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An Open Letter to Oliver Anthony
Let's talk about the rich men north of Richmond, Oliver.
This is Clusterhuck, my newsletter about faith, culture and a flourishing future for all! I’m glad you’re here. I can only do this through the support of my readers, and I’m grateful for every one I’ve got. If you’d like to join, just click here. You’ll get a free seven-day trial, including access to all the archives.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I clicked on your song, since it was shoved in my face by a social media algorithm I don’t really understand and deeply distrust by way of some outraged culture warriors. Truth be told, “The Rich Men of North Virginia” is being praised by a lot of online people who I don’t really care for.
But curiosity got the better of me so I hit play. I liked it, Oliver. You’ve got a great voice. You probably don’t need anyone to tell you about the current, sorry state of country folk music, but your song is a reminder of how this stuff can connect when it’s done by someone who cares. It’s not at all hard to see why this song is resonating with so many people. You should be proud.
And it’s obviously more than just the music. “I’ve been sellin’ my soul, workin’ all day, overtime hours for bullshit pay” hits hard. I’m right there with you, man. It’s really something to compare what I’m able to afford now compared to what my parents could afford at my age. It’s hard, man. If we’re being honest, I think anyone who accuses you of being off base here is either insincere or has their head too far up their ass to be worth taking seriously.
But, man, I’m going to level with you here. I think your anger is on the money. But I also think you’re directing it at the wrong people.
“These rich men north of Richmond Lord knows they all just wanna have total control …‘Cause your dollar ain’t shit and it’s taxed to no end” is fair enough. But you lose me when you sing:
Lord, we got folks on the street, ain’t got nothing to eat,
and the obese milking welfare.
Well, god, if you’re five foot three, and three hundred pounds,
taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds.
I think you’re being played, man.
You can be mad about the taxes that Washington is scraping off the top of your paycheck, but are the rich men north of Richmond really the chief culprits here? Think about it. You’re blowing up on Spotify right now. Take a look at the paycheck you get from those guys when it comes in and ask yourself if it seems fair. You did all the work of writing a song, performing it, mixing it and producing it. If you didn’t, you had to pay someone to do it for you. Why aren’t you getting more money for it?
The reason is that a billionaire named Daniel Ek owns Spotify, and he’s decided the best way for him to maintain his billionaire lifestyle is to pay you a fraction of a penny per stream and save the rest for himself and his investor friends. He’s worth $2.3 billion, man. I know we get a little numb to numbers like this but $2.3 billion? Dude. You and I literally cannot fathom that kind of money. He is making more money in a year than you and me and everyone we know will make in our entire lives. We are — no hyperbole — millions of times closer to being homeless than we are to being as rich as he is. Does Daniel Ek have all that money because he works millions and millions of times harder than you and is millions and millions of times smarter? Or is there something else going on?
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It’s not just Daniel Ek. All that backbreaking work you and the people in your community do for bullshit pay? Some CEO in some city — a guy whose name you may not even know and who certainly doesn’t know yours — is making a lot of money off your labor and hoping you’ll be too tired and busy and frustrated to do anything about it.
And here’s the thing, man. This is what I really want to stress. I think that a lot of these rich guys want you to be mad, but they want you to focus that anger on your taxes and the people using food stamps to buy treats. It’s a distraction. They know they can’t erase your totally justified rage at not being able to make a livable wage. But if they can keep you focused on “greedy” poor people and “Big Government,” they don’t have to deal with the fact that they are the ones at fault here because they’re the ones not paying you for your work.
Daniel Ek could easily pay you and the rest of his Spotify artists more money. He doesn’t need billions of dollars. Nobody does. Especially when there are people who can’t even afford a roof over their heads. It’s blindingly simple when you think about it: There is no reason one person should have a billion dollars when there are people out there like you who just need a little more to afford healthcare, groceries and a roof. It’s absurd. In fact, it’s quite a bit more absurd than a guy using his welfare check to buy a box of Little Debbies. It seems like a guy spending a couple tax dollars on a snack doesn’t really have the same culpability for your current state as a guy hoarding billions of dollars because he’s getting rich off your work.
I noticed Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene posted your song. That’s a huge platform for you, and I’m sure you benefited from it, which is very cool. Taylor-Greene said that your song “represents my district and the people of America I know and love. I will fight for the forgotten American every damn day.” She also refuses to vote to raise the minimum wage. In fact, during 2021, she paid almost $50,000 in fines for refusing to wear a face mask to work. Regardless of where you’re on face masks, doesn’t that seem like a bigger waste of taxpayer dollars than someone buying some snacks?
Can I tell you about a guy I used to know in Chicago? We’ll call him Chuck. Chuck was a big fan of horror movies and pro wrestling. He didn’t have a lot of money — mental health issues made it tough — but he had a steady job. One time I went grocery shopping with Chuck and after he got a bunch of essentials like bread and eggs and such, he got five two liters of orange soda. Those two liters really cut into his food stamps budget. I asked Chuck about that, and you know what he said? “Well, my mom loves orange soda and I like to have a nice treat for her when she’s done with work.”
Look. I know not everyone who buys sugary treats with food stamps is trying to do something nice for their mom. But, you know, why shouldn’t people who are poor — just a little bit poorer than you — have a treat every now and then? Who are we to decide whether or not they deserve it? Where is it written that being poor means you should never be able to have something nice, ever? Lots of poor people work really hard and deserve to reward themselves with something good. Lots of rich people never work at all, and don’t deserve shit. Should we really be in charge of deciding who’s who?
There’s this verse in Proverbs 31 that we definitely wouldn’t put in the Bible if it wasn’t already there. I’ve never heard a sermon preached on it. It says “Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts. Let him drink, and forget his poverty, And remember his misery no more.” I know wine isn’t the same thing as fudge rounds, but the idea kinda comes to the same thing: Sometimes poor people just need a break, and that’s okay. And did you catch the operative command word here? It isn’t just “let them have strong drink.” It’s “give.”
One time I was in LA talking to a friend who spends a lot of time with homeless people. He told me how mad he gets when someone says they don’t give homeless people money because they’ll just spend it on beer. “These guys literally have to shit on the street,” my friend said. “Let them have a beer!” That really stuck with me.
Here’s what it comes down to, man. I’m just worried that with this song, you’re carrying water for some extremely rich cretins who don’t deserve you. They don’t care if you live or die as long as they can make money off your work. I’m also worried that you’re making enemies out of people who you could actually be standing with in solidarity, fighting alongside them for their rights to make a livable wage.
And I think you’re too talented for that. I think you want your music to be successful in ways that matter, and to speak truth to power in a way that also comforts those who’ve been most hurt by power.
And I’m not mad at you or anything like that. I’ve made it pretty clear who I think is really to blame here. I’m only writing to you because the real bad guys don’t care what I have to say. They don’t care what you have to say either. But maybe, just maybe, if enough of us start standing up together, they’ll care what we have to say.