The musician behind “Rich Men North of Richmond,” the country song that rocketed him to fame earlier this month, appeared to find a deep irony in seeing his work referenced during the Republican presidential primary debate this week.
“That song is written about the people on that stage,” Oliver Anthony said in a video posted to YouTube on Friday. “And a lot more, too, not just them. But definitely them.”
“Rich Men North of Richmond” was the subject of Fox News moderator Martha MacCallum’s first question for the candidates, who included Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie: “Why is this song striking such a nerve in this country right now?”
DeSantis was first to respond, skirting the question to attack President Joe Biden. Christie similarly did not respond with a direct answer, instead choosing to attack others on the stage.
Anthony was virtually unknown until releasing “Rich Men,” a protest anthem lamenting the struggles of working-class life that conservatives instantly latched onto as a supposed critique of their political rivals. Washington, D.C., is about a two-hour drive north of Richmond, Virginia.
However, Anthony said the right-wing pundits have it all wrong.
“It’s aggravating seeing people on conservative news try to identify with me like I’m one of them,” he said in the thoughtful, 10-minute video.
“It’s aggravating seeing certain musicians and politicians act like we’re buddies and act like we’re fighting the same struggle here, like that we’re trying to present the same message,” he went on. “I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me, and I’ve tried to be polite to everybody, and I’ve talked to hundreds of people the last two weeks.”
He didn’t name any names.
Over the last two weeks, the song trended on social media and provided fodder for a number of Fox News segments. The network spent at least three hours discussing Anthony’s song in the days leading up to the debate, according to Media Matters. Right-wing podcaster Joe Rogan, Fox News host Laura Ingraham and right-wing extremists Matt Walsh and Ben Shapiro have also offered praise.
“The music side is exciting, and all the Billboard, iTunes charts and all that crap ― that’s great,” Anthony said. “But the exciting part’s been the conversations I’ve had with people and the things I’ve learned just in a couple weeks about the human spirit, and about all sorts of other things.”
He also seemed bemused that his song came up at the debate.
“For them to have to sit there and listen to that, that cracks me up,” Anthony said. “It was funny kind of seeing the response to it. That song has nothing to do with Joe Biden, you know? It’s a lot bigger than Joe Biden.”
“Rich Men North of Richmond” has sparked controversy for its lyrics. In some places, the song expresses sentiments that resonate across political lines: “I’ve been selling my soul, working all day / Overtime hours for bullshit pay”; “These rich men north of Richmond / Lord knows they all just wanna have total control.”
Other lyrics are more vividly reminiscent of right-wing talking points, like where Anthony complains about “the obese milking welfare.” “If you’re 5-foot-3 and you’re 300 pounds / Taxes ought not to pay for your bag of Fudge Rounds,” he sings. He also references the late sex offender Jeffrey Epstein while hinting at darker conspiratorial undertones: “I wish politicians would look out for miners / And not just minors on an island somewhere.”
In Friday’s video, Anthony said he has watched a lot of responses to his song on YouTube. Many were positive, he said, but he was bothered by accusations that his song “is an attack against the poor.” He pointed to some of his other song lyrics that more directly criticize wealth disparity, and said his issue is with “the inefficiencies of the government,” not welfare recipients themselves.
“It’s hard to get a message out about your political ideology or your belief about the world in three minutes and some change. But I do hate to see that song being weaponized,” Anthony said.
Toward the end of the video, Anthony sounded an apprehensive note. “I don’t know what this country is going to look like in 10 or 20 years if things don’t change,” he said. “I don’t know what this world’s going to look like.”