Many (if not most) Americans believe that one of these two people — either rich-men-north-of-richmond singer Oliver Anthony or teenage-climate-activist Greta Thunberg — is an authentic overnight sensation, the rare case of a unique voice cutting through the noise and rising above petty politics, where rapid celebrity is an organic expression of an extraordinarily compelling message and messenger.
Many Americans believe that authentic overnight celebrity is Oliver Anthony.
Many Americans believe that authentic overnight celebrity is Greta Thunberg.
Zero Americans, however, believe that both Oliver Anthony and Greta Thunberg are authentic overnight celebrities.
In fact, if you believe that Oliver Anthony is an authentic overnight sensation, I would wager a lot of money that you believe that Greta Thunberg is a maybe sincere but definitely misguided individual who is being used by powerful political interests for nefarious ends, and whose rapid celebrity has been ‘astroturfed’ as the product of a fake grass-roots marketing campaign.
And vice versa if you’re on Team Greta.
How is it possible that so many Americans are convinced that one of these people is an authentic, important voice and the other is a politicized, astroturfed tool, but are diametrically opposed on which is which?
How does this happen?
It happens through the intentional combination of imagery, media distribution technology and weaponized language to create common knowledge — what everyone knows that everyone knows — within a target audience.
Just like Dick Clark did with American Bandstand.
“I don’t make culture. I sell it.”
Dick Clark invented 20th century youth culture.
Or at least that’s what Paul Anka — who was as big of a pop star in the 1950s as Elvis Presley — would say in later years to anyone who would listen. Performers came and went. Record labels came and went. The only constant in the second half of the 20th century was Dick Clark.
Dick Clark, arguably more so than any other single human being, was responsible for inventing the modern commercial landscape of music and money as channeled through the ‘preferences’ of teenagers and twenty-somethings, and it made him a (very) rich man.
How did he do it?
By creating common knowledge.
Dick Clark used a new content distribution technology — television — to show his target audience images of a crowd of attractive young people acting as if the music he wanted to promote was popular.
“It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it!”
Dick Clark didn’t poll his TV audience to ask them what music they liked.
He told the audience what music they liked, but in a way that made the audience believe it was their choice!
Dick Clark was in the business of selling the musical equivalent of vanilla ice cream made with the cheapest possible ingredients. He did this by a) giving the TV audience the ‘choice’ of vanilla ice cream with sprinkles, vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce, or vanilla ice cream with a cherry on top, and then b) showing the TV audience a crowd of beautiful people enjoying all of that delicious ice cream.
American Bandstand was one long TV commercial for vanilla ice cream that felt nothing like a TV commercial. It felt like an ice cream party that you were invited to. It didn’t matter to the American Bandstand audience that they weren’t actually dancing, any more than it matters to today’s Twitch audience that they’re not actually playing a video game. What mattered is that you saw the party just like you were there in the crowd and Dick Clark was talking to you just like you were there in the crowd.
Mmmm, yes, more
music selected by vanilla ice cream, please! I choose THAT! oligarchic record labels and ABC’s advertisers
Dick Clark tapped into the behavioral power of a crowd watching a crowd, the hardwired neural response every human being has to watching crowd behavior and incorporating that as our own preferred behavior. A crowd watching a crowd creates common knowledge – what everyone knows that everyone knows. It shows the individuals within the crowd what the crowd believes as an entity, making it entirely rational for the individuals in the crowd to take on that entity belief structure as their own.
Dick Clark was the entrepreneur who brought common knowledge to television.
Common knowledge is why television sitcoms have laugh tracks. You will absolutely think that a script is much funnier if you are cued by a fake audience to tell you what’s funny. I mean, watch a Friends or Big Bang episode without a laugh track (just google it). It’s not even a little funny any more. It’s … horrible.
Common knowledge is why televised performances — from variety shows to comedy shows to every professional sports league — are performed in front of a live audience. It’s why crowd noise is piped in if the live audience isn’t active enough. It’s why Covid-era audience-free performances, from Warren Buffett’s annual Berkshire meeting to American Idol to the NBA, got terrible ratings. And yes, there’s an Epsilon Theory note on that.
Today, political entrepreneurs on the left and the right have brought common knowledge to another new content distribution technology — social media.
The celebrity of both Oliver Anthony and Greta Thunberg — or rather the instantaneous fame of both Oliver Anthony and Greta Thunberg, the viral nature of the celebrity of both Oliver Anthony and Greta Thunberg — has been constructed in exactly the same way that Dick Clark constructed the celebrity of whatever pop star best served the interests of — in order — himself, his employer and his advertisers.
For both Oliver Anthony and Greta Thunberg, I will be describing the deep, abiding, precisely framed political nature of their words.
This will make many readers anxious and probably a bit angry, because you have been told by the political entrepreneurs of your tribe that neither Oliver Anthony nor Greta Thunberg is ‘political’ at all, that their popularity transcends mere politics, and that anyone who says otherwise is a bad person.
The political entrepreneurs of your tribe are lying to you.
But until you come to that realization you may experience some intense psychological discomfort throughout portions of this note.
Let’s start with the construction of Oliver Anthony. Deep breaths, Red Tribe, we’ll get to Greta soon enough.
First off, I’ve got nothing bad to say about Oliver Anthony or his music.
What I will say, though, is that if you like Oliver Anthony’s music and you think it’s amazing, you might want to give The Steeldrivers (pre or post-Stapleton), Sturgill Simpson, Molly Tuttle, Billy Strings, Po’ Ramblin’ Boys and Old Crow Medicine Show a try!
None of these performers have any less musical skill or vocal talent or songwriting chops than Oliver Anthony. Ummm, on the contrary. None of these performers are any less “authentic” or “real” or “heartfelt” or “working class” or “regular people” or “down to earth” than Oliver Anthony.
But Oliver Anthony is different from all of these other performers in two crucial ways.
First, Oliver Anthony sings directly about the modern trifecta of MAGA political entrepreneurship: Dollar DebasementTM, Elite PedophiliaTM, and that old classic, Welfare QueensTM. All in a song that directly references a national North/South divide and the capital of the Confederacy. I have no idea if Oliver Anthony is a political guy. No idea! Doesn’t matter! What matters is that the song Rich Men North of Richmond is exquisitely political in a very specific way. What matters is that the song Rich Men North of Richmond is the preferred ice cream flavor of every MAGA political entrepreneur, and more than anything they want Americans to ‘choose’ this ice cream.
Second — AND NOT COINCIDENTALLY — Oliver Anthony has been promoted on social media by MAGA political entrepreneurs to a degree that all of these other musical performers could only dream about. Not only have MAGA political entrepreneurs promoted Oliver Anthony in a concerted, coordinated fashion, but they have done so in a way that would make Dick Clark proud. They have done so in a way that calls your attention to a vast crowd of like-minded, politically-aware citizens who are really, really enjoying this song. The MAGA entrepreneurs responsible for thrusting Oliver Anthony into the public eye are not calling attention to their endorsement. It doesn’t feel like a marketing campaign. They are not calling attention to the inherent political messaging of the content. It doesn’t feel like a political campaign. No, in true American Bandstand fashion it feels like a party to which you are invited and where vast throngs of good people are really enjoying the tasty ice cream.
Here’s Matt Walsh, for example, telling his 2.4 million followers that “so many people” are enjoying this song, not because it’s political — oh heaven forbid — but because it’s just “a guy in the woods pouring his heart over his guitar”. Or here’s Dan Bongino, who along with Jason Howerton are the direct corollary to Dick Clark here, telling his 4.5 million followers that this song is hitting hundreds of radio stations that very day and that we ALL should hear it. It’s just good, wholesome music, folks!
Or here’s a Jack Posobiec tweet on the left, letting his 2.2 million followers know that Rich Men North of Richmond is a very popular song that lots of people are listening to with great enthusiasm. Number One with a bullet, as Dick Clark would have said. And on the right there’s Posobiec again, this time with Steve Bannon, contrasting Oliver Anthony with <<checks notes>> the
Antichrist President of Ukraine.
Note the date on these tweets, by the way. The three from 8/11 all appear within an hour or two of each other. It’s almost as if there’s a coordinated effort to make Oliver Anthony a star. Cernovich, Michael Knowles, Kari Lake … you name the MAGA political entrepreneur, and I promise you there’s an August 11 tweet or post or pod marveling over Oliver Anthony.
The biggest fish in these waters is Joe Rogan, with 11.6 million followers, and it took about 24 hours to land him, but land him they did.
I’ve been focusing on Twitter as the social media platform of choice for MAGA political entrepreneurs, but YouTube was just as active. Here are some wonderful examples of YouTube-face, where a shocked or quizzical expression is designed to draw you in for a closer look.
I mean, YouTube-face Joe Rogan AND Kari Lake? Why, yes, please!
Well, now that I’ve got everyone who likes Oliver Anthony nice and furious at me for throwing water on their ‘authentic’ overnight sensation, I suppose I better show you how Greta Thunberg’s celebrity was similarly constructed. Honestly, the Greta celebrity construction effort makes the Matt Walshs and Dan Bonginos of the world look like the pikers that they are. The construction of Greta Thunberg’s fame is the most over-the-top, coordinated, out-of-whole-cloth media effort I’ve ever seen.
In May 2018, at age 15, Greta Thunberg won a student essay contest on climate change sponsored by a local Swedish newspaper. Within 4 months, as the public face of several climate change advocacy organizations who began promoting her, she had ‘organized’ her first student strike. Within 9 months, she had a TED talk and had spoken at WEF in Davos and the UN Climate Change Conference (COP24). Within 12 months she had an audience with the Pope.
In September 2019, less than 18 months from winning that local student essay contest and being discovered by climate change advocacy organizations, Greta Thunberg sailed across the Atlantic to New York City on the zero-carbon Italian racing yacht Malizia II, part of the Gitana racing team owned by Benjamin de Rothschild, in order to attend the UN Climate Action Summit.
On September 17, 2019, former President Barack Obama hosted this “leading voice in the fight to save our planet” for a “conversation about how no one is too young to change the world.”
One week later, on September 23, 2019, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) held a press conference so that Greta Thunberg and 15 other teenage-climate-activists could announce their “official complaint” on the basis of “the Third Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child” (I am not making this up), claiming that Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, and Turkey had failed to meet their Paris Accord carbon emission reduction commitments.
Here are 12 of the most influential news organizations in the world — The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, Bloomberg, NBC News, ABC News, CBS News, PBS, BBC, The Guardian, CBC, Global News — along with 3 well-known Team Blue spokespeople — Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand and Adam Schiff — all simultaneously deciding within a few hours of each other that the non-Swedish world desperately needed to be made aware of this exceptional young woman’s comments at that press conference. That’s 15 essentially identical social media campaigns of notable scale I’m showing you here, but I could easily have shown you 100.
You’ll notice that there is zero mention in any of these social media posts of Greta Thunberg’s profoundly radical political message, that carbon emissions should not just be reduced, but must be eliminated entirely. By any means necessary. That starts with eliminating commercial air travel and dramatically reducing meat consumption, and goes forward from there. All enforced by a government acting on behalf of the “popular uprising” that demands “action”, natch. This is the preferred ice cream flavor of an eclectic set of political entrepreneurs that I would characterize as WEF-adjacent bureaucrats, EA accelerationists, Green Party radicals and their Ivy League journalist Renfields, and it is definitely an acquired taste for most Americans! As a result, the common knowledge construction for Greta Thunberg is less around an ice cream party as it is an ice cream crusade, with language calling attention to a vast crowd applauding the bravery and sacrifice of this child warrior, this modern day Joan of Arc.
Within 3 months of her How dare you! speech, Greta Thunberg was named Time Magazine’s person of the year.
Greta Thunberg was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.
Greta Thunberg was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2020.
Greta Thunberg was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2021.
Greta Thunberg was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2022.
Once more with feeling … I am not making this up.
Hey, wanna see something funny?
Here’s Donald Trump’s tweet (there’s always a tweet!) about Greta Thunberg, right after her UN speech. I mean, I thought it was pretty funny! You may disagree. The promoters of Greta Thunberg, of course, did not think it was funny at all. My fave of these responses is Forbes contributor (sorry, former contributor) Sarah Kim telling us that awkshually, Greta Thunberg was NOT happy during her speech and Trump was NOT taking her seriously. Just in case you thought otherwise. Now THAT is funny!
But this is exactly why Greta Thunberg was chosen to be the ‘authentic’ celebrity face of truly radical environmental policies – because she’s an English-speaking photogenic child and she has Asperger’s. My god, what kind of a monster are you to criticize her? No, no, you must sit quietly and listen to her wise words. Just listen, Ben! Do you not understand that any response other than applause for her bravery is an attack on her personally? Do you not understand that she is a child, and a child with a disability, no less?
Of course it’s the same thing with Oliver Anthony, who is similarly presented — not as a child — but as an innocent nonetheless. Take issue with the inherent political nature of Rich Men North of Richmond and it’s a ‘smear’. How