(August 22, 2023). The same conservative rebellion that shot country singer Jason Aldean’s “Try That In A Small Town” to No. 1 earlier this month has done it again.
On the latest Billboard Hot 100 chart—dated August 26–another song championed by conservative media personalities and politicians—Oliver Anthony’s “Rich Men North of Richmond”—has catapulted onto the national ranking at No. 1, marking the second time in just four weeks that pop (or, in this case, country) music and politics have collided to create a chart-topping phenom.
As I’ve heard it said somewhere, one time is an anomaly, but two times may be indicative of a trend…or something even bigger (like maybe a movement?).
Despite being similarly driven to the top of the main Billboard singles chart, there are some key differences between “Rich Men” and “Try That.”
Unlike the new No. 1 by Anthony (whose real name is Christopher Anthony Lunsford), Aldean’s “Try That In A Small Town” had been out for months and languished below the chart’s threshold before a controversial video triggered a cultural battle that made it a viral hit, which propelled it to the top of a chart it would never have seen otherwise.
Anthony’s “Rich Men,” on the other hand, wasn’t even available just 11 days ago, and few people had even heard of the Farmville, Va-based singer/songwriter before his song and video—complete with its own conservative buzz points—hit social media platforms on August 11 (the same week Aldean’s song plummeted from No. 1 to No. 21 on the main chart).
An immediate rally-cry (mostly praise from right-wing politicians and fans), along with some unsolicited promotion from influential conservative media pundits, helped take “Rich Men” viral, resulting in downloads of 147,000 copies (selling on iTunes for 99 cents a copy), combined with just enough streams-17.5 million clicks across Spotify, Apple Music and other outlets—during its first seven days to send it to No. 1 on the overall list.
Another difference between the two cases is that “Rich Men” is without some of the more racially charged, gun-toting vigilante rhetoric that was at the center of Aldean’s controversial single and video, although Anthony’s newer song embraces several conservative talking points about government overreach, human trafficking, and welfare cheaters, which explains why it’s struck a chord with that audience (well, that plus the every-man image Anthony projects with his rural, hardworking-but-downtrodden ideologue).
In “Rich Men,” the scruffy, red-bearded Anthony sings with an unmistakable central Virginia drawl originating less than 60 miles from where I’m writing this (near Richmond but south of it for those wondering): “I wish politicians would look out for miners, and not just minors on an island somewhere. Lord, we got folks in the street, ain’t got nothin’ to eat; And the obese milkin’ welfare…
“Well, God, if you’re 5-foot-3 and you’re 300 pounds…taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds!” Okay then.
In other lines, he sings of “working all day for bullshit pay,” a government that overtaxes the working class, and a “damn country” that kicks the common man down (resulting in “men putting themselves six feet in the ground”).
For those things and more, the self-described politically neutral (and born-again Christian) calls out the “elites” he holds directly responsible for his and similar people’s troubles: the “Rich Men North of Richmond.”
For those not familiar with Virginia geography, that would be the politicians in Washington, DC—some of whom ironically exploited Anthony’s messages—though it’s not lost on observers that Richmond was also the capital of the Confederacy and a key to the southern rebellion that was solidified after Virginia, now a commonwealth, seceded the Union in the 1860s.
I think it’s safe to say with the ascension of “Rich Men North of Richmond” to No. 1 that we’re not (just) in Kansas anymore (btw, there’s a Richmond there, too…population 459).
The fact that a song touting populist themes such as Anthony’s can generate enough iTunes downloads to top the big chart should be a message to not just industry observers like me (and the conservatives who count it as a moral victory in an era where they perceive “woke” politics as taking over the country), but to Americans in general.
When earlier tunes like Bryson Gray’s “Let’s Go Brandon,” Aaron Lewis’ “Am I The Only One,” and Donald Trump and The J6 Prison Choir’s “Justice For All” topped iTunes charts during the past year or so, it was with sales that were notable but still not enough to crack the top 10 on the overall Hot 100, which adds digital downloads to sales, streaming numbers and radio play to calculate the overall chart.
In Trump’s case, it wasn’t even enough to make the Hot 100.
And within days, all three tunes returned to relative obscurity (even on iTunes), becoming fodder for liberal memes after the initial conservative victory laps were done.
Those earlier examples further highlighted the diminishing impact of the Apple Store in today’s music industry. With streaming now the dominant factor in American music consumption as reflected on Billboard’s charts the past ten years—it’s been reported that upwards of 80% of a chart-topping song’s points can be attributed to Spotify and Apple Music clicks—it wasn’t enough to just top iTunes to get a true hit.
