September 5, 2023 - 9:00 pm
Oliver Anthony might have missed his calling. The 31-year-old country-folk singer and songwriter — who recently shared with fans the fact that he dropped out of high school at 17 — should have been a teacher.
He’s a natural. Ever since his hit song, “Rich Men North of Richmond,” took center stage at the first Republican presidential debate, on Aug. 23, the native of Farmsville, Va., has taught fellow Americans one lesson after another. All we need to do is resist jumping to conclusions, shelve our partisan leanings and listen — with an open mind.
After reading his comments, listening to the song and watching the video, I myself got schooled on a few things. I’ve learned why some songs grab folks by the throat, that not every musician wants to sell out stadiums and that there is no substitute for living the experiences you write about.
I’m not a fan of class warfare. Grievance is not my jam. And so I didn’t expect to warm up to a song about how the little guy is being slapped by the big guy. And I say that as someone in between, kind of a middle-size guy. I’ve been poor, and I’ve been well off. Even at my poor moments, I didn’t hate, resent or envy those who were well off. I didn’t want to break up the party at the Gatsby mansion. I wanted an invitation.
Yet “Rich Men North of Richmond” is growing on me. So is Anthony. You gotta love a guy who is getting all this attention and still tweets: “I’m not worth obsessing over, I promise. Go spend time with your loved ones.”
I’m still obsessing a little. The video for the song sold me. You can see from Anthony’s face that he is feeling every word. Words such as:
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
Anthony recently tweeted that as he worked over the years in low-wage jobs at manufacturing plants, he struggled with workplace injuries, mental health and alcohol abuse.
Last month, Fox News host and debate moderator Martha MacCallum invoked “Rich Men North of Richmond,” whose lyrics she said “speak of alienation, of deep frustration with the state of government and of this country.” She asked the eight GOP presidential hopefuls: “Why is this song striking such a nerve in this country right now?” It was obvious that not one had the foggiest idea. How could they? Anthony later said in a video he posted that he found the question “funny,” because “I wrote that song about those people.”
Of course, politicians never let a little thing like the fact that they don’t know what the heck they’re talking about stop them from talking.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis brushed aside the question and bashed President Joe Biden. “Our country is in decline,” he said. “This decline is not inevitable. It’s a choice. We need to send Joe Biden back to his basement and reverse American decline.”
Anthony posted on Facebook that he has spent the past decade “getting to know tens of thousands of other blue-collar workers on job sites and in factories.” Many of them, he wrote, are “SO damn tired of being neglected, divided and manipulated.”
After the debate, he tweeted: “I. Don’t. Support. Either. Side. Politically. Not the left, not the right. I’m about supporting people and restoring local communities.”
When it comes to populist anthems about working-class struggles, my musical tastes and political views don’t match up.
I’m no populist. At the same time, my favorite singer-songwriter has spent the past 40 years belting out blue-collar anthems that pit the rich and poor against each other. For example, in the haunting “Youngstown,” you’ll hear a war cry:
From the Monongahela Valley to the Mesabi Iron Range
To the coal mines of Appalachia, the story’s always the same
Seven hundred tons of metal a day, now sir you tell me the world’s changed
Once I made you rich enough, rich enough to forget my name
It was in January 1973 that a skinny, scraggly-haired rock-and-roll musician from the Jersey Shore released his first album, “Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.” The music world was forever changed.
I want to be consistent. Someone in the media needs to be. I can’t very well look down my nose at the concept of populism when it comes from Oliver Anthony, while celebrating the same themes when they come from Bruce Springsteen.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His podcast, “Ruben in the Center,” is available through every podcast app.