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The hype machine's favorite son
Is Oliver Anthony "fake"? Probably not - but the media buzz around him is a different story.
I knew there was something contrived about Rich Men North of Richmond as soon as he started talking about money. Richmond, 2023’s late-summer country music anthem for every middle-to-upper-class suburban Republican you’ve ever met, has been hailed by an endless parade of GOP pundits and operatives as Oliver Anthony’s authentic wail of the South’s suffering working class.
And no wonder: the song is a clunky recitation of right-wing trope after right-wing trope. Richmond is the new Mason-Dixon line in his song, not just so that he can kick DC out of the South, but so that he can (just barely) keep his nearby home in Farmville out of the North. Neopopulists may say that this is a tirade against the rich, but the title gives the game away: it’s only a tirade against some of the rich. And the government. And taxes. And welfare moochers. But don’t say it’s political!
“The main reason this song resonates with so many people isn’t political,” Matt Walsh says. “It’s because the song is raw and authentic. We are suffocated by artificiality. Everything around us is fake. A guy in the woods pouring his heart over his guitar is real.”
Someone more curious than Walsh may wonder where Anthony found an outlet for his high-end condenser mic “in the woods” — it looks a lot more like a backyard to me — but that’s not what caught my attention. What caught my attention was how he says the word “dollar.” When right-wing media guys coo over Anthony’s authentic sound, what’s really striking them is his Virginia Piedmont accent. It’s different from the cartoonish Nashville / Texan accent they’re used to hearing in country music, which is the closest Acela Corridor Republicans ever get to an encounter with the rural South.
But if you’ve ever seen a movie about the Confederacy (or a Foghorn Leghorn cartoon, for that matter) then you already know about a key feature of the accent: it’s non-rhotic. In other words, it often drops the “r”. I’ve lived most of my life in Virginia, and when my granddad was thirsty he asked for a drink of watah. Ask my grandmother which president preceded Reagan, and she’d say “Jimmy Cahtah”. And ask Jimmy Carter to say “dollar”, and it’ll sound like this:
Anthony doesn’t say “dollah”. He is nowhere close to dropping the r. Anthony attacks the R so hard it sounds more like doller; he chews on that R like a growling dog. This isn’t how the old South sounds, as anyone who’s lived here long enough can tell you, but it’s exactly how the modern South sounds. Some linguists, like Erik Thomas, have argued that modern Southern accents have picked up the R to differentiate themselves from a dialect that’s dropped it: African-American Vernacular English. (Think the WWE’s Prime Time Players chanting “Millions of dollas, millions of dollas.”) But another explanation strikes me as equally plausible: the homogenizing impact of mass media. Anthony’s hitting that R so hard because he wants to sound like Nashville; in that regard, he’s closer to Lil Nas X than to Stonewall Jackson.
Media conservatives have unanimously missed this, but if you’re from the South and you remember the world before it was completely baked in neoliberal hegemony, the way he says “dollar” sticks out like a sore thumb. From hitting the Rs to moving the Mason-Dixon, Richmond is full of little reminders that we aren’t in the old South anymore. We’re in a thoroughly modern Republican caricature of the South, one where men like Oliver repeat what they hear on Fox News and then Fox News broadcasts him and says “See? This is what they think.”
Yankee Conservatives like Delaware native son Matt Walsh aren’t the only ones getting in touch with their old South feelings over Anthony’s tune. Left journalist Hamilton Nolan, writing from Brooklyn, declares that
I have no reason to doubt that Oliver Anthony is genuine in his rage over being a working man and not making enough money and feeling the vague sense that the whole damn system is ripping him off....it has clearly tapped into a real existing vein of feeling in America. Things that go viral like this...[tend to be] something that clarifies and puts into words a thought or feeling that millions of people already had.
If Anthony has tapped into anything I’m pretty sure it’s just the bipartisan media romanticization of Southern accents. But when Nolan says this has gone viral because Anthony is giving voice to so many workers who feel the same way, he misses a simple question: why aren’t all of those other workers going viral, too? People complain about their lot in this economy constantly; social media is absolutely overrun with rage about low wages, terrible bosses, the rich getting richer, and so on. Just do a quick search on TikTok for “food stamps” if you don’t believe me. Anthony isn’t unique in his aesthetics, his message, or his creativity; so why did his rant, of all rants, blow up?
The crude explanation, already in circulation on sites like Reddit, is that Anthony is some kind of political PR plant. On Twitter, another musician named Matt Moran has pointed out that Oliver Anthony is actually a pseudonym, but far be it from me to call that suspicious. Others have pointed out that he evidently has 92-acres of land, which seems a bit at odds with his brand as a struggling factory-worker; but it’s not completely clear to me as of this writing that he actually owns it, and this is on the smaller end of a typical farm plot in Virginia. I don’t think anyone would be at all surprised to discover that this guy is actually an independently wealthy semi-retired boat dealer who decided to live the dream and buy some land to drive his 4-wheeler on, but my sense is that Anthony probably isn’t all that different from how he’s presented himself here. Maybe a little better off than he realizes, but otherwise solidly middle class.
The better explanation, I think, is that this is Anthony is really just another example of the right-wing hype machine doing its work. In that regard he’s like Jenny Beth Martin, the 2014 blogger who FreedomWorks aggressively promoted as the leader of a national Tea Party movement; or Patrick King, who a whole network of think tanks, media figures, and politicians crowned the leader of the anti-vaxx trucker convoys of 2022; or Chaya Raichik, who everyone from Tucker Carlson to the Babylon Bee pushed into prominence through her LibsofTikTok account. None of these people were professional actors posing as someone else, or cynical mercenaries taking “inauthentic” positions that they didn’t actually believe; usually the most you could say about them is that they were a little better off and a little more well-connected than they first let on.
But what Nolan gets exactly wrong is this suggestion that if Anthony is “genuine” the buzz must be genuine too, fueled by some authentic stream of working class rage. Just the opposite: it’s ruling class rage that explains why we’re hearing this guy instead of billions of other workers who are just as upset. Some of their promotional tactics are probably covert; Jaime Brooks, for example, points out that day one download spikes on Apple Music are often juiced to create the impression of a viral hit. Moran, meanwhile, argues that Anthony is being financially backed by James Howerton, a former Executive Director at The Blaze. Most of the promotion, however, is right out in the open. When Matt Walsh praises Oliver, he’s leveraging a platform given to him by The Daily Wire, which was in turn launched by the billionaire Wilks brothers. When politicians like Margorie Taylor Greene give him free marketing to millions of followers, they aren’t reacting to a viral hit that grew organically from a working class that’s with him on anything. They’re creating a hit through a carefully organized and grotesquely funded right-wing marketing system.
This distinction is crucial if the left wants to really understand the ideological challenge we’re facing. The implicit analysis people Nolan has given us here is that Anthony is just a case of bad luck. In another universe we might have had a viral working class anthem with good politics instead of bad politics; in the end, it’s just a misfortune that the song that got popular also just-so-happens to call for tax cuts.
But once we stop understanding Jenny Beth Martin, and Patrick King, and Chaya Raichik, and Oliver Anthony, and every other “viral” and “organic” right-wing publicity stunt from the last twenty years as an ongoing string of bad luck, we can ask Americans to start questioning the hype machine. Maybe ratings and downloads and social media follower counts don’t always mean “this is important” or “this is something a lot of people care about.” Maybe this elaborate system of metrics capitalism has created which supposed to stand as proxies for popular opinion — maybe they just don’t. And maybe if we spent a little more time listening to Southern working class voices in the real world, we wouldn’t be so impressed by the aesthetics when the hype machine shows us one it approves of.
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