Oliver Anthony, a farmer and former factory worker, propelled to stardom last week with the release of his song, “Rich Men North of Richmond.” The lyrics address long-standing grievances endemic to America’s low-wage working class, and primarily cast the blame for their plight on the nation’s rich. Predictably, content creators and influencers are aligning with their respective teams, with those on the left bemoaning his verse blaming overweight people on welfare as “fat-phobic,” and those on the right generally defending the song as a populist anthem and a potential rallying cry.
Workers have posted on social media about how the song gives voice to their struggles, including freelance writer Gord Magill, who wrote on his Substack that the song resonated with him as a truck driver, because truckers are “exempted from the overtime pay all other workers are entitled to.” As a low-wage worker, certain lyrics resonated when I listened. I briefly wondered if this song would be the spark that sets the fire. But that childish revery soon passed, and I concluded that the social impact would be narrow and short-lived, perhaps even non-existent. While the song struck me as heartfelt, it isn’t new. The sentiments the lyrics express are plain to anyone who works for “bullshit pay.” These conditions have intensified since the early-1970s and there’s no indication of relief, no reason to hope there will be.
What’s more interesting than the song itself is how capitalism will eat anything that bolsters its continued survival, including social movements and cultural expressions (like Anthony’s song) that are hostile to it. Populism is a potential money-maker, and those “rich men,” at least the smart ones, will want to milk Anthony’s creative output for all it’s worth. The sharks are already circling. It’s possible this song is an opening salvo that could supplant the “woke” market for a populist one. Corporations are always eager to capitalize on whatever resonates with the masses, because it’s easier to sell to people if they believe you are on their “side,” but once these movements are captured by big capital, they become useless to any genuine grassroots aspirations.
Far from a rallying cry to unite us low-wage cogs in an organized struggle against our capitalist exploiters, improving the material conditions of of millions of lives, it’ll likely only change one life—Oliver Anthony’s. I wish him luck. If he’s shrewd with the money-men he can become one himself.