A new folk song with edgy lyrics is causing quite a stir in America, and it’s not “Try That in a Small Town.”
Oliver Anthony's blue-collar anthem "Rich Men North of Richmond" has exploded across the internet, racking up 15 million views in its very first week after debuting on Aug. 9.
Mr. Anthony’s mournful ballad has an almost Depression-era feel. Sporting a bushy red beard and a twangy guitar, the Virginia native channels the struggles of working-class Americans while strumming away in the woods in front of what appears to be a hunting blind.
"I've been sellin' my soul, workin' all day/Overtime hours for [expletive] pay/So I can sit out here and waste my life away/Drag back home and drown my troubles away.
"It's a damn shame what the world's gotten to/For people like me and people like you/Wish I could just wake up and it not be true/But it is, oh, it is.
"Livin' in the new world/With an old soul/These rich men north of Richmond/Lord knows they all just wanna have total control/Wanna know what you think, wanna know what you do/And they don't think you know, but I know that you do/'Cause your dollar ain't [expletive] and it's taxed to no end/'Cause of rich men north of Richmond."
The song has resonated broadly with listeners, but it has also become a sort of political bellwether with lyrics that take aim at taxes, inflation, and welfare.
The Los Angeles Times notes Mr. Anthony’s song has been criticized by leftists, who’ve dubbed the tune an "alt-right anthem" that's "offensive" and "fatphobic."
The Guardian, meanwhile, accused Mr. Anthony of “punching down” and mocking the poor.
Right-wing pundits have seen things differently, including Matt Walsh, who called the song “raw and authentic.”
“One interesting thing about ‘Rich Men North Of Richmond’ is that he (rightly) attacks the welfare state,” Mr. Walsh wrote in a tweet.
“Many conservatives think that it isn’t populist to criticize entitlements but in reality blue collar Americans are sick of having their money stolen to prop up a system that functions as nothing more than a vote buying scheme for Democrats.”
It’s not exactly a surprise that Mr. Anthony's hit song would be received differently by the left and the right, which increasingly operate in different cultural ecosystems with totally different values.
But some are getting a bit carried away in the effort to turn Mr. Anthony's blue-collar tune into a right-wing screed.
Wikipedia’s since edited page on "Rich Men North of Richmond" initially claimed that “the song’s lyrics revolve around common right-wing themes such as inflation ....”
Did you catch that? Inflation apparently is now “a right-wing talking point” instead of an economic phenomenon broadly defined today as a general and sustained increase in consumer prices and a decline in the value of money.
The claim is bizarre.
There's nothing partisan about inflation, after all. It affects everyone. Rich and poor. Republican, Democrat, and Independent. People of every sex, race, and creed.
For decades, the term "silent killer" has been used by scholars, economists, and financial asset managers to describe inflation because of the gradual and often unnoticed erosion of purchasing power it causes.
The writer Ernest Hemingway, who moved to Spain during the Spanish Civil War to oppose Franco and wrote for Pravda because he hated fascism so much, called inflation “the first panacea for a mismanaged nation.” (The second, he added, was war.)
John Maynard Keynes, the staunch anti-conservative English economist who became arguably the most influential macroeconomic thinker in history, warned in 1919 (pdf) that Vladimir Lenin “is said to have declared that the best way to destroy the capitalist system was to debauch the currency.”
“By a continuing process of inflation, governments can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens,” Keynes wrote.
“The sight of this arbitrary rearrangement of riches strikes not only at security but [also] at confidence in the equity of the existing distribution of wealth.”
More recently, Lawrence Summers, the former president of Harvard and an economist that served in both the Clinton and Obama administrations, warned that inflation is undermining confidence in the American political system.
“It’s clear that inflation is significantly contributing to distrust in the institutions and to pessimism about the future,” Mr. Summers recently told The Harvard Gazette.
Clearly, one needn’t be a right-winger to be concerned about inflation. Anyone who goes to McDonald’s and is stunned to see a $50 receipt after ordering a few burgers, fries, and drinks has a right to be concerned over the erosion of their money.
None of this is to say that there are no political undertones to Mr. Anthony's song. There clearly are, and this fits snuggly in the long tradition of country music.
Anyone who has ever listened to Hank Williams Jr. or David Allan Coe or any number of artists can tell you weaving poverty and politics into songs is hardly out of the ordinary in the country music genre. Consider these lyrics from a popular song covered by the band Alabama, “Song of the South”:
"Cotton on the roadside, cotton in the ditch/We all picked the cotton but we never got rich/Daddy was a veteran, a Southern Democrat/They oughta get a rich man to vote like that. … Well somebody told us Wall Street fell/But we were so poor that we couldn't tell/Cotton was short and the weeds were tall/But Mr. Roosevelt's a-gonna save us all"
The song is more overtly political than Mr. Anthony's—it mentions a political party and president—but you’ll find no mention of it being left-wing on Wikipedia’s page of the song.
The primary difference, of course, is that Alabama’s song praised government anti-poverty programs, whereas Mr. Anthony's song attacks them.
Sadly, it’s quite possible that we’ve reached a point where any kind of criticism of the federal system is considered “right wing” by many. (After all, even everyday activities such as working out to getting up early have been described as such.)
But adding inflation to this list of partisan topics isn't just unwise but dangerous. There is, I suppose, one silver lining.
The labeling of inflation as a right-wing talking point is a tacit admission that the real cause of inflation isn't corporate greed or Taylor Swift. Inflation is a policy of the powers in Washington, DC, who are printing trillions of dollars.
If pointing out basic economic realities makes one “right wing,” I’m not sure what that says about the left.