Oliver Anthony’s “Rich Men North of Richmond” became a hit song with the backing of an array of right-wing influencers largely because, after drawing in listeners with a lament about working too hard for too little pay, it takes a turn to the right to target people on welfare, throwing in a complaint about taxes and a weird Jeffrey Epstein reference along the way. But as Anthony is hailed as a populist voice, English singer-songwriter Billy Bragg has offered up a response that showed just what really taking up the cause of working people might look like—and Anthony is pushing back on the right-wing embrace of his song.
“If you’re selling your soul, working all day. Overtime hours for bullshit pay. Nothing is gonna change if all you do is wish you could wake up and it not be true,” Bragg opens in a direct rejoinder to Anthony’s song. “Join a union. Fight for better pay. You better join a union, brother. Organize today.”
Bragg then sings, “Where the problem really lies is when union comes around. Rich men earning north of a million want to keep the working folk down,” adding, “So, we ain’t gonna punch down on those who need a bit of understanding and some solidarity. That ain’t right, friends.” In another specific response to Anthony, whose song rails against “the obese milkin’ welfare,” Bragg sings, “If you’re struggling with your health and you’re putting on the pounds, doctor gives you opioids to help you get around.” Once again, he offers a structural response: “Wouldn’t it be better for folks like you and me if medicine was subsidized and health care was free? Join a union.”
Meanwhile, Anthony is proving a little more complicated than his long list of right-wing boosters might suggest. After his song was used to open the Republican presidential primary debate on Wednesday night, he pushed back, saying, "That song has nothing to do with Joe Biden. It's a lot bigger than Joe Biden”—in fact, "That song is written about the people on that [debate] stage. And a lot more too, not just them, but definitely them.”
Anthony went beyond the debate, saying, “It's aggravating seeing people on conservative news trying to identify with me like I'm one of them.”
These comments came after he had disappointed his right-wing fans by seeming less hateful than they hoped. “We are the melting pot of the world,” he said in an interview with Fox News last weekend. “And that’s what makes us strong, our diversity. And we need to learn to harness that and appreciate it and not use it as a political tool to keep everyone separate from it.”
“Such a let down. Did he sell out already to the rich men north of Richmond?,” reads one tweet. Another claims, “Damn, thought we had a real one. He switched up so fast.”
Writes another social media user on the speed of the backlash, “S—. That was fast”.
The man said something extremely generic about diversity being good, actually, and his fans were angry. Because he was supposed to be a dedicated racist.
While his song’s slams on poor people and his rapid embrace by the far right have led to reasonable suspicion—from all sides—that he’s a dedicated right-winger himself, Anthony has previously claimed to be a centrist. Variety noted, “He has several other songs up on YouTube or TikTok, and he refers to pot a lot more than he does politics.”
Wherever Anthony’s next public political statement lands—and if he wants to campaign for marijuana legalization in Ohio, I’m fine with it—Bragg’s song offers a clear-eyed political analysis and, along with the reasons for anger, real solutions. But its stark, mournful realism and lack of boosting by the likes of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene mean it’s not destined to attain the viral success of “Rich Men North of Richmond.” Sadly, that’s the story of too many things in our politics, as Oliver Anthony may be about to find out when his right-wing following fully turns on him.
We talk about the upcoming Republican presidential debate and how sad a situation it is. The Republican Party shot itself in the foot with a Trump-sized bullet and now it's stuck with him for the foreseeable future. We still try to game out the possible paths the Republican field might take in order to rid themselves of the Donald.