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Yes Progressives, Conservatives are allowed to have music
Conservatives can also go viral, and getting mad about it is dumb
Let’s do an experiment. Below are three YouTube music videos - do your best to watch at least 20-30 seconds of each once the music starts.
Unless you have very strange musical/cultural tastes at the intersection of queerpop, mumble rap and grindcore metal, at least one of these videos was probably pretty off-putting to you. Perhaps all three left you shaking your head, wondering if people really listen to this stuff.
And yet! All are very popular, despite your disbelief. The first two videos have 50 million and 200 million views respectively, and the third is fairly typical song of a popular genre that goes back decades. You, as a well adjusted adult, are able to live with the fact that not all music is aimed at you. Maybe you think one (or all) of these songs are terrible, but you’ll cope just fine. You can just… not listen.
So why are so many liberals freaking out over the surprise viral country hit Rich Men North of Richmond?
Rich Men North of Richmond
The new song from Oliver Anthony1 has gone viral since its release last week, and parts of America’s liberal/left have thrown frankly embarrassing tantrums about it.
There are the condescending attempts to explain class dynamics to the uneducated rural yokels. The Inquirer bizarrely tried to draw a comparison between the song and the Civil War. The AV Club also tries to connect the song and the Civil War, while others call are calling it regressive, offensive and fatphobic. Plenty of these articles speculate that Anthony could be an industry plant by shadowy conservative forces, though most of them have enough shame to note that there’s zero evidence of that.
“I’ve been sellin’ my soul, workin’ all day / Overtime hours, for bullshit pay”
What about the song itself? Sonically it’s soulful and a strong, raw performance. It’s barebones and unpolished, but that adds to the charm. Anthony can actually sing, and the song’s sound is objectively2 quite good. The song’s lyrics spend most of their time bemoaning the state of the world in generic terms and grumbling about the elites, a mash of primal frustration and pent up anger that the system sucks. But it also hits a couple of very right wing culture war-ish talking points, like complaints about obese welfare queens.
Now yes, this is a poor analysis of welfare policy. The lyrics don’t express deep thoughts as much as they express pure id. But one line of a country song doesn’t explain why America’s left is having a collective freak-out about it. Negative polarization likely plays a role here: the political left hates it because the political right loves it. Republican politicians like Kari Lake and Marjorie Taylor Greene have embraced the song, as have conservative culture warriors like Matt Walsh.
But the collective hysterical fits from liberal and progressive pundits also reveal a particular form of insecurity on the left that’s worth diving into.
Political Art Cuts Both Ways
There are a number of reasons why left-leaning pundits are attacking the song. Frankly, they’re almost all very stupid reasons. To address a couple of quick ones:
The song is factually wrong!
Granted the welfare analysis is bad, but that’s not your real gripe. None of you complain when left-wing musicians or artists make stupid political points, no matter how badly they age. I’m old enough to remember Rage Against the Machine singing over and over that there would be no difference between Bush and Gore, and I notice a distinct lack of op-eds talking about how stupid that was (then or now). “Artists I like can make stupid one-liners about politics but artists I disagree with can’t” is not a serious position.
The song is a plant!
There’s no evidence for this, and Drew Magary’s investigations mostly turn up that everything is as it appears. The song really is from an unknown artist, the YouTube channel really is just a small-time indie country channel, and it really did go viral all on its own.
And even if it was quickly discovered and pushed by right wing forces, so what? That’s how everything works - people push things they like to be more popular. We live in an age where stan armies use sophisticated algorithm hacks to make sure their favorite artists top the charts. Sharing a song on Twitter is weaksauce. Liberals were fine hyping Macklemore’s gay-marriage anthem Same Love all the way to a Grammy nomination, and there’s nothing here that’s different than that.
We combed through the guy’s history, and he has some weird stuff!
Sure, not going to deny that. He was a random Appalachian guy a month ago, there’s probably weird shit there. But if you’re going to cancel every artist with a tenuous connection to a conspiracy theory or weird beliefs, you’re going to have to cancel a whole lot of artists that I don’t see you currently cancelling. You don’t get to be selectively outraged at just this one guy.
Using viral pop culture to influence cultural values is our thing!
Ah, here it is. This is the actual reason people are freaked out by the song.
The left, to put it lightly, has a stranglehold on American pop culture. Whether it’s movies, television, the book publishing industry, music, or most major social media sites, progressive liberalism is ascendant. It’s really hard to overstate how thorough the left’s dominance is here - conservatives are left complaining that even the best and most authentic country artists are liberals.3
So when a conservative-leaning song from a seemingly conservative-leaning artist actually does break through, conservatives jump on it like a starving lion on a downed wildebeest. Conservatives don’t get many wins in the movie theaters or on the Billboard charts, but when they do they tend to stick hard. The movie Sound of Freedom has shown absurd staying power at the box office and made made roughly a million times its initial budget. And this song, which is a much better song than the cynical ‘Try That in a Small Town’, is also turning into a mega-hit with the political right. When they get a win, they support it hard. Anthony’s songs have taken the top three spots on the iTunes charts, and Rich Men is in the top ten on Spotify.
The left isn’t used to conservative talking points being used in genuinely good, popular music, and it’s causing overbearing and hysterical reactions. Everyone needs to calm down. I promise you will survive this one song that complains about high taxes and welfare. The conservative movement survived decades of Every Major Movie Star and Pop Artist being wildly progressive and sending coded cultural messages in their art. Your politics will be ok. Nobody’s forcing you to listen to this song at gunpoint. Just walk away from the screen.
I like to think my liberal bona fides are not in question4, so I want to point out that part of liberalism is that everybody gets a chance to make their point in the public square. I don’t think the song’s political points are particularly good, but I’m not offended the song exists. And yes, freedom of speech means that you’re also free to respond to the song. But before you send that long tweet thread, before you put out that article or 15 minute YouTube deconstruction - be aware that you look like this:
You know how dumb Ben Shapiro looks when he, as a 40-year old man,5 spends an hour whining about the Barbie movie and literally burning Barbie dolls? That’s how you look to a conservative rural voter trying to explain to them that the soulful, heart-wrenching song they love is actually a problematic billionaire psy-op and actually they need to Join The Class War Revolution. You might get some kudos from people who already agree with you, but you’re doing fuck-all to convince people who just like the song.
In fact, you’re probably just going to make the song more popular. There’s nothing like negative polarization, or as conservatives call it, owning the libs. The madder you get at the song the more they’re going to play it. It’s probably already a huge factor in why conservatives love the song so much - anything the libs hate must be good.
Make whatever political points you want. Argue for your beliefs. Advocate for policies and candidates and spread the good word, et cetera. But for the love of god, you don’t have to argue about specifically this song. Conservatives are allowed to have music too, and that music will sometimes go viral, you’re not going to win any friends or convince anyone by telling them otherwise.
“I’ve been sellin’ my soul, writin’ all day / Substack hours, for bullshit pay / So maybe just toss a paid sub my way”
A stage name, real name Christopher Lunsford
He’s actually 39, but being a professional right wing troll adds several years