Colin McEnroe (opinion): Politics and pop music don’t mix – CTPost

At a rally in Iowa, Ramaswamy, who rapped while at Harvard under the name Da Vek, took the stage and rapped a Marshall Mathers number. It hardly needs to be said the concept “Harvard rapper” explodes on contact with oxygen.

Eminem is famously not chill about candidates from the right using his music, especially the song Ramaswamy likes to rap along with: “Lose Yourself.” In 2016, the rapper sued New Zealand’s National Party for using “Lose Yourself,” won a substantial damage amount in lower court and saw it somewhat reduced on appeal.

In 2020, Eminem not only allowed Joe Biden to use the song but actually appeared in a campaign commercial adapting the song as an endorsement of Uncle Joe.

Less expected was the reaction of Oliver Anthony, owner and operator of 2023’s hottest song. “Rich Men North of Richmond” jumped onto the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 1 and stayed there a second week.

Debuting at No. 1 is not unheard of, but you kinda have to be named Drake or Whitney to do it. Anthony, who resembles Tormund from “Game of Thrones” and Justin Turner of the Red Sox (there’s a type),  is the first songwriter to open at No. 1 despite having no prior chart history. His previous songs had been recorded on his phone.

“Rich Men” is an acoustic country song, and it may have drafted a little off the momentum of Morgan Wallen and Luke Combs. The former has dominated the charts all year with his ode to drunken blackouts, “Last Night,” and the latter has been a close second with his faithful rendering of “Fast Car,” the 1988 one-of-a-kind song by the Black folk-rocker Tracy Chapman, hauntingly describing the dreams of a woman from the working poor.

The Song of the Summer in 2023 is really three country songs.

At first blush, “Rich Men” seems like a right-wing anthem. Anthony complains, “your dollar ain’t sh**, and it’s taxed to no end /’Cause of rich men north of Richmond.”

He seems especially concerned about “the obese milkin’ welfare,” adding “God, if you’re 5-foot-3 and you’re 300 pounds/Taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds.”

Small wonder that hyper-conservative commentators such as Matt Walsh and Laura Ingraham were among the first to tout the tune.

By the time of the Aug. 23 Republican presidential debate, “Rich Men” was so obviously the hymn of the conservative movement that the first question (plus a follow-up) was about the song. The candidates pounced on it as a denunciation of Biden.

And then …

Oliver Anthony released a video. He was verklempt. He said it was “aggravating seeing people on conservative news try to identify with me, like I’m one of them.”

He said the song “has nothing to do with Joe Biden — it’s a lot bigger than Joe Biden. That song is written about the people on that stage — and a lot more, too. Not just them, but definitely them.”


Anthony then did what any sensible person would do when seeking to clarify a complex position. He appeared on “The Joe Rogan Experience.” I jest. At the end of two rambling hours with Rogan, Anthony had demonstrated how many people in America did not understand his thought process, possibly including him.

The whole episode made me wish, hopelessly, for some kind of glasnost around music and politics. The history is one of tension and is overwhelmingly tipped in the direction of rock and pop artists denouncing the use of their music by conservative politicians.

I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

The whole mess started in 1984 when somebody inside Ronald Reagan’s reelection campaign listened to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” but not very carefully.

The Reagan folks asked permission to use the song in the campaign and were rebuffed. Reagan (I blame his speechwriter) then said, “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside our hearts. It rests in the message of hope in the songs of a man so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen.”

The lyrics are actually very bleak. They depict a young man who gets in a jam, gets sent to “go and kill the yellow man,” comes home and finds closed doors in the job market and at the VA.

Springsteen told a concert audience, in so many words, that he didn’t think Reagan understood him very well.

One school of thought says the incident launched Springsteen on an unplanned trajectory toward being a much more overtly political musician.

By 2010, Springsteen was the guy spurning the repeated entreaties of his home state governor, Chris Christie who, in the words of a Boss tune, was “begging, baby please /
At your bedside / Down on my knees” for just a little love.

Again, I’m not sure, in retrospect, that’s a good thing. Music is at least potentially a way that politically polarized hearts might soften.

There are, however, some things up with which people will not put. There’s a dedicated Wikipedia page called “Musicians who oppose Donald Trump’s use of their music.”

But I keep thinking about that night in November 2016, right after the election, when Mike Pence went to see “Hamilton.”  During the curtain call, as Pence tried to make an early exit, a cast member delivered a prepared statement from the performers and creators:

“We, sir — we — are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights. We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”

Pence didn’t say much, but Trump subsequently blew up on Twitter, complaining that the vice president-elect had been “harassed” with “cameras blazing” by a “very rude” cast.

And then …

Four years later, after countenancing an awful lot of the badness anticipated by that “Hamilton” statement, Pence proved there were certain things up with which he too would not put.

I’m not saying there’s a connection. I’m not saying there’s not. But art has a way of bypassing hardened attitudes.

Which is an argument for using it as glue instead of as a knife. 

Colin McEnroe’s column appears every Sunday, his newsletter comes out every Tuesday and you can hear his radio show every weekday on WNPR 90.5 or podcast any time at Email him at Sign up for his free newsletter at

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