“Lord it’s a damn shame,
What the world’s gotten to
For people like me and people like you.
Wish I could just wake up and it not be true
But it is, oh, it is…
Livin’ in the new world
With an old soul.
These rich men north of Richmond,
Lord knows they all just wanna have total control.”
These lyrics are from the hottest new song in the English-speaking world, “Rich Men North of Richmond”, by Oliver Anthony. Mr. Anthony was virtually unknown until the second weekend in August of 2023. He lives just outside of Farmville VA, 70 miles southwest of Richmond VA and a million miles from those “Rich Men” to the north. He’s a young man trying to make ends meet on a small farm, playing music and working as much as he can. I expect in the coming weeks we’ll find out more about Mr. Anthony. His life will get picked apart and I feel sorry for him in that regard. But not too sorry for him, as I do believe he has struck musical gold.
Yet the real story here is not about Oliver Anthony nor is it just about those Rich Men North of Richmond or anywhere else where the rich get richer. The real story is about all the people who used to work to get ahead and now just work to survive. It’s about the working middle class. Wages have not kept pace with the cost of living, jobs that used support a family have disappeared for a variety of reasons and our education system has failed to prepare people for the “blue collar” careers that do pay well.
In addition, we have created an image of success and the “good life” that is unrealistic and bears little resemblance to the lives of the working middle class back in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. Most of us lived in small houses, drove used cars, had one television, one phone, a radio or two and a subscription to the local newspaper. We had the clothes and shoes we needed and no more. We ate home-cooked meals and no one waited in line to buy coffee drinks that cost almost half as much as a pound of coffee you could brew at home. This list of differences between then and now could go on. But the point is that today we have a lot more stuff to spend our money on. The sort of stuff that 50 years ago the working middle class would have viewed as luxury items they could not afford. And they were OK with that because that’s how most of their neighbors lived.
But today a lot of people can afford, or least pretend to afford, the expensive add-ons. Back in the day there weren’t that many “haves” with whom we middle-class "have-nots" could compare ourselves. We had a handful of very wealthy people, a whole lot of folks in the middle and then some really poor folks at the bottom. Now the middle-class has been hollowed out. And we have more people below the middle as well as more people living above the middle. And at the very top we have some ridiculously wealthy individuals.
It's that gap between the upper middle class and the lower middle class that stands out. With the “middle” middle-class gone, we now have this contrast between upper middle-class households and lower middle-class households. The professional income class, or in some instances the two-income professional class which make up most of the “upper middle” are living in fine houses, in the best neighborhoods, sending their kids to good schools, driving new cars and taking expensive, fun vacations. Living the dream although they may just be getting by and saving very little. The lower middle income (working) class households are earning considerably less, living in less desirable neighborhoods and their kids are probably not getting the best education. This gap between the upper and lower classes is highly visible. The irony is that most people in that “upper middle class” group have no more regard for the “Rich Men North of Richmond” than do the folks in the lower middle class. The difference is that the upper middle-class group is complaining while floating around in their swimming pools while the lower middle-class folks are worried about putting food on the table.
One of the most important outcomes of Oliver Anthony’s song is that it’s essentially become the anthem for working class people all over the world regardless of race, gender or religion. It sums up the frustration of hard-working, honest, self-reliant people who resent those rich men, aka the elites, who are pulling the strings and gaming the system in their favor. Nor do these same working-class people have much regard for the non-working poor who rely on those same rich men to take care of them in exchange for their votes.
It will be interesting to see how long the public keeps listening to Mr. Anthony’s song. Probably until some Rich Man North of Richmond makes it their theme song for the next election cycle.