Oliver Anthony and the woke hatred for the working class
Anthony’s genius has been to expose the rank classism of the Dems and their hangers-on.
The thing I love most about Oliver Anthony, aside from that apocalyptic timbre in his country singing, is that he’s forced the elite to unmask itself. We live under elites-in-denial. ‘We’re not the establishment!’, cry the movers and shakers of the upper middle-classes, even as they force your kids to genuflect to gender ideology, screw up economic growth with their climate-change hysteria, and dictate with Caesar-like conviction what is and isn’t sayable in the modern town square of social media. And yet in their foaming response to Mr Anthony, they’ve told on themselves. They’ve revealed that they know perfectly well who this red-bearded warbler from Farmville, Virginia is singing about in his rebellious ballads against The Man: it’s them.
Anthony has become a viral sensation since his song ‘Rich Men North of Richmond’ hit the internet. His pained anthem – think Nashville with a dash of Nietzsche – is No1 in the US. He’s hob-nobbing with Joe Rogan. He’s fawned over by top Republicans (much to his irritation. ‘I. Don’t. Support. Either. Side’, is his wise take on America’s polarised politics.) And he’s generated miles of commentary as coastal elites who normally only encounter men in beards when a hip barista hands them their seven-dollar coffee try to work out why this fella from Farmville has hit a nerve.
In short, his protest song has done what protest songs are supposed to. It’s shaken shit up. It’s rattled our rulers. That’s the brilliant irony of someone like Billy Bragg writing in the Guardian of all places that Anthony’s song isn’t truly ‘blue collar’ and thus is not a proper protest song. Mr Bragg, that Anthony offends a cultural turncoat like you, the Eighties outsider turned bien pensant bore, and that he horrifies the plummy scribes of the Guardian who probably think Farmville is an iPhone game, is all the proof we need that this is a protest song, and a good one.
Anthony’s genius is that he has forced our elites-in-denial to do what elites must occasionally do: demonise dissent. Just as old establishments bristled at Elvis’s sexy hips or the Sex Pistols’ anarchical antics or Sinéad O’Connor’s blasphemies against Rome, so the new establishment loses sleep over Anthony’s angry crooning on ‘bullshit pay’, high taxes and obese folk who live off welfare. He’s ‘punch[ing] down on the poor’, says Bragg in the Guardian – which is rich from a newspaper that spent the past seven years raging against the dumb gammon (ie, pigs) who voted for Brexit.
Anthony embodies country’s ‘nastiest impulses’, tuts Time magazine. His songs feel ‘parochial to the point of bigotry’, it says. The Independent’s culture reporter damns ‘Rich Men North of Richmond’ as ‘doggerel’. Worse, it’s ‘artless’, a ‘blunt-force hissy fit’. That’s what The Man has always said about the musical revolts against him – that they’re gauche, trashy, with a huge chip on their shoulders. Blue-rinse Christians said it about punk; now twentysomething woke graduates say it about Oliver Anthony.
One of the funniest sights of recent weeks has been liberal columnists poring over Anthony’s lyrics and class-splaining why he’s not a Real Protest Singer. Listen to Woody Guthrie, not this, they plead, like those right-on whites in the 1990s who were aghast that some blacks seemed to prefer the nihilistic swagger of NWA to the righteous anti-racism of Public Enemy.
It’s classic cultural gate-keeping. What the establishment dreads most about Anthony is that he’s unfiltered. They can’t believe someone is expressing opinions without first getting them vetted by Silicon Valley’s thoughtpolice or the fiftysomething baldies who write for Rolling Stone. A man who lives in an off-grid camper with his wife and kids singing about politics directly to the swayable throng? It just won’t do. They want to iron away his guilelessness, edit out his more barstool thoughts, and bestow their vision of authenticity on him. They want to straighten him out like they did with Elvis when they sent him off to the army.
There is so much cluelessness and cant in the sniffy repulsion for Anthony. Consider the handwringing over his line about ‘the obese milking welfare’. ‘Well, God, if you’re five foot three and you’re 300 pounds / Taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds’, he sings. ‘How dare he bash the poor?’, wail his rich critics. They’re blissfully unaware that working-class communities have long been wary of the machinery of welfarism, viewing it, rightly, as the means by which the state disguises its grotesque failures to bring about full employment, and through which it exercises both economic and moral influence over the lives of the poor.
