Over the weekend, an unsigned Virginia artist named Oliver Anthony performed his original song “Rich Men North of Richmond” at a farmers market in rural Currituck County, North Carolina. Days earlier, only a few close family and friends had likely heard the song. But videos show those in attendance, some who had traveled many hours to be there, singing along as if they’d grown up playing it every morning on the drive to school.
Oliver had been invited to record the song in the woods, his dog and camping chair visible, and didn’t expect to get much of a reaction when it was posted online. But a week later, after some major accounts on Twitter repeatedly shared and discussed it, the song approached 20 million views on YouTube and was No. 1 on iTunes.
I was one of these millions of Americans that stumbled on the song. Scrolling on Twitter, somebody had shared a video of a red-bearded man holding his guitar. I kept scrolling. But then I saw the same video shared a couple more times, then many more. So I clicked.
Part of the song’s power is that it feels like an amateur everyman pouring his heart out in a home video. It’s not a slick, overproduced song filtered through corporate approvals and rewrites focused on maximizing profitability. It’s just one man’s raw emotion direct to your screen.
But after something goes viral and is analyzed by every critic and magazine — musically, politically, culturally, and in any other possible way — it loses some of that initial impact. You begin to miss the forest for the trees, expecting the song and its blue-collar creator to share every point on your political agenda or to be artistically flawless.
Critics on both the left and right have begun to move against Anthony, seeing nationalist, populist, racist, and other undertones in the song, real or imagined. An article from conservative publication National Review criticized Anthony for not appreciating the greatness of America and for not fully taking advantage of its economic opportunities.
But reading sophisticated economic analysis into the song is probably not fair. Anthony says he wishes politicians would “look after miners,” complains of people abusing welfare, says the dollar is no longer worth what it was, says taxes are too high, and grumbles about having to work overtime without much to show for it.
These are complaints you’ll hear from many blue-collar workers, and many workers in general. They are also mostly conservative in impulse. The National Review author advises him to get a better job if he’s not making enough and tells him his struggles with alcohol are due to his own decisions.
This, like many critiques, is tone deaf. It’s the wrong level of analysis when approaching a song that, as the article’s title admits, is a lament. When someone is in lament, you should suffer alongside them and try to understand, not immediately rationalize it away.
The path to success is riddled with traps
It’s true that the largest share of responsibility for one’s financial and personal troubles should be laid at one’s own feet. That is core element of the conservative creed. But beneath Anthony’s complaining about his state in life are two complaints about facts beyond his control:
- Those who play by the rules are not winning
- There are pitfalls and traps along the way
For many in this country, they are able to find a good job in a big city, or in a small one, and make ends meet, or even thrive, without much trouble. But for many others, like Anthony, they feel that they are playing by the rules, not abusing welfare, working overtime, paying their taxes, but getting nowhere.
They fall into a number of traps set along the way by “the rich men in Richmond” (a euphemism for the politicians and those who pull their strings in Washington, D.C.) and by other powerful people. It’s hard to deny that this is the case.
One trap is college-debt. Young people are told that the path to success goes through a college campus. So they go. But the degree they get does not immediately yield a job, and the hundreds of thousands of dollars, in some cases, of debt leaves them financially crippled.
Another trap is medical-debt. As state Treasurer Dale Folwell talks about, hospital systems that are meant to operate as non-profits frequently create surprise charges and then send debt collectors after their patients, who may spend many years paying off these bills.
Another trap is spiking housing costs. Many are stuck paying rent when they’d rather be paying a mortgage because housing prices have escalated far past their means. With limited supplies, those who should be buying larger homes are scooping up all the “starter homes,” leaving young professionals and young families with no options but to continue paying rent.
Another trap is inflation. Anthony talks about the dollar not being worth anything more than once. Inflation hurts those who follow the rules in more than one way. If you’re working hard and saving what you can, it’ll decrease the value of that hard-earned investment. But it will also drive up prices, causing you to have to more-frequently dip into and deplete your savings.
Lastly, substance abuse is a trap. Anthony told various media that he was stuck in a cycle of nightly drinking and smoking marijuana that he couldn’t break out of. He wasn’t religious, but he prayed that God would take away his addiction and in exchange he would put everything he had into the musical talents he’d been given. It seems that God agreed to the deal.
Addiction is a scourge that is hitting every corner of our culture right now. There have always been opioids, but right now there is a super-opioid in fentanyl that is nearly impossible to kick. There’s also a super-meth and even super-potent marijuana. Some rich men south of the border are getting rich off this particular trap. These new powerful drugs, combined with screen addiction (whether to video games, pornography, social media, or whatever else), are a recipe for a fairly pervasive trap of addiction in modern life.
Our American system is indeed the greatest ever devised, but it is not operating as it should for everyone. Rather than seeing Anthony’s protest song as an indictment of our core principles, we can see it as a call to renew them.
Our nation, founded in ordered liberty, can fix the broken university system, which creates degrees that are often both unaffordable and of little use. It can fix the healthcare system by lowering costs, increasing choices, and providing more transparency. It can lower the cost of homes by increasing supply through reduced zoning, building regulations, and land restrictions. And it can pull back from the record levels of addiction and drug deaths with strict punishments on dealers, generous treatment options for users, and a culture that doesn’t encourage self abuse.
Oliver Anthony might not be an economics scholar or policy expert, and probably shouldn’t be treated as such, but his lament should inspire those who are to create a game that can be won by those who play by the rules and to block those who would lay traps along their way.
David Larson is opinion editor of Carolina Journal. Republished from the Carolina Journal.