The singer Oliver Anthony, whose song “Rich Men North of Richmond” has soared to the top of the Billboard singles chart, released a YouTube video on Friday denouncing Republicans and conservative outlets for co-opting his song.
“It was funny seeing that presidential debate,” Anthony said. “I wrote that song about those people.”
A clip of Anthony performing was played by Fox News moderators at the start of the Republican presidential debate on Wednesday night in Milwaukee, after a series of videos of Americans lamenting conditions under President Biden, including inflation and homelessness.
The clip showed Anthony — with guitar in hand and two dogs at his feet — singing: “These rich men north of Richmond / Lord knows they all just wanna have total control.”
The song, which Anthony uploaded to YouTube earlier this month, had caught fire with conservative figures like Matt Walsh and Laura Ingraham, who described it as an authentic expression of working-class American life. Widely perceived as a conservative anthem, it also drew critiques from some on the left, who called the lyrics racist.
At the debate, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida was the first to respond to a question asking why the song had struck a chord with so many Americans.
“Our country is in decline,” Mr. DeSantis said. “This decline is not inevitable. It’s a choice.” He added, “Those rich men north of Richmond have put us in this situation.”
Anthony said Friday it “cracks me up” that the candidates had been forced to listen to his song onstage, because he was singing about powerful people like them.
The new video showed him behind the wheel of his truck, as heavy rain pelted the windows. “That song has nothing to do with Joe Biden,” he said. “You know, it’s a lot bigger than Joe Biden.”
Anthony, who is from Farmville, Va., also said that he was fed up by what he perceived to be the weaponization of his music by both the right and left.
“It’s aggravating seeing people on conservative news try to identify with me like I’m one of them,” he said. “I see the right, trying to characterize me as one of their own. And I see the left trying to discredit me.”
The left, he added, had misinterpreted his lyrics as being attacks on the poor when, he said, he was trying to defend them. “I’ve got to be clear that my message like with any of my songs, it references the inefficiencies of the government.”
Reason, a libertarian magazine, had lauded what it perceived as Anthony’s anti-tax message. But liberal commentators were troubled by a lyric about the “obese milkin’ welfare.” The folk singer Billy Bragg even wrote his own version of the song and cautioned Anthony about punching down.
At first, Anthony appeared to welcome the attention from conservatives. He granted Fox News the right to use it in the debate, Politico reported. And he gave an interview to the network, saying that he had been motivated to write the song because of his own struggles, which he assumed were shared by others.
“It resonates the suffering in our world right now, like even in our own country,” he said then. “We’ve had years of people feeling depressed and hopeless and every time you look at the T.V. or get online everything’s negative.” He added that “corporate media and education” had helped to sow division.
Anthony returned to that theme in his video on Friday, saying that despite how it may appear, his music had actually united people.
“It’s driving people crazy to see the unity that’s come from this from all walks,” Anthony said. “This isn’t a Republican and Democrat thing. This isn’t even a United States thing. Like, this has been a global response.”
Anthony, who could not immediately be reached for an interview on Friday evening, described himself as a “nobody” who through some divine intervention had been tasked with sending a message that things needed to change. Before his meteoric rise to fame, he was an unknown songwriter. Although he performs as Oliver Anthony, his full name is Christopher Anthony Lunsford.
“I don’t know what this country is going to look like in 10 or 20 years if things don’t change,” he said. “I don’t know what this world is going to look like. And like, something has to be done about it. You know?”