Some of Anthony’s comments on Joe Rogan’s pod likewise shook the right-on. Variety magazine lambasted this ‘strange two-hour interview’ in which Anthony ‘laments porn, prescription drugs and more’. What? All he said about porn is that it can be ‘terrible for people’. ‘People go down these rabbit holes with porn’, he said. As for drugs, his ‘strange’ view is that, when it comes to tackling life’s problems, whether anxiety or diabetes, there might be ‘alternatives to pharmacy medicine’. You could ‘change the way’ you live, he humbly suggested. That the woke elites are horrified by Anthony’s opposition to welfarism, onanism, overeating and pills for every emotional or lifestyle ailment shows how staggeringly out of touch they are. They might like the idea of the working classes whiling away their lives wanking and chomping on fudge rounds – they’re less threatening that way, right? – but, believe it or not, the working classes themselves don’t.
Anthony’s songs capture very well that working-class communities are as concerned about the cultural onslaught on their way of life as they are by the economic onslaught on their living standards. He sings about both economic exploitation – ‘I’ve been selling my soul, working all day / Overtime hours for bullshit pay’ – and cultural derision: ‘They all just wanna have total control / Wanna know what you think, wanna know what you do.’ The new elite is fine with the former – they fancy themselves as anti-capitalists, too – but they hate the latter. Because it’s there, in the heart of people’s lives, in our minds, that they wield their truest cultural power. Anthony terrifies them because he doesn’t only bash capitalist society but also its modern armies of welfare-dispensers, pill hawkers, thought controllers and ideology enforcers: that is, them.
With depressing predictability, the freaked-out elites have branded him a racist. Well, he’s white, working class and didn’t go to Brown – he must be racist, right? The phrase ‘Rich Men North of Richmond’ is code for Jews, commentators claim, with despicable cynicism: clearly it’s just a reference to the political actors of Washington, DC, which is 100 miles north of Richmond, Virginia. There is a feeling of ‘dog-whistle paranoia’ about Anthony, says the Independent. Apparently, when he sings about fat folk on welfare, he’s sending a signal to his listeners, those dogs, about certain communities.
Okay, Time, let’s talk about ‘nasty impulses’: is there a nastier impulse than the elite’s constant use of the dehumanising phrase ‘dog whistle’? This view of certain ideas or words or songs as high-pitched coded messages designed to unleash the canine-like ferocity of the uneducated throng is undiluted elitism. The moral panic over Anthony’s alleged whistling to the dogs who download his songs speaks to how entrenched the woke fear of the working classes has become. Imagine the cognitive dissonance it must take to wring your hands over Anthony saying fat people should stop eating fudge even as your view of ordinary people as dogs and pigs (gammon) keeps slipping into public view?
Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times wrote a good piece about the Anthony phenomenon. Too many liberals were too quick to demonise him, he said – to ‘wag their fingers and scold him for insensitivity’. ‘Have Democrats retreated so far from their workingman roots?’, he asked. It seems, said Kristof, that while liberals are attentive to racial injustice, they ‘have a blind spot about class’. I think it’s worse than that. The fury over Anthony suggests the woke elites are not only blind to the concerns of the working class, but consciously, actively hostile to them. This strange scandal over a country singer confirms that many in the Dem elites, and the establishment more broadly, recognise that they have new class interests. Class interests that run counter to those of Oliver Anthony and other working people. The class interest of ordinary people is to have economic growth, job creation, strong families and strong communities, autonomy and democracy. The class interest of the woke is economic degrowth, institutionalised welfarism, the fashionable disruption of family life via the gender ideology, and limitations on the democratic right of ordinary people to say ‘No’ to all this. For it is this new, anti-worker class agenda that fortifies the woke establishment’s borderline feudalistic moral authority over society.
Why has Oliver Anthony hit a nerve? Put away your essays, park your academic analysis. It’s not rocket science. Working-class people are simply intrigued that there exists a cultural figure who doesn’t view them as the scum of the earth. They can’t believe it. And that tells us everything we need to know.
Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. His new book – A Heretic’s Manifesto: Essays on the Unsayable – is available to order on Amazon UK and Amazon US now. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy
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