SlateWhy Is This Song No. 1?

That Welfare-Bashing Country Song Is Still Atop the Charts, but There’s a Silver Lining

Oliver Anthony’s overnight smash shows how passionate niches have taken over the Hot 100. It’s not all bad.

At a time of national polarization, a singer-songwriter who has never recorded professionally before scores an improbable chart-topper that finds favor with America Firsters. The artist, a high-school dropout trying to make something of himself, claims to be apolitical. But his lyrics—about untimely death, citizens wailing in pain, and men who mean just what they say—are catnip for conservatives who feel besieged. Recorded humbly by the songwriter, with the help of an arranger from the fringes of the culture industry, the song nonetheless shoots to No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in near-record time. Sonically, the recording doesn’t sound like anything currently on the radio—even country radio, although the song is a smash on Billboard’s Country chart, too. It is safe to assume the hundreds of thousands buying the single are doing so to make a point, support the rock-ribbed persona behind the song, and cast an implied vote in America’s culture wars.

The year is 1966, and the song is “The Ballad of the Green Berets” by Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler of the U.S. Army Special Forces, who turned to songwriting after nearly losing a leg in Vietnam. “Green Berets” spends five weeks at No. 1 and winds up Billboard’s top song of 1966.


Sound familiar? Sure, there are many differences between “Green Berets” and Oliver Anthony Music’s “Rich Men North of Richmond”—the song that’s freaked out chart watchers and progressives over the past fortnight, as it came out of quite literally nowhere to top the Hot 100. For starters, Sadler’s anthem is a proud paean to America, while Anthony’s is a declinist folkie rant. And “Rich Men” has, so far, spent only two weeks at No. 1; there’s little chance Oliver Anthony will wind up with 2023’s top hit, thanks to earlier, bigger hits by Morgan Wallen, Taylor Swift, and Miley Cyrus.

But as a chart historian, I couldn’t help but think of Sadler’s massive fluke hit when Anthony defied the odds and topped the hit parade with his politically incoherent song punching up at the wealthy and punching down at the poor (especially underprivileged lovers of Little Debbie snack cakes). Frankly, this analogy between Sadler and Anthony kept me from fretting overmuch about what “Rich Men North of Richmond” means—for our nation, pop music, or the charts. In many ways, Oliver Anthony is unprecedented. But in the ways that matter, we’ve been here before.

About that 57-year-old fluke hit: A young man with a troubled family life before he found his way to the military, Sadler never recorded anything before “The Ballad of the Green Berets.” He might not have recorded the song at all, had military historian and Green Berets author Robin Moore not helped him streamline its lyrics and arrangement and gotten him into a recording studio. It took off, at first, not because of major-label promotion but a televised news segment of Sadler playing his stentorian march for fellow wounded veterans. The song’s lyrics are fairly grisly, not typical pop fare at all, recounting stories of “Fearless men who jump and die.” Because it was the 1960s, he did wind up signing to a major label, RCA. There was no other way for a single to be pressed in quantity and reach the stores that would make it a hit. But the song seemed to exist outside of the pop-industrial complex. Audiences were stirred by the “authenticity” of the song and the message—or what they thought the message was. “Green Berets” is not exactly a pro-war song, but it was received as a pro-military anthem as the Vietnam conflict escalated and antiwar demonstrators overtook college campuses. After RCA issued a rerecorded version, Sadler’s song shot to No. 1 in just five weeks, about the fastest a single could top the Hot 100 in the slower-moving analog-charts era.

The story of “Rich Men North of Richmond” is a funhouse-mirror version of “Green Berets.” Christopher Anthony Lunsford—the pseudonym is an homage to his late grandfather Oliver Anthony, and he bills his recordings as Oliver Anthony Music—has been dabbling in songwriting for a couple of years as a balm for a troubled life of “struggling with mental health and using alcohol to drown it.” He only produced a professional-sounding recording when Draven Riffe, a West Virginia–based independent musician, invited him to post music on his RadioWV YouTube page. “Rich Men” was, according to Anthony, the first song of his recorded with a real microphone and a real camera and not on his cellphone. In a bid to project authenticity, Riffe shot video of Anthony performing the bilious “Rich Men” on his own plot of farmland, complete with a pair of dogs sleeping nearby. The song’s lyrics are as unflinching as Sadler’s were: “Lord, we got folks in the street, ain’t got nothin’ to eat … Young men are puttin’ themselves six feet in the ground/’Cause all this damn country does is keep on kickin’ them down.” Again, the message is a culture-war Rorschach test—Anthony claims to be “dead center down the aisle on politics,” but because his lyrics mix complaints about wealthy power-brokers with complaints about taxes and that infamous quip about welfare recipients spending money on Fudge Rounds, it was (at first) latched onto by right-wingers seeking counter-countercultural affirmation. Like the 1966 version of Richard Nixon’s Silent Majority buying Sadler’s single by the millions, the 2023 MAGA faithful look to signal-boost anything they perceive as offsetting the culture’s liberal bias.

