican-led states benefit the most from federal welfare programs, which is, curiously, an essential fact that’s routinely left out of these conversations by conservatives.)

Mr. Anthony then curiously attacks overweight folks, claiming our taxes are paying for their fudge, and then pairs this with a reference to the “War on Boys” or “War on Men” or “War on Masculinity” or whatever grifting, nonsense framing the far-right is using these days to claim masculinity is in trouble.

After that second (and final) verse, Mr. Anthony finishes with his chorus, where, now, the words “people like me and people like you” hit a lot differently than they did at the beginning of the song.

So, is this meant to be a rightwing anthem? Is Mr. Anthony a diehard Trump supporter? According to him, not the case, and I gotta say: I think he’s being sincere when he says that.

In a video commentary posted to his YouTube channel the day before the release of this song, Mr. Anthony states:

“I sit pretty dead center down the aisle on politics and, always have. I remember as a kid the conservatives wanting war, and me not understanding that. And I remember a lot of the controversies when the left took office, and it seems like, you know, both sides serve the same master. And that master is not someone of any good to the people of this country.”

Do I agree with all that? No, I don’t. I think there are crooked politicians across the political spectrum but only one party is actively fighting to undermine working class and middle class families, and I think that’s obvious to anyone willing to be honest with themselves.

And yet, the rest of the video is unexpectedly disarming. Mr. Anthony genuinely comes across as reasonable, humble, and compassionate. I could definitely see myself sharing a beer with the guy in that video, and yet, it’s hard to reconcile the guy in that video with the guy who wrote that song. They don’t seem like the same person.

In my most generous reading of all this, I think Mr. Anthony is a nice man with a good heart who wants to do right by others and has simply been exploited overnight by rightwing media who see a useful vehicle for their grifting.

But then, I go back to those inflammatory lyrics. Those weren’t written by accident. They’re mean-spirited and unapologetically conspiracy-minded and definitely not middle-of-the-road politically.

It’s clear that the who’s who among the far-right want to turn Mr. Anthony into the voice of their movement. They have latched on to him with a quickness. There is no doubt in my mind they’ll soon claim his music is being censored or repressed by “liberal media” (contrary to the widespread coverage he’s already received in mainstream media).

Only time will tell if Mr. Anthony is his own man — and better than that: the man we saw in his introduction video.

I pray that’s the man who emerges from all this.

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Charlotte's Web Thoughts
Charlotte's Web Thoughts
Charlotte Clymer is a writer and LGBTQ advocate. You've probably seen her on Twitter (@cmclymer). This is the podcast version of her blog "Charlotte's Web Thoughts", which you can subscribe to here: