I was not going to respond to the most recent manufactured outrage over a song. I already did that earlier this summer. However, after watching the singer’s response to the controversy, I want to weigh in.
Two weeks ago, Oliver Anthony was an obscure singer-songwriter trying to make it in a tough business. Then, his song, “Rich men north of Richmond,” went viral fueled by right-wing and conservative listeners who hung on a single verse that fit their world view. His lines, “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),” made the conservatives believe they had another bully singing their song. The left responded to the right’s cheers with cries of outrage, giving the song even longer legs.
By the time the song had reached national controversy status, it was topping the streaming charts. Anthony is either a working-class hero or a reactionary villain, depending on your political persuasion. If you listen to the song or his other works, though, he doesn’t seem to fit into the boxes that keyboard warriors like. He’s clearly for higher wages for working class Americans, even if he doesn’t want people to game the system. His message is straight up populist and seems more left-leaning than right to me, though I don’t think partisan politics plays too much into his thinking.
This weekend, he put out a video condemning all the controversy. He clearly doesn’t consider himself a conservative. He mocked the GOP presidential debates for using his song saying, “I wrote that song about those people.” He condemns the left for trying to put him “in a political bucket.”
I watched that video and several others. I don’t think Anthony is much of a political thinker. He’s commenting on what he’s seen in his own life and clearly identifies with poor and working class people. Initially, he was a bit overwhelmed by the success of the song and seemed oblivious to the political spat that was brewing. He was just amazed to see the response and taking advantage of the opportunities.
The controversy really says less about Anthony than the people getting their dander up. They want the world divided into neat divisions, not realizing that most of America doesn’t think that way. Anthony is a reflection of working class Americans, both with their struggles and their biases. His allegiance lies with people instead of causes or parties and he seems to think our political system bears much of the blame for the plight of the poor.
I hope he can leverage his 15 minutes of fame into a music career. It’s a tough industry and often takes some sort of break to make it big. He appears to recognize that this is his and he’s not going to allow himself to be categorized as merely a conservative folk hero.
As for the people who are outraged about his unfortunate stereotype, you should listen to the words of more songs to fuel your self-righteousness. Have you ever listened the words of the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar”? They don’t even play it in concert anymore. How about Rod Stewart? He performed some seriously misogynistic songs. “You won’t need too much persuadin’/I don’t mean to sound degradin’/But with a face like that you got nothin’ to laugh about.” And that’s a pick up line. The Grateful Dead has a line in a song that says, “We can share the women, we can share the wine.” Talk about the patriarchy. If you’re prone to outrage, you should be deleting Jerry from your playlist. I can go on and on just about classic rock. Don’t get me started on country or the blues.
My advice to everyone is to quit swinging at everything. Have enough self-awareness to recognize that your outrage is reactionary. Most people wouldn’t have even heard that song if the right hadn’t adopted it as another anthem without really understanding what the songwriter was saying. The outrage was fueled because the right cheered it more than anything.
If you want to be outraged, get mad about something that actually affects people and then do something about it. Oliver Anthony is clearly disturbed by the way poor and working class people are treated in this country. At least he’s trying to spread the word. That’s more than most of us.