Rich Men and the Necessity of Art

Imagine going from relative anonymity to an overnight viral success. Imagine pouring yourself into an art form that you love to finally being discovered, being thrust instantly from obscurity to the limelight. Such things don’t happen very often but when they do they beg a lot of questions. Why this person? Why this time? What is it about their message, their story, their situation that makes them so compelling to the masses?

Now, of course, this happens a bit more frequently in our days of social media consumption. It is easier to become famous via Twitter or YouTube than it is through local newspapers or network television. And while people can become known for any number of asinine things they do for attention (check out the NPC streamers for a mind-numbing example) there is something moving about an artist getting attention for their art. Something that can act as motivation for others who are pursuing what they love simply because they love it. 

I bring this up because of a recent video of a musician named Oliver Anthony in which he sings his original song “Rich Men North Of Richmond.” Anthony had a small YouTube channel where he filmed most of his stuff on his phone and posted it without much editing. He clearly loves what he does, he believes in his particular craft and believes that others will respond well to what he’s doing. However, I doubt he could have imagined how fast and how big this song would become. At this moment that video (which has only been up for less than a week) has amassed an incredible 12 million plus views.

If you haven’t seen the video yet, you ought to check it out. It isn’t overly stylized or produced with a heavy hand. And while I’m certainly no musician, I don’t think the stuff he does is all that complicated. Yet there is something unique about it, something that can’t be faked, or mass produced. There is an authenticity that you hear in his voice. And that authenticity is everything. And once this authenticity along with the message gets out it’s difficult to shut if off. If you want proof for how powerful this is try searching on YouTube for reaction videos to “Rich Men North of Richmond”, the list is long. People from all walks of life, from different backgrounds and different professions all taking time to listen and react to this song from a man none of them had even heard of a week ago. And people are moved, they nod their heads in agreement, some shed tears and get shivers, it is really something amazing to see unfold. 

In thinking about Anthony’s success, I recalled a video I had watched awhile back where the actor Ethan Hawke talks about creativity. It works as a sort of encouragement to be creative, to be willing to play the part of the fool as he describes it. He offers some incredible insights in his short presentation. A few are worth noting:

He says, “Most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about poetry. Right? They have a life to live, and they’re not really that concerned with Allen Ginsberg’s poems or anybody’s poems, until their father dies, they go to a funeral, you lose a child, somebody breaks your heart, they don’t love you anymore, and all of a sudden, you’re desperate for making sense out of this life, and, “Has anybody ever felt this bad before? How did they come out of this cloud?” Or the inverse — something great. You meet somebody and your heart explodes. You love them so much, you can’t even see straight. You know, you’re dizzy. “Did anybody feel like this before? What is happening to me?” And that’s when art’s not a luxury, it’s actually sustenance. We need it.”

He goes on to say that we usually think about creative works as only nice, warm and pleasant. He says, “It’s not. It’s vital. It’s the way we heal each other. In singing our song, in telling our story, in inviting you to say, “Hey, listen to me, and I’ll listen to you,” we’re starting a dialogue. And when you do that, this healing happens, and we come out of our corners, and we start to witness each other’s common humanity. We start to assert it. And when we do that, really good things happen.”

We need art, we need creativity. Not just for ourselves, not just for our amusement but it is part of how we serve our community, how we love and care for our friends and family. I believe that what makes Oliver Anthony’s song so popular is that (as Hawke said) it speaks to our common humanity. He provides a place for my own tired spirit to find fellowship not only with him but with the 10 million others who interact with his work. And that is powerful, even magical.

It is easy in our day to join the hate-porn bandwagon of tearing down and ridiculing through memes and sarcasm. But perhaps what we really need is more art, more people willing to play the fool, to not only be creative but share their creativity with others. Be willing to begin the dialogue.