August is often the sidebar month of American politics.
For those less familiar with newspaper lingo, a sidebar is a secondary story, running alongside a larger, related one. It adds color or offers a different angle or puts a human face on it. But it is usually gravy, not the meat.
The hot, doldrum weeks toward summer’s end tend to feature an excess of political sidebars. With many of the principal political actors on the golf course or at the beach, secondary stories that normally would gain little traction become headline news.
Of course, this August had plenty of real news, including the destruction of a legendary Hawaiian town, the last of Donald Trump’s quartet of indictments and the first debate of the presidential campaign, even if it was an undercard matchup.
The sidebar of this past month, and even earlier in this long summer, has been the passions aroused by two songs from less than top-of-the-charts vocalists.
First off, country singer Jason Aldean released “Try That in a Small Town,” certainly the more provocative and edgier of the two summer sensations. Then, earlier this month, the then-obscure Oliver Anthony put out the more listenable, “Rich Men North of Richmond,” now the No. 1 song in America, per Billboard.
As a political and social observer, though anything but a music expert or critic, I find the story both in the lyrics of these two pieces and in the reaction they elicited.
“Try That in a Small Town” pulls no punches so to speak. It begins:
“Sucker punch somebody on a sidewalk / Carjack an old lady at a red light / Pull a gun on the owner of a liquor store / Ya think it’s cool, well, act a fool if ya like / Cuss out a cop, spit in his face / Stomp on the flag and light it up / Yeah, ya think you’re tough.”
That is followed by the chorus: “Well, try that in a small town / See how far ya make it down the road / ‘Round here, we take care of our own / You cross that line, it won’t take long / For you to find out, I recommend you don’t / Try that in a small town.”
So, it goes for another verse or two. Along the way, it offers a paean to gun rights. The sense of vigilantism is barely veiled.
Clearly, this is some folks’ idea of small town values. On the other side of the political divide, more than a few voices jumped in quickly with accusations that the lyrics were racist. That, I guess, is in the eye of the beholder. Though for too many these days, it is the knee-jerk retort to any disagreeable expression.
With an abundance of songs celebrating city life, can we not tolerate a few speaking up for small towns, even if this one is a bit in-your-face?
Lest anyone think that such taunts flow only one way, recall the Talking Heads song, “The Big Country,” in which David Byrne paints the picture of peaceful small town living before delivering the insult, “I wouldn’t live there if you paid me.”
More recently, Arcade Fire did not hold back in a litany of grievances entitled, “The Suburbs.” Perhaps what’s good for the hip, urbanite goose can also be endured when voiced by the country-singing gander.
The iconic song, “New York, New York,” first made famous by Frank Sinatra, spreads the news that “If I can make it there, I’m gonna make it anywhere.”
Maybe, though given the challenges confronting rural America these days, it could be that it is more difficult to stay and make a go of it in Meeker or Monte Vista or thousands of other small towns dotting the countryside.
Which brings us to Oliver Anthony’s bigger, better, more compelling hit.
You know you have achieved cultural penetration when Fox News host Bret Baier opens the Trump-less GOP debate with a softball question based on “Rich Men.” Even if the over-rated Ron DeSantis opted for his canned talking points instead of a thoughtful response.
Anthony’s ballad is less about geography than about economic and social class. It starts:
“I’ve been sellin’ my soul, workin’ all day / Overtime hours for bullsh*** pay / So I can sit out here and waste my life away / Drag back home and drown my troubles away.”
After a chorus about the “Rich men north of Richmond” seeking “total control,” a second verse follows.
“I wish politicians would look out for miners / And not just for minors on an island somewhere / Lord, we got folks in the street, ain’t got nothing to eat / And the obese milkin’ welfare / Well, God, if you’re five-foot-three and you’re three-hundred pounds / Taxes ought not to pay for your bags of Fudge Rounds / Young men are puttin’ themselves six feet in the ground / ‘Cause all this damn country does is keep on kickin’ them down.”
And so on. It is a statement of widespread despair and a commentary on the alienation bred by the ever-growing economic gap.
Sure enough, the song turned into an instant flashpoint. Righteous types on the left went at it from all of the well-rehearsed angles. Even as Anthony himself decried the politicization of the song and the way in which some Republicans grabbed hold of it.
“I haven’t defended or supported the left. I am very clear in my song and statements that I don’t support either wing of the beast,” Anthony wrote. In a video, he complained it’s “aggravating seeing people on conservative news try to identify with me, like I’m one of them. It’s aggravating seeing certain musicians and politicians act like we’re buddies, and act like we’re fighting the same struggle, like we’re trying to present the same message.”
Instead of reflexive chastisement, Democrats might be advised to take the song to heart. One need not go back that many decades to recall when unseen, unheard, working-class citizens, especially those with Rust Belt addresses, were at the party’s core.
That was then. Now, such downtrodden laments and those who preach them are shoved out the Democrats’ door by ever more enlightened types with ever more exquisite sensitivities.
Ask Connecticut Democratic Senator Chris Murphy about the dressing-down he received from fellow progressives for the sin of suggesting they listen to Anthony’s song as “just a good tune” and to better understand anti-elite mindsets.
Beyond doing much to explain the Trump phenomenon, these two country songs and the overdone reaction to them are testament to America’s new national pastime.
Yes, football season is upon us and baseball’s playoffs are near. But such games and diversions pale next to our fondest hobby of running to our respective corners at every opportunity and the slightest instigation.
Eric Sondermann is a Colorado-based independent political commentator. He writes regularly for Colorado Politics and the Gazette newspapers. Reach him at [email protected]; follow him at @EricSondermann