LIFESTYLE

How ‘Rich Men North of Richmond’ Reached the Top of the Charts

The unadorned video suddenly appeared on social media earlier this month: a young man with a bushy red beard and a guitar in a backwoods locale, dogs at his feet and bugs buzzing in the background. In an impassioned drawl, he sings a country-folk anthem about selling his soul “working all day,” and being kept in his place by inflation, high taxes and the elites he holds responsible: “Rich Men North of Richmond.”

On Monday, hardly a week after the song’s release, the previously unknown songwriter and one-time factory worker who performs as Oliver Anthony Music made an unprecedented leap straight to No. 1 on the Billboard singles chart, topping pop superstars like Taylor Swift and Olivia Rodrigo as well as established country crossover acts including Morgan Wallen and Luke Combs.

Boosted early on by influential conservative pundits and media figures like Jack Posobiec and Jason Whitlock, Mr. Anthony’s “Rich Men North of Richmond” was praised for its stripped-down sound and workingman relatability. “The main reason this song resonates with so many people isn’t political,” Matt Walsh, a podcast host and columnist for the conservative Daily Wire, wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “We are suffocated by artificiality.” On Instagram, the mega-podcaster Joe Rogan added, “You can’t fake authentic.”

The song’s populism unmistakably leans rightward, resulting in an original track perfectly primed for a hyperpolarized moment when conservatives perceive themselves as embattled and politics unrelentingly washes into every other aspect of culture, be it sports, movies or pop music.

“People are just angry over the way that I would say the woke universe has taken over so much of content,” said Clay Travis, the talk-radio host and author of “American Playbook: A Guide to Winning Back the Country From the Democrats.” “And I think what you’re seeing is a backlash and a rebellion.”

Mr. Travis also cited the conservative activism against Bud Light earlier this year, in which boycotts following the beer brand’s promotional collaboration with Dylan Mulvaney, a transgender influencer, were followed by decreased sales and marketing executives going on leave. “What we’re seeing,” he added, “is a lot of people exercising their purchasing power.”

Scrutiny over the song’s origins, ideological intent and disaffected lyrics, which include references to welfare cheats and pedophile politicians, stoked interest from all sides, pushing “Rich Men North of Richmond” toward the center of the zeitgeist and the top of the charts.

It’s a pattern that has played out repeatedly across popular culture this summer. “Sound of Freedom,” a feature film about fighting child trafficking, was championed by conservative politicians, including Donald J. Trump, while its star sometimes promoted QAnon conspiracy theories. Its nearly $180 million in domestic box office receipts have already made it one of history’s most successful independent films.

The veteran country singer Jason Aldean rode a wave of controversy to commercial success with “Try That in a Small Town.” Following a backlash against its lyrics, which critics said promoted racist vigilantism, and after Country Music Television pulled the song’s music video, which was filmed in part at a courthouse in Tennessee that was once the site of a lynching, the languishing track catapulted to No. 1 on Billboard.

But the stunning success of Mr. Anthony, whose real name is Christopher Anthony Lunsford, testifies not only to the potency of confrontational works that cater to an audience that believes it is underserved, but also to something else: the increasing savvy of promoters and fans — including conservative ones — who have mastered digital platforms and guerrilla marketing tactics to dominate the very culture industries that they say have marginalized them.

Interest in “Rich Men North of Richmond,” which was streamed 17.5 million times on services like Spotify and Apple Music in its first week of release, partly grew in the manner of a typical viral track, according to the service Luminate, whose data fuels the Billboard charts.

Polarizing lyrics also ginned up the discourse. Mr. Anthony gives voice to the longstanding conservative critique of public assistance — he sings of “the obese milkin’ welfare” and adds, “Well, God, if you’re 5-foot-3 and you’re 300 pounds/taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds” — and links politicians to “minors on an island somewhere.”