The songs by Gray, Lewis and yes even Trump couldn’t come anywhere near the top of the Hot 100 without accompanying streams to go with their quick jolt in digital downloads. And, for the most part, they didn’t.
But these latest examples by Anthony and Aldean are clear indication that conservatives have become savvy at making the outdated format of iTunes a marketing tool to not only rail against what they view as the “elite establishment” and to get their messages out, but to create the impression that their views are far more popular and mainstream than what streaming-only charts might otherwise suggest.
Because Billboard weights digital downloads more heavily these days to better balance them with radio and streaming’s larger chart contributions, songs like “Rich Men” (and “Try That” before it) can sell hundreds of thousands of downloads in a week and top the broader Hot 100, where a No. 1 song is far more meaningful than on only iTunes.
Typically, a song can top the iTunes-only list with a tenth of the downloads Anthony’s “Rich Men” generated during its first tracking week. Aldean’s tune reportedly sold just 822 downloads the week prior to the controversy, with it skyrocketing to 228,000 units the week that it catapulted to the top.
In Aldean’s case, “Try That” became his biggest Hot 100 hit in a career that’s spanned 17 years. In Anthony’s, “Rich Men” is his first No. 1 in a career that’s seemingly existed for 17 days (he did have previous tunes that have now been elevated by his exposure following “Rich Men”).
And anyone still doubting the overall message the success of these songs is sending—despite the different paths they took to achieve it—should look no further than the complete shift in the zeitgeist that‘s occurred in the past 12 months, as reflected at the top of these same charts.
In August 2022, Lizzo, Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 in succession with their songs “About Damn Time,” “Break My Soul,” and “Super Freaky Girl,” respectively. They were songs by three Black females that touted empowering, liberating themes for women, and, to a notable degree, the LGBTQ+ community.
This month, the songs by Oliver and Aldean joined megastar Morgan Wallen’s “Last Night” (which has been at or near the top of the chart for the past half-year) as the current Hot 100 trifecta, with each of their songs succeeding one another at the top and also topping the country music charts.
What’s even more ironic is that each song has been embraced by a community that largely shuns the mainstream ideology that having a No. 1 Billboard hit previously represented.
Anthony’s “Rich Men North of Richmond” has clearly struck a chord with anyone who feels they have been underserved by politicians and the government as a whole, while playing up stereotypes about overweight people who they’ve convinced themselves are guilty of benefiting from that same government’s handouts. (It’s interesting that in the same month Lizzo loses over a million Instagram followers for allegedly fat-shaming her former dancers, along with other harassment charges, Anthony’s tune with references to 300-pound people and their government-funded “fudge rounds” tops the chart.)
But despite dubious messaging and the largely guerrilla marketing tactics conservatives have used to send these songs to the top, the political left should not dismiss this No. 1 Hot 100 trend as flash-in-the-pan (any longer).
This comes on the eve of an election year where right-wingers have already demonstrated their purchasing power (to the tune of billions of dollars in losses in Bud Light sales after Anheuser-Busch featured transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney in one of its ad campaigns), and where songs by country musicians largely supported by conservatives have occupied the No. 1 spot on the Hot 100 for 18 of this year’s 34 weeks.
And with the current Republican leader Donald Trump now facing four separate federal and state indictments, and the former president embracing the same government-blaming, every-man mentality championed by former factory worker Anthony, one has to wonder if Trump’s “Justice For All” would experience a better fate on the Hot 100 now than it did just five months ago when its 33,000 iTunes downloads weren’t enough to send it onto the main chart (none of his indictments had yet been handed out then).
Perhaps the biggest takeaway non-conservatives should get from all of this is that these aren’t just pop hits and record charts at play here.
There is a movement afoot—one that even if it doesn’t represent what the majority of Americans really believe about politics, our government and our culture, there’s a viable perception that it does if for no other reason than these songs keep reaching No. 1.
And that movement—and the perceptions and messaging that fuel it—should no longer be ignored…or we’ll be in for a rude awakening come November 2024 (and having a No. 1 Hot 100 hit won’t be the only thing conservatives are celebrating).
DJRob (he/him/his) is a freelance music blogger from the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop, rock and (sometimes) country genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on X (formerly Twitter) at @djrobblog and on Meta’s Threads.
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