Is it just an uncanny coincidence?
We are in the shloshim (thirty day) mourning period for Robbie Robertson of the Band. Robertson was an immensely talented musician, with great spiritual depth.
His greatest strength, however, was that he could chronicle the inner life and yearnings of the blue-collar American of the South and the heartland. Listen again to songs like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “King Harvest (Has Surely Come),” and you will understand his artistry.
But, then, as eerie variations on that theme — the heart murmurings of small town America — we have two recent blockbuster songs that have become populist anthems: Jason Aldean’s “Try That In A Small Town” and Oliver Anthony’s “Rich Men North of Richmond.”
Anthony’s song even had a starring role at the Republican debates last week — in the first question.
Co-moderator Martha MacCallum led off:
As we sit here tonight, the No. 1 song on the Billboard chart is called “Rich Men North of Richmond.’ It is by a singer from Farmville, Virginia, named Oliver Anthony. His lyrics speak of alienation, a deep frustration with the state of government and of this country. Washington D.C. is about 100 miles north of Richmond. Why is this song striking such a nerve in this country right now?
On the one hand, the song is about the frustrations of the working class:
I’ve been sellin’ my soul, workin’ all day
Overtime hours for bullshit pay
So I can sit out here and waste my life away
Drag back home and drown my troubles away..
So far, this is the musical child of the Band, and the musical great-grandchild of any number of Woody Guthrie songs.
But, then, there is a strange verse with an otherwise clever double entendre, which will match “rich men/Richmond” (I do give him ten points for word play):
I wish politicians would look out for miners
And not just minors on an island somewhere
Lord, we got folks in the street, ain’t got nothin’ to eat
And the obese milkin’ welfare…
What is going on here? Check out this comment from NPR’s “Morning Edition”:
It’s a reference to the Jeffrey Epstein scandal [who trafficked minor girls on Palm Beach, which is an island — JKS]. Epstein died in jail four years ago this month, but within far-right circles, there continue to be conspiracy theories about the circumstances around his death.
If this is not QAnon, then it is QAnon adjacent — the idea that there is a vast cabal of Satanic cannibalistic sex traffickers and child molesters working out of Washington, DC. So, we are already being primed for a conspiracy theory. Stay tuned.
The singer-songwriter also indulges in a little bit of class-based fat-phobia:
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 round
When past generations of protest and folk singers — Guthrie, Dylan, John Prine — sang about the poor, they did so with notes of compassion. But, this is simply cruel and mean.
I have an idea for a protest song — about how poorer areas are food deserts:
I’d like to eat better, but the stores around here
Just sell candy bars and cartons of beer
All the good veggies are in the next town
And I don’t have a car so I could bring them around.
But, here is the real message in “Rich Men North of Richmond” — that conspiracy theory:
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 shit and it’s taxed to no end
‘Cause of rich men north of Richmond
That’s about the American political class, isn’t it? They live “north of Richmond” — about an hour and a half north of Richmond, Virginia, inside the Washington, DC Beltway.
But, is it only about them?
“North of Richmond” is the 95 corridor — from Washington to Baltimore to Philadelphia to New York to New Haven to Boston — the dwelling and workplaces of America’s intellectual, financial, and cultural influencers. It is about what the late, disgraced Vice President Spiro Agnew called “an effete core of impudent snobs.” It is about the “elitists” who run America’s academic and cultural institutions. It is about the people who “run Hollywood,” even if they live on the opposite coast.
Here is what even Anthony might not understand.
In today’s America, when you are talking about the elite, and when you are talking about the rich, you are talking about the Jews — whether you know it or not. It is an (even unconscious or subconscious) dog whistle.
This is not an intrinsically American idea. It has very old roots. The idea of rich Jews controlling society is the oldest antisemitic idea in the book — literally, in The Book — the Book of Books, the Hebrew Bible. It is the idea that powerful, unassimilable, elite Jews lurk behind the scenes — first, in Egypt; then, centuries later, in Persia.
Most prejudices posit that the reviled group is “lesser than” the rest of society. For example, the racist opines: should people of color move into our neighborhood, “there goes the neighborhood…” They punch down in order to keep them down.
But [the antisemite] also “punches up.” Jews, the antisemite is convinced, are richer than, more powerful than, and more able to control matters than “the rest” of us. They revile the Jews, but they also fear them…
So, who are those “rich men north of Richmond?”
“Rich Men North of Richmond” is a musical Rohrschach. Ask any ten people to identify those “rich men,” and you will get ten different answers.
But, all of those answers will reveal the fears, anxieties, and hatreds of the listener. The results of this musical rhetoric are likely not to be very tuneful. Here is the thing about populist rhetoric. It never simply stays as rhetoric. It has a way of drifting into violence.
You might like the song.
But, to these well-trained and well-schooled ears, it sounds just a little bit discordant.