Reactions to Oliver Anthony’s viral hit, “Rich Men North of Richmond,” have played out along drearily predictable culture-war lines. But Billy Bragg’s response, “Rich Men Earning North of a Million,” instructing Anthony to “join a union, brother,” perfectly cuts through the noise.

Oliver Anthony (L) and Billy Bragg. (radio wv) (Garry Knight / Wikimedia Commons)

The first Republican debate started with a question about previously unknown country singer Oliver Anthony’s breakout country hit “Rich Men North of Richmond.” Fox News host Martha MacCallum asked the candidates, “Why is this song striking such a nerve in this country right now? What do you think it means?”

Introducing the question, MacCallum said that Anthony’s “lyrics speak of alienation, of deep frustration with the state of government and of this country.” She helpfully added that “Washington, DC is about a hundred miles north of Richmond.”

In their predictably vapid responses to MacCallum’s question last Wednesday, the GOP candidates followed her lead in focusing on “the state of government.” Neither she nor the candidates so much as mentioned the primary subject of the song’s opening verses:

I’ve been sellin’ my soul, working 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

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

Instead, they focused on lines about taxes and welfare and “the dollar” that start at the end of the third verse. Overall, the lyrics of “Rich Men North of Richmond” are politically ambiguous, but the candidates, MacCallum, and many other conservatives have focused on the parts they like. A great many progressives have focused on the same parts — and put a minus where the right-wingers put a plus. They’ve denounced Anthony as a reactionary pseudo-populist, and some have even hinted that he’s a fascist.

That’s how the culture war works. Conservatives love what liberals hate, often in large part because liberals hate it, and that makes liberals hate it more, and everyone fights about it until they get bored and move onto whatever’s next.

A far more interesting response has come from the venerable British socialist singer-songwriter Billy Bragg. Last week, Bragg released a response song called “Rich Men Earning North of a Million.” Instead of denouncing Anthony as an enemy, Bragg has treated him as exactly what he seems to be: a musician who’s right about some things and wrong about others, but whose lyrics reflect deep frustrations felt by vast numbers of working-class people.

“I Wrote That Song About Those People”

Anthony himself has reacted with frustration to right-wing enthusiasm for his song. It would be easy for him to slip into the role that both sides of the culture war seem to want him to play. If he did, he could probably get a speaking spot at next year’s Republican convention. But he doesn’t want to.

In fact, Anthony sounds like a pretty standard liberal when he talks about the importance of racial and ethnic diversity, and he sounds genuinely uncomfortable with his Republican fans. After he was praised at the debate, he pointed out that the candidates assembled in Milwaukee were exactly the kind of wealthy, powerful, and callous people he was signing about.

“I wrote that song about those people,” Anthony said, “so for them to have to stand there and listen to that? That cracks me up.”

Rich men North of Richmond singer says “it’s aggravating seeing people on conservative news try to identify with me like I’m one of them.”

He says it’s funny they used it in the GOP debate because “I wrote that song about them.” pic.twitter.com/jlzoEDSs4p

— Sawyer Hackett (@SawyerHackett) August 25, 2023

None of this means that Anthony is “really” a liberal or a leftist. He’s obviously absorbed some right-wing talking points that serve to pit working-class people with jobs over their brothers and sisters in what Marx called “the reserve army of the unemployed.” But treating him as a hardened right-winger also misses the point.

“Join a Union, Brother”

If you think and write about politics all the time, it’s easy to forget just how many people don’t have anything like well-defined political worldviews. If anything, spending the time it takes to sort out all of your thoughts into an internally coherent framework is a bit unusual — especially if you’re overworked and financially stressed. If Anthony and his lyrics are a bit all over the place, that’s not remotely unusual. One of the reasons “Rich Men North of Richmond” is a megahit is that many millions of other people are every bit as confused.

And the right message to send to confused people looking for answers isn’t screw you for not agreeing with us about everything. It’s what Bragg tells Anthony in “Rich Men Earning North of a Million”:

If you’re selling your soul, working all day
Overtime hours for bullshit pay
Nothing’s gonna change if all you do
Is wish you could wake up and it not be true

Join a union, fight for better pay
Join a union, brother, organize today

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