The big difference between 1966 and 2023 is how fast that signal is boosted. Last week, “Rich Men North of Richmond” didn’t just reach No. 1, it debuted there, fueled by opening streams of 17.5 million and sales of 147,000 downloads. That’s even faster than what country veteran Jason Aldean pulled off in July, when he leveraged Trumpian grievance and liberal outrage to hurtle “Try That in a Small Town” from a modest country-radio success to the top of the Hot 100 in two weeks. Oliver Anthony Music went from zero chart history whatsoever to top of the pops instantaneously—Billboard reports that he (it?) is the first act to debut at No. 1 after never appearing on any Billboard chart in any form, and only the second label-unaffiliated artist to score a Hot 100 No. 1 (after Lisa Loeb, who was technically unsigned when her Reality Bites soundtrack single “Stay (I Missed You)” topped the chart in 1994). In a 1966 charts world where streaming existed and Sadler could have released his own music videos, “The Ballad of the Green Berets” probably would have debuted at No. 1, too. Nowadays, all of the elements lined up to take Anthony from media curiosity to chart dominator in under a fortnight.

After Aldean’s rant rose to No. 1 in late July, it famously plummeted out of the Top 20 a week later, prompting Nelson Muntz–esque cries of “HAA-ha!” in liberal corners and seemingly setting a benchmark for how MAGA-fueled chart phenomena behave once the grievance-stokers move on. But as I write this regrettable entry in my long-running Slate series, Anthony’s howl of protest is in its second week on top. So … how?! Especially if the right-wing anthem turns out not to be quite so right-wing after all? Who, exactly, is the constituency for this fluke of a hit?

One of the most remarkable statistics in “Rich Men’s” second week on top is that its streams actually grew from Week One, from 17.5 million to 23 million. It’s rare for any song that debuts at No. 1 to grow on services like Spotify, Apple Music, or YouTube the next week; Billboard notes that, in the ’20s, only Olivia Rodrigo grew her streams in Week Two with 2021’s “Good 4 U,” and Rodrigo was benefiting from the release of her smash album Sour that week. Anthony has no album as yet. Moreover, Anthony’s second-week downloads held strong but did fall in Week Two (from a massive 147,000 to a still-large 117,000). If you’re trying to divine political intent from chart performance—an all-too-common trend in recent years—downloads are typically understood to indicate active lobbying by interested parties (whether K-pop fans overcoming perceived racism or MAGA types overcoming perceived wokeism). In other words, cultural activists buy downloads, despite their technologically passé status, because Billboard weights each dollar download more than each micropenny stream in its Hot 100 formula. Streaming, by contrast, implies actual consumption: folks allowing a song into their daily lives.

I admit this is an oversimplification. As we saw in 2021 in the wake of Morgan Wallen’s N-word incident, an activist fan base can and will boost their streams to overcompensate for the backlash against an act. It’s possible that some right-wing subset switched focus from downloads to streams in Week Two. But I doubt it: For one thing, as the Aldean campaign proved, right-wing music-chart activists (I hate that this is a thing I have to type now) are laser-focused on the dollar download as their path up the charts. For another, Anthony is no MAGA darling anymore. Late in Week Two, Anthony’s song became the subject of a Republican presidential debate question, and Anthony, the anointed MAGA mascot, responded by very publicly distancing himself from the candidates. “It was funny seeing my song at the presidential debate, because it’s like, I wrote that song about those people,” Anthony said. “That song has nothing to do with Joe Biden, you know?”

Mind you, Anthony’s disavowal happened late enough in Billboard’s tracking week that his Aldean-like collapse might well happen in Week Three. (Stay tuned.) Still, as a rule, a hit song doesn’t grow its streams by more than 30 percent unless a sizable audience wants to actually listen to it. This is where, I think, the qualities of Anthony’s actual music, such as they are, come in. Clearly, a more moderate listenership is buying what Anthony is selling.

