Oliver Anthony and the ‘mainstreaming’ of conspiracy theories


A earlier model of this text incorrectly mentioned that Jason Howerton is a right-wing journalist and that he co-founded the consulting agency Attain Digital. He beforehand labored for a right-wing information group and is the only real founding father of the agency. The earlier model additionally inaccurately described Attain Digital as conservative. The article has been corrected.

If you happen to had requested somebody at the start of the month whether or not they had heard of — not to mention listened to — Oliver Anthony, you in all probability would have gotten a clean stare in return. Now, the singer from Farmville, Va., with a fiery beard and large voice is in all places due to his viral tune, “Wealthy Males North of Richmond.”

Since its Aug. 8 debut, Anthony’s efficiency of “Rich Men North of Richmond,” shared on the YouTube channel Radiowv, has been seen greater than 17 million occasions and have become the No. 1 tune on the U.S. iTunes chart. Based on Billboard, the tune is now on tempo to enter the Prime 10 of the Billboard Scorching 100 subsequent week.

This feat is nearly unparalleled for a newcomer like Anthony, an unsigned expertise with none substantive following or recognized business connections. However Anthony’s ascent isn’t simply outstanding for its scale. The tune, which alludes to politicians and different nefarious powers-that-be, has been boosted predominantly by far-right influencers and retailers, who’ve hailed “Wealthy Males” as a brand new working-class anthem.

However with lyrics reminiscent of “I want politicians would look out for miners, and never simply minors on an island someplace” — an obvious reference to the late financier Jeffrey Epstein, who was charged with intercourse trafficking — “Wealthy Males” additionally nods to conspiracy theories and grievances which might be deeply rooted in far-right circles. (QAnon believers typically cite Epstein as proof {that a} international cabal of elites has been trafficking kids.)

Some consider the success of the tune, significantly on the heels of “Sound of Freedom,” a field workplace smash that echoed QAnon propaganda, indicators a mainstreaming of concepts that have been as soon as fringe.

Within the weeks earlier than Anthony’s viral success, Jason Aldean’s “Strive That in a Small City” rocketed to the highest of the Billboard Scorching 100 after conservatives rallied behind the controversial single. Critics accused Aldean of advocating for vigilante violence and mentioned the music video contained coded threats towards Black folks.

However Anthony’s rise arguably is much more notable. Aldean was already a longtime nation music star with a big and constant fan base. Anthony appeared to return out of nowhere.

“Wealthy Males” is credited to a songwriter named Christopher Anthony Lunsford, believed to be Anthony’s authorized title. His social media presence is comparatively spare: Anthony just lately joined X, previously often known as Twitter, and his posts on Instagram, TikTok and YouTube concentrate on his music, his land and his canine.

Based on Anthony, he used to work in a manufacturing facility in western North Carolina however now lives “off the grid” within the Piedmont area of Virginia, on 90 acres of woodland he hopes to transform to a farm on which he can elevate livestock. In a recent YouTube video, shared the day earlier than his viral efficiency was launched, Anthony mentioned he started writing songs in 2021 and considers himself “fairly useless heart” with regards to politics. “It appears either side serve the identical grasp, and that grasp shouldn’t be somebody of any good to the folks of this nation,” Anthony mentioned.

Essentially the most revealing window into Anthony’s worldview could also be a YouTube playlist he curated, “Movies that make your noggin get greater.” The record consists of performances from Luciano Pavarotti and Hank Williams Sr., nevertheless it additionally options a number of speaking heads widespread among the many far proper — Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro, Joe Rogan — in addition to a number of clips placing ahead the conspiracy idea that Jews have been accountable for 9/11.

Mike Rothschild, a journalist and writer who covers conspiracy theories, doesn’t suppose these connections are incidental:

“In case you are plugged in sufficient to the conspiracy world to drop a reference to Epstein island right into a tune you’ve written, that’s not the one factor you’re consuming.” (Anthony didn’t reply to a number of requests for an interview.)

Even when most individuals don’t choose up on the reference — or skip proper over it — it’s vital to followers who harbor comparable beliefs, Rothschild mentioned.

“The individuals who do know, … it’s the one factor they care about,” he mentioned.

The tune has received loads of conservative followers north, south, east and west of Richmond.

Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) have been fast to applaud “Wealthy Males North of Richmond.”

“You’ve created an anthem for our occasions. Congratulations, Oliver!” Boebert tweeted Sunday, whereas Greene called the song “the anthem of the forgotten People who actually help this nation.”

Megyn Kelly discussed the song on her present with former Home speaker Newt Gingrich, saying the tune reminded the nation of “the significance of financial points.”

An early champion of the tune was Jason Howerton, a former right-wing journalist who based Attain Digital, a consulting agency based mostly in Texas.

Howerton, a self-described multimillionaire, appeared to counsel final week that he had helped Oliver produce the tune, tweeting: “After I provided to cowl the associated fee for Oliver to provide a report, I had NO concept what would transpire, nor did I do know simply how highly effective his story was or the state of affairs that God was inserting me into.”

When requested about his connection to Anthony this week, Howerton responded that he’s “not working with Oliver in any official capability” and is “not likely the man to speak about nation music.”

Anthony’s meteoric rise has provoked its fair proportion of skepticism — and different theories. Some have accused him of being an business plant, an artist who presents as impartial however is secretly backed by wealthy and highly effective insiders. Others have speculated that “Wealthy Males” was the product of “astroturfing,” a coordinated advertising or PR marketing campaign pretending to be a grass-roots motion.

Rothschild doubts that’s the case. For one, it’s arduous to purposefully make one thing go so viral, so rapidly. And if the nation music business did have this energy, it might in all probability go for somebody “extra marketable” than Anthony, he mentioned.

“I don’t suppose there must be some form of scheme or a rip-off to make this man widespread,” he mentioned. “I believe that is simply the suitable factor, on the proper time, for the suitable group of individuals.”

The arc of the tune’s rise helps that line of pondering. Proper-wing influencers rapidly picked up the video throughout completely different social media platforms, together with Telegram and X. As “Wealthy Males” gained traction on-line, extra folks tried to capitalize on the tune’s recognition: YouTubers posted response movies; detractors dunked on it; nation music blogs and leisure websites wrote about it — all increasing the tune’s attain.

However the tune has an plain attraction to audiences past its right-wing speaking factors, nation music consultants say.

Protest anthems — anti-establishment missives on behalf of a forgotten, rural working class — have an extended historical past in folks music and nation music, famous Ted Olson, a professor at East Tennessee State College who research nation music and Appalachia.

“Wealthy Males” can also be simply basic sufficient in its message that many listeners are in a position to challenge their lives and experiences onto it, he mentioned. Many followers might skip over the tune’s contradictions — with its lyrics that advocate for the working man whereas mocking “the overweight milking welfare.”

“Unpacking a tune entails a variety of these layers of study, which possibly a variety of listeners should not desirous to do,” Olson mentioned.

Don Cusic, a professor of music business historical past at Belmont College in Nashville, credited the tune’s recognition to Anthony’s type of singing: straining and honest, stuffed with emotion and conviction. This pared-down attraction is a far cry from Aldean’s slick Nashville manufacturing.

Anthony’s “bought a voice that simply cuts by means of,” Cusic mentioned.

For Rothschild, the recognition of “Wealthy Males,” like “Sound of Freedom” earlier than it, indicators a serious turning level for “conspiracy tradition.” Not solely is there extra acceptance of those concepts in mainstream discourse, however the far proper can also be gaining floor on the planet of popular culture, a world that has lengthy been dominated by leftist personalities and values.

Even when conspiracy theories have lengthy flourished in conservative information retailers and podcasts, this crossover second is critical, Rothschild argues.

It demonstrates the facility and affect of right-wing networks, he mentioned: “When this neighborhood places its muscle behind — significantly advertising — one thing, it might be a giant hit.”

It might additionally additional develop the scope of the far proper’s attain, into locations the place folks might not be anticipating to listen to these concepts. Rothschild mentioned he believes extra individuals are more likely to hear “Wealthy Males” or watch “Sound of Freedom” than take heed to nearly all of conservative podcasts.

Within the meantime, Anthony is planning to go on tour and launch an album. This week, an upcoming Anthony present at a Farmville restaurant bought out in simply three minutes. The 300-person venue initially had an open mic deliberate for that night time, which Anthony had signed up for.

A supervisor for the restaurant, Jessica Dowdy, instructed the Roanoke Times that followers as distant as Ohio and New Hampshire have been coming to listen to Anthony carry out.

“One man mentioned he’s driving 10 hours.”

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