Conversation flared on social media — “That’s a big reason why Oliver Anthony went viral,” said The Daily Wire’s Mr. Walsh — but there was a more targeted digital savviness at play, too. Much of the consumer activity that drove the track to No. 1 came via 99-cent digital downloads from outlets like the iTunes Store — an outdated format that is declining in popularity faster than CDs.

Despite streaming now accounting for more than 80 percent of music consumption overall, paid downloads are weighted more on the charts, a quirk exploited regularly by pop superfans devoted to acts like Ms. Swift or the South Korean group BTS. In often coordinated efforts, they use downloads to show support and earn chart milestones that are celebrated like wins in sports or political elections.

Jaime Brooks, a musician and cultural commentator, said that since most listeners spend about $10 per month for unlimited access to everything on services like Spotify, those who purchase downloads are overpaying with purpose.

“You do that out of a sentimental attachment to an old way of listening, or because you’re getting something else out of it,” Ms. Brooks said. One such thing, she added, could be “representation for their favorite artists on the charts, which means something to them. And now you’ve got these people with an obvious stated interest in using the charts to give the impression that their niche beliefs or views are popular.”

“Rich Men North of Richmond” sold 147,000 downloads in its first week, more than 10 times the sales of Mr. Combs’s “Fast Car,” the No. 2 song on the overall singles chart. Mr. Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town” benefited from a similar surge last month, with just 822 downloads the week before its music video became a culture war battleground, according to Luminate. Following the backlash, the track sold 228,000 copies.

Mr. Anthony, who did not respond to requests for comment, has attempted to float above the political fray. “I sit pretty dead center down the aisle on politics and always have,” he said in an introductory video posted to YouTube earlier this month.

He described himself as “just some idiot and his guitar,” a high-school dropout who has struggled with depression and alcohol abuse. But he added that he had recently found religion and a passion for calling out the “atrocities” of human trafficking and child abuse, which he said were “becoming normalized.”

“Just like those once wandering in the desert, we have lost our way from God and have let false idols distract us and divide us,” he wrote on Facebook last week.

Social media and the increasing reach of low-barrier platforms like podcasts enabled both “Sound of Freedom” and “Rich Men North of Richmond” to communicate directly with their target audiences in a manner unthinkable just a short while ago, said Neal Harmon, the co-founder of the movie’s distributor, Angel Studios.

“Wrote a great song, and the audience loved it,” Mr. Harmon said of Mr. Anthony, adding, “The key moment is that people can stand up and do it themselves instead of answering to those who have traditionally been the ones to say what should succeed or what should fail.”

The writer and musician Winston Marshall, formerly of the chart-topping group Mumford & Sons, said Mr. Anthony and “Sound of Freedom” succeeded “without the creative industry’s institutional support.”

This underdog mentality among conservatives in creative fields has long been a talking point and consumer motivator in book publishing, where right-wing titles by the likes of Mark Levin and Dinesh D’Souza routinely ascend sales lists.

Such books exploit concentrated promotion on one television channel — Fox News — and the power of a specific yet deep appeal above sales across the ideological spectrum, according to Eric Nelson, the editorial director of the conservative imprint Broadside. (Broadside and Fox News are both owned by companies led by Rupert Murdoch.)

“The less something is in mainstream media, the better it will be for the best-seller list,” said Mr. Nelson.

Similarly — and like activist pop-music supporters across the ideological spectrum — many of those pushing “Rich Men North of Richmond,” “Try That in a Small Town” and “Sound of Freedom” have encouraged a self-awareness in which financial support for a cultural artifact is part of being a good fan. “Sound of Freedom” even encouraged fans to purchase tickets for other filmgoers.

“This whole thing came out of resentment for the music industry,” said Tom MacDonald, a Canadian rap provocateur who has made digital download campaigns for songs like “Fake Woke” and “American Flags” a key part of his appeal and relationship to listeners.

Achieving chart success with savvy grass roots support was the ultimate repudiation of mainstream gatekeepers, Mr. MacDonald said. “I feel like we’re standing in a room right now where we’re not supposed to be standing, so let’s go,” he added. “That’s turned into a culture of its own.”

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