Can I be honest? Probably my least favorite aspect of the Oliver Anthony phenomenon—well, a close second to his incoherent attack on plus-sized welfare recipients, which he still hasn’t walked back—is the boost it gives the “authenticity” myth. “You can’t fake authentic, and Oliver Anthony has it in abundance,” offered sage music critic Joe Rogan. If you say so, Joe. Hear me, good people: Like punk, an “authentic” aesthetic is a stylistic choice, especially in an era where the tools to make a more polished production exist in every cellphone. (You might even build a chart-topping career out of cellphone recording.) You may recall that, a dozen years ago, when Adele’s music blew up, she was rightly praised for her voice and her songs and, frankly, overpraised for her so-called authenticity. This despite the fact that, as I’ve pointed out in this series before, Adele works with the same songwriters as Katy Perry and Maroon 5. As I’ve also pointed out, Motown was a song factory, and it made some of the best, most populist music of the past century. So, memo to my fellow music fans, of any political persuasion: To like an artist based on the idea that “stripped down” equals “authentic” is to be duped. I love my share of folkie classics, truly—but by and large, great pop is carefully crafted, not left unpolished, whether it’s performed on a laptop or an acoustic guitar.

However, it’s clear a significant segment of listeners presented with Oliver Anthony—even some who vote like me—are captivated by his seeming holy-fool simplicity. Country music critic David Cantwell, writing for Time, gets it exactly right, noting, “Some listeners apparently find his spare, old-timey performance style and bushy beard ‘authentic.’ To that, I’d say that the adoption of early–20th century–evoking styles and sounds in the early 21st century evokes more artifice than authenticity.” The inchoate anger of Anthony’s lyrics matters, sure. But just as Barry Sadler’s fever dream only went supernova when paired with a drill-formation arrangement, Anthony’s cry of rage is more marketable when packaged with a beard and a dog. As recently as the ’00s, recording with a beard in the woods might get you a rave in Pitchfork and a slow crawl to platinum. Now, thanks to digital consumption, it gets you an instant spot at the top of the pops.

But here’s the good news: Some of the same forces that elevated Anthony’s weird hit have also made the Hot 100 more admirably weird all year. Were you aware that the first-ever regional Mexican song—like, with a horn section and a waltz tempo—to hit the U.S. pop Top 10 happened just four months ago? Believe it: “Ella Baila Sola,” a corrido tumbado by the group Eslabon Armado and the fast-rising Latin trap king Peso Pluma, rode a burst of streams to a No. 4 peak. Maybe you’ve heard that old deep cuts by superstars, like Taylor Swift’s 4-year-old “Cruel Summer” and the Weeknd’s 6-year-old “Die for You,” have been turned into current hits again thanks to Zoomer digital consumption—but did you hear about the 13-year-old track by R&B stalwart Miguel, “Sure Thing,” that rode a sped-up TikTok trend to chart glory? Or maybe you’ve gotten wind of the Zach Bryan phenomenon: The country-adjacent singer-songwriter who sounds more like Bruce Springsteen than Morgan Wallen, and self-releases and self-produces his LPs, signed an unorthodox distribution deal with a major label and is selling out arenas nationwide to an audience that has his lyrics memorized. Bryan scored an improbable pop hit this year, too. The acoustic guitar and harmonica torch song “Something in the Orange” (Bryan says that inscrutable title is about a sunset) took one of the longest trips in chart history into the pop Top 10, finally reaching No. 10 in January. As with Anthony, Bryan’s unadorned, self-powered recordings have confounded the music industry. Nonetheless, his just-dropped self-titled album is blowing up on streaming services, and not only will it easily top the Billboard 200 next week; it’s speculated his austere duet with Kacey Musgraves—who has herself never had a Top 40 pop hit before—might be the song that ejects “Rich Men” from the top of the Hot 100. It’s strange days on the charts, folks, for worse and for better.

Like Billy Bragg, I actually do wish Anthony well. Music is a balm for the soul, and it strikes me that the guy is trying to figure some things out, like a lot of his fellow citizens, and happens to be piecing it together in song. I’m honestly more annoyed by the way his song was received, across the musical and cultural spectrum, than by the song itself. All this year, as red state–baiting anthems, TikTok memes, and short-lived K-pop hits have rampaged on the Hot 100, chart watchers have been wrestling—yet again—with arguments over whether the charts are so manipulated by zealous fans as to be useless. (In an excellent blog post, musician Jaime Brooks calls the phenomenon “American Sajaegi,” after the South Korean practice of hyperactive fan bases essentially buying chart position.) “Rich Men North of Richmond” is further evidence that musical curios are devaluing what a No. 1 hit means. It’s enough to depress a loyal chart fan … but then I remember Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler. Sometimes the charts of 1966 served up left-field hits like “96 Tears” or “Wild Thing,” and sometimes they crowned “The Ballad of the Green Berets.” Sometimes the charts of 2023 give us “Ella Baila Sola” or “Something in the Orange,” and sometimes you’re stuck with “Rich Men North of Richmond.” Wish I could just wake up and it not be true—but it is. Oh, it is.