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Saturday, February 24, 2024

Unpacking “Rich Men North of Richmond”


In the current political era of hot-button issues and diametrically opposed forms of culture, it’s inevitable that those points of contention make their ways into our entertainment and leisure.

This has always been the case, as some say that “life imitates art,” and vice versa, but there is a different inflection now, one that seems as if it attempts to sway people from different sides of the political aisle, or mock those for the views they hold.

The latest point of contention, however, does not seem to play into those ideas at all, rather it provides a commentary that most people are likely to find agreeable.

Oliver Anthony’s hit “Rich Men North of Richmond” does not feature partisan political overtones, rather it expresses frustrations that most Americans are experiencing right now.

The video opens to an image of an exhausted blue collar appearing man wielding a resonator guitar. His background consists of a lush, verdant forest, with a hunting stand sitting in one of the trees; three dogs are sitting at his feet. The man starts singing “I’ve been selling my soul, working all day, overtime hours, for b******t pay, so I can sit out here, and waste my life away, drive back home and drown my troubles away.”

The song debuted at number one on the Billboard Hot 100, making Anthony the first ever artist to ever achieve that position without any prior industry history. The video, which was released on August 8, currently sits at over 31 million views. This song has seemingly become a cultural inflection point, but who exactly are these “Rich Men” north of Richmond?

Approximately 100 miles north of Richmond, Virginia, sits our nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. The suburbs of D.C. are some of the wealthiest in the county. According to a 2022 study by U.S. News, Loudoun County, Virginia, and Falls Church, Virginia, are the two wealthiest counties in the United States. (Falls Church is an independent city, but it is a county-equivalent in the eyes of the Virginia government). Five of the ten wealthiest counties in America are suburbs of D.C.

Closer to our homefront, Nassau County ranks as the tenth wealthiest county in the country; Suffolk clocks in at number thirty.

That said, five of those suburban D.C. counties are wealthier than the suburbs of the financial capital of the world, the home of the world’s most millionaires and billionaires, and by most accounts, the wealthiest city in the world, New York City.

As the song puts it, the federal government pays bureaucrats well, maybe a bit too well.

The song has seemed to stir some controversy with some of its lyrics, chief of which are “And the obese, milkin’ welfare, Well, God, if you’re 5-foot-3 and you’re 300 pounds, taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds.”

However, people who have called on this line as their chief form of criticism are missing the entire point of the song. Anthony states prior to those lines “Lord, we got folks in the street, ain’t got nothin’ to eat,” and follows those lines immediately with “Young men are puttin’ themselves six feet in the ground ‘Cause all this damn country does is keep on kickin’ them down.”

Last year alone, food prices have increased by over 10%, while wages have been stagnating. There are people working 50-60 hours a week in poorer parts of the country – like Anthony’s home state of West Virginia – who don’t take government assistance, and are struggling to make ends meet due to inflation. The current American system seems to have forgotten about them, all while the federal government’s employees continue to accrue generational wealth. That is the entire point of the song, and that is why it is resonating with so much of the country.

There’s something so appealing about the simplicity of the video. Oliver Anthony isn’t dressed like a rockstar, nor is he dressed like a pop icon; he’s dressed like an everyday American. The music video isn’t a bombastic production that obfuscates the intended meaning of the song. It’s a simple man singing about troubles to which every American, whether left, right, or center, can relate.