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The rise of Oliver Anthony and 'Rich Men North of Richmond'

Oliver Anthony performs at the Eagle Creek Golf Club on Aug. 19, 2023, in Moyock, N.C.
Mike Caudill
/
Billboard via Getty Images
Oliver Anthony performs at the Eagle Creek Golf Club on Aug. 19, 2023, in Moyock, N.C.

Updated August 25, 2023 at 6:01 PM ET

The song "Rich Men North of Richmond" — written and performed by an artist nearly no one had heard of just a few weeks ago — was perched at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. That was even before its creator, who goes by Oliver Anthony, was placed front and center at Wednesday night's GOP debate. It was featured before the candidates even spoke.

Anthony posted a video on Friday, two days after the debate, distancing himself from politicians and other figures trying to glom on to the success of "Rich Men North of Richmond," saying it was "funny" to see the candidates talk about his song on the debate stage.

"I wrote that song about those people," he said. "I do hate to see that song being weaponized."

Anthony has already achieved a first for any musician working in any genre: he made the top of the charts out of nowhere. He's never had a song on any chart, and "Rich Men North of Richmond" was released just over two weeks ago.

"Rich Men North of Richmond" seems to fit into a deep vein of protest music, decrying the fat cats who would take advantage of the working man. At its surface, Anthony's song echoes generations of singer-songwriterly tradition. Lyrics celebrating the working man and woman have a long history in American music, from artists including Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Bill Withers and Bruce Springsteen.

Scratch the surface, however, and you also find extremist and conspiratorial narratives.

One line, in particular, stands out for its association with a known conspiracy theory: "I wish politicians would look out for miners / And not just minors on an island somewhere." It's a reference to the Jeffrey Epstein scandal: Epstein died in jail four years ago this month, but within far-right circles, there continue to be conspiracy theories about the circumstances around his death. Anthony also makes snide remarks about overweight people that appear to evoke Reagan-era tropes of welfare queens: "Well, God, if you're 5-foot-3 and you're 300 pounds," he chastises, "Taxes ought not to pay for your bags of Fudge Rounds."

Elsewhere, Anthony talks about human trafficking and people taking advantage of children, which is a baseless but common QAnon narrative. On a newer song released Wednesday called "I Want to Go Home," he warns that the U.S. is now on the brink of a new world war. (NPR reached out repeatedly to Anthony for an interview but received no response.)

In his video response posted on Friday, Anthony pushed back against readings of "Rich Men North of Richmond" being anti-poor. "It's just saying that the government takes people who are needy, dependent and makes them needy and dependent."

Jared Holt is a senior researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. He said this isn't new: political movements, including extremist ones, have always understood the power of cultural artifacts like music or movies in normalizing their ideas.

Holt says the thing to note here is how the song has been seized on by some far-right influencers, including people who have made a profession of sowing discord in the U.S. with disinformation about things like COVID-19 vaccines or LGBTQ people.

"If these far-right figures are successful in associating themselves directly with this song," Holt says, "it could potentially open up a wider audience that they might normally not have access to."

Anthony's rapid rise has some very particular context this summer, however. Earlier this month — and also for the first time in Billboard history — three country artists occupied the top three spaces in the Billboard 100, with Jason Aldean's "Try That in a Small Town" at No. 1, Morgan Wallen's "Last Night" at No. 2, and Luke Combs' cover of Tracy Chapman's song "Fast Car" at No. 3. The pump was primed for another big country music hit.

Two of those artists had also spurred a lot of conversation around politics and racial tensions. In 2021, a video of Wallen using the n-word went viral — and then he went on to have the best-selling album of 2021 in any genre. Aldean's video shows him singing in front of a courthouse where a Black teenager was lynched.

Meanwhile, Anthony has benefited from some remarkable signal boost. While the video for "Rich Men North of Richmond" was posted online just two weeks after the work of a nearly anonymous fellow — within days, commentators like Joe Rogan, Laura Ingraham and Matt Walsh were praising him publicly.

Natalie Weiner is a journalist who specializes in country music. She notes that music lovers sometimes game this chart algorithm, comparing Oliver Anthony's new fans to the fan armies of pop acts like the Korean band BTS.

"Fan armies have purchased downloads for a long time because it has a heavier weight on the charts," Weiner observes. "So if they want to push an artist up, they will just purchase downloads — you're voting with your wallet."

Such efforts usually take a fair amount of the music industry to pull off, though, and it's not clear that Anthony's fans are as well organized as BTS' — at least, not yet.

Marissa R. Moss, another noted country music journalist who co-writes a country-focused Substack with Weiner called "Don't Rock the Inbox," has another theory. She believes that Anthony's skyrocketing fame is something of a reverse of what happened to the country trio the Chicks, formerly known as the Dixie Chicks, two decades ago. Back in the early 2000s, the Chicks criticized the invasion of Iraq. Folks angry with their politics began boycotting that band and destroying their CDs. They were dropped from country music radio.

"There were some country fans who got mad and and bulldozed their records," Moss recalls. But, she says, the backbone of that movement did not come from dedicated music fans. Instead, she says, that backlash came from "extremists on early stages of Internet chat rooms and message boards. It wasn't particularly about the Chicks themselves."

In both cases, she adds, the product being sold is less important than what it signals.

Oliver Anthony's fans say that his lyrics give voice to the feelings of people who often get left out of popular discourse and pop culture. Natalie Weiner points out that every performer, regardless of genre, creates a public persona — and Oliver Anthony is no different. She adds that he is given extra credence for "authenticity" in country music because of how he presents himself and how much that persona is tied up in how mainstream country music positions itself already.

"The reason country works so well for this is," she observes, "is because people assume that country music is 'real,' that it's 'authentic.' This is a straight, white, cis-gendered man in a forest with a guitar singing. And that will always code as true to people, even to people who don't like country music and who don't know anything about it. It's so deeply ingrained in the recesses of our collective pop culture."

Andrew Limbong contributed to this story.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: August 24, 2023 at 10:00 PM MDT
A previous version of this story misspelled the name of music journalist Marissa R. Moss.
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Odette Yousef
Odette Yousef is a National Security correspondent focusing on extremism.
Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.