Some of you may have followed the surprise hit song “Rich Men North of Richmond,” and the media dissections of the song and its singer and songwriter, Oliver Anthony. Anthony’s song became the #1 on Spotify, Billboard, and other charts, aided by repeated championing on politically conservative blogs, talk shows and news programs.
Oliver Anthony himself has declined offers to appear on these conservative media outlets, saying that he is “down the middle” politically and unaligned with “both sides.” After his song was mentioned in the Republican debate, he even issued a disclaimer on youtube, reiterating that his song is critical of the very kind of politicians now trying to capitalize on his song. In short order, some of the same right-wing media outlets that championed Anthony are now starting a backlash, for his sin of refusing to affiliate himself politically.
My take: Oliver Anthony is an artist, an independent singer-songwriter who’s experiencing the kind of sudden attention artists rarely attract without a record company or management. To all appearances, he doesn’t view the world and his life through an ideological lens. He’s just living life, picking up his ideas from an assortment of places. Some people who enjoyed “Rich Men” liked it because they thought they’d found someone championing their ideological point of view. Anthony has been consistent in telling them, “I’m not that guy.”
It reminds me of Bob Dylan’s account in his “Chronicles” of his move decades earlier towards mainstream music and away from the folk community. Lionized in folk circles as the left-wing “voice of a generation,” he experienced a backlash when he went electric and began singing about other topics. (The late Robbie Robertson told the story of being booed by irate Dylan fans on The Band’s first tour with him.) Dylan was basically saying, “I’m not that guy.” In “Chronicles,” he explained that he didn’t want to be the “Big Bubba of Revolution.” (Over time, Dylan was re-embraced by the folk music community, but now for his multiple qualities and achievements, and not just his politics.)
I'm going to say this - and some of you may not agree - but it goes to my central point: ideology is not a good tool for understanding the world, and it's even worse for understanding people. Some folks think that ideology provides a framework for making sense of the big picture. And it does. But ONLY at the cost of ignoring / downplaying the mountains of evidence that don't fit the framework and the story it wants to tell. After years of exploring, I’ve come to see ideologies as little more than sales pitches for recruiting people to a flag, to get all the people who agree together, (usually) so that they can beat up (politically) on people who gather under some other flag.
Ideology flattens us, turns us into something describable in a short phrase on paper. ("I'm a liberal, she's a conservative," etc.) The closest metaphor is Edwin Abbot’s novel Flatland, which imagines a two-dimensional world whose inhabitants can see points, lines, and geometic shapes, but never objects in their entirety. Ideology makes us all two-dimensional servants of someone else’s thinking, and arms us to be foot soldiers in someone else’s army. It makes us worse at listening to one another, it’s an almost useless tool for solving problems, and it gives us warped ideas about the world. In my opinion, the world would be better off without ideologies. Yes, I realize that won’t happen anytime soon, but maybe we can approach ideologies - even the ones we largely agree with - with some deserved skepticism.
So, Oliver Anthony probably doesn’t see the world the way I do - and I don’t have a problem with that. In his own way, I think he’s also suspicious of ideology. If you took him issue by issue, on paper he might line up with conservatives more often than liberals - just as, on paper, I’d probably line up more often with liberals than conservatives. But that’s different than flying a flag for a particular ideology. We reserve the right to value other things, and to disagree with folks we might otherwise agree with on lots of things. We retain all of our dimensions. Anthony (like Dylan before him) doesn’t want to be a two-dimensional figure, and I have a lot of sympathy and respect for that desire. It’s impossible to make three-dimensional art from inside a two-dimensional world. Every one of us is complex and complicated - paraphrasing Whitman, we are large and we contain multitudes - and we all deserve the opportunity to be complex, in all our dimensions.
Modern living sometimes reduces us all to something “on paper.” Have you ever found yourself flattened, with others seeing you without crucial dimensions that you see in yourself? How did you deal with that?
Oliver Anthony, “Rich Men North of Richmond” listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sqSA-SY5Hro
Oliver Anthony on being mentioned in Republican debate https://www.youtube.com/shorts/_zI2mxHQ99Q
Bob Dylan, Chronicles Vol. 1 https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Chronicles/Bob-Dylan/9780743244589
Robbie Robertson on getting booed while touring with Bob Dylan https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wXtow6a4E-k&t=22s
Edwin A. Abbott, Flatland - full text for free: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Flatland_(fifth_edition)
And hey, another point of view on flatness ;-) Flat Stanley, by Jeff Brown and Scott Nash https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kyX8YQn3_FQ
Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself” https://poets.org/poem/song-myself-51
Ears and Eyes: What I'm Listening To and Reading
Inti-Illimani, Andadas https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y2uy3DtFKK0
Today, Sept. 11, is a freighted anniversary not only for U.S. citizens, but also for Chileans.
Mashup: Katy Perry "Firework," w/ Periphery https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5we_H9mRdVw
This mashup makes Katy Perry a little more my cup of tea. ;-)
Plus, Wayne Shorter: Zero Gravity (a fantastic documentary) https://tinyurl.com/ycx69y5p
Ward Farnsworth, The Practicing Stoic https://tinyurl.com/3jpv5pm9
Tim Brown with Erik Kratz, The Tao of the Backup Catcher https://tinyurl.com/3bd9abcu
"Rich Men" and Flatland
Monday, September 11, 2023
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