Jack Mitchell: A populist troubadour is born

A careful reading of Oliver Anthony’s “Rich Men North of Richmond”
A still of Oliver Anthony singing his viral hit "Rich Men North of Richmond". Credit: radiowv on YouTube.

As poets must do, I devoted the weekend to umping 14U Girls baseball; and while I was calling balls and strikes there was a small earthquake in the realm of popular songwriting. I refer of course to the mega-viral Youtube-borne hit song “Rich Men North of Richmond” by Oliver Anthony.

A week ago Mr. Anthony, a handsome red-bearded former factory worker from Virginia, had only ever released songs recorded on his iPhone; since his hit song’s release last Wednesday, it’s had 12 million views (and climbing) on Youtube, is all over social media, and (this will shock you) has polarised America, with populists touting Mr. Anthony as a 21st-century Woody Guthrie and anti-populists daily discovering fresh ways to dislike him. Youtubers are competing to post reaction videos, Billboard, Rolling Stone, and the Seattle Times have profiled him; on Sunday, when he performed at a farmer’s market, the substantial crowd knew the lyrics and sang along.

So is the song any good? Does that matter? Let’s save the deep sociopolitical analysis until we’ve looked at what Mr. Anthony has to say and how he says it. The short answer is that, yes, the song is quite good and that’s why it’s on its way to being a populist anthem. But of course “artistically good” and “politically fair” need not equate.

The song opens directly—no opening bars—with the singer’s own voice front and centre:

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

Aesthetically, this opening nicely pairs consistent rhyme (everything’s in “-ay”) with a variety of rhythms in the four-beat lines; the near-monotony of rhyme, which dares even to use “away” twice, suggests the soullessness of the speaker’s daily grind. By way of content, we are at once in a world of low pay, marginality (“out here”), and alcohol as a cope. The tone is bitterly ironic: the payoff for the grind is no more than a life being wasted.

The next verse expands the scope:

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

Again the rhyme enforces the inescapability of the social predicament, which is general (“the world”) and communal (“people like me and people like you”). In addressing the listener, the speaker enlists him. The last line is poignant and nicely captures the moment: the problems are real and they are not going to be wished away, but the solution is not obvious.

So far, the song lacks political specifics, but that changes with the chorus:

Livin’ in the new world with an old soul
These rich men north of Richmond
Lord knows they all just want to have total control
Want to know what you think, want to know what you do

Geographically we are in the South, therefore, and looking North; this is not that compass of Prairie Populism but angles a resentment going back to Reconstruction. (One might wonder if the rich men south of Richmond, not to mention west of Little Rock, are not also complicit in the speaker’s woes.) Still, the complaint is economic: it is the rich man, not the Yankee, who is to blame; yet his immediate goal is not mere riches but power, “total control,” via the policing of the discourse and the surveillance state. Nonetheless, “North of Richmond” does seem, as the song develops, to mean principally “north of Richmond and south of Baltimore,” i.e. Washington.

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

The first line here is quite beautiful, featuring what the ancients called a chiasmus, as the second half reverses the order of thought in the first, with two separate uses of “know” side by side and “don’t” and “do” at either end; it rebuts the establishment’s contempt for the ignorant deplorables. Then the cost of living: taxes on top of inflation. (I take “to no end” to mean “endlessly” rather than “pointlessly,” although maybe some hear a double meaning.) The next verse adds further specifics:

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

Here the miners/minors pun pairs the miners of West Virginia coal mines, archetypal blue-collar workers left behind by the digital economy, with Epstein’s victims. I don’t think this pun succeeds artistically. Its first effect is to shock (“He went there!”), its second effect is to draw a contrast between how politicians “look out” for the two classes of people, but “looking out” for the victim is a fairly roundabout way to describe sexual abuse and, as a result, the comparison isn’t tidy. It is also strange that a pun should turn on a “minor” as abuse victim, since puns are fun and sexual abuse is not fun, and to my ear the effect is jarring; but perhaps the pun is merely a compositional device and not meant to be humorous.

The contrast between the starving urchin and the fat man is a classic one, and the image of the obese “milking” welfare is appropriate enough, suggesting piglets suckling at the sow. As with the suggestion that politicians are sexual predators, however, it is hard to picture the whole of America’s obese population (42 percent of the whole) being on welfare; this is obviously a trope (a conventional idea), which detracts from the vividness of the image and so from the argument. The last verse devotes two whole lines to it, however:

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

“Pounds” and “fudge rounds” is a nice rhyme and sets up “ground,” but again I don’t think the droll image of the hugely fat guy eating taxpayer-funded carbs works with the denunciation of young men’s rising suicide rate, a serious subject. When is the listener meant to stop laughing? Or perhaps the abrupt shift from the lighthearted to the deadly serious, here and above, is a strategy for discussing serious subjects without seeming too earnest. Alternately, perhaps the tropes of the politician as sexual abuser and the welfare recipient as big fat guy are so engrained that they don’t really register as more than symbols of corruption.

After the suicidal young men, the song repeats earlier material (“Lord it’s a damn shame,” “Livin’ in the new world,” “I’ve been sellin’ my soul”).

Here we could discuss, as most ponderings of populism do, whether the populist’s complaints are valid. In my opinion, some complaints here are valid (stagnant wages, the cost of living, the two-tier American justice system symbolised by Epstein’s cronies, “learn to code” contempt for workers, the surveillance state) and some are not (the association of taxation with welfare and so with obesity, the image of politicians as sexual abusers). One could suggest different targets for Mr. Anthony’s populist rage. One could rewrite his song to one’s own political preferences, even if doing so paid little respect to his autonomy as an artist. The rewrite would be unlikely to get 12 million views a week.

So let us grant that the song is well written overall, with some inspired touches and some disjointed imagery. Perhaps most effective is its subtle appeal to the listener to join the speaker’s cause. Clearly, it is resonating massively, and ipso facto it would not resonate if it were poorly written (or poorly performed). There is no point in arguing about the content, in the song or in populism more generally. You can no more argue with the vox populi than you can argue with a glacier: the glacier is moving in one direction, and changing its course (if that is even possible) is a matter of thinking twenty years ahead, not twenty months or twenty weeks. 

North American pundits’ response to this wave of populism has generally been feeble. It does not matter that the working class is objectively much wealthier than it was fifty years ago. The fact of the matter is that it feels discarded, insulted, depleted, drug-addicted, enfeebled, sometimes suicidal, and relatively impoverished. It is no good explaining to a laid-off Virginian factory worker that he may be in the lowest quintile of American income-earners but he’s still in the top quintile worldwide. Populist rage is itself the metric, and if it is not soothed in the coming generation, whether by redistribution or by a renewed respect for intangibles like art and sport and family and religion, the question is not whether there will be an economic and political revolution, perhaps to the tune of “Rich Men North of Richmond,” but when. In the meantime, a populist troubadour has entered the chat, and he is just getting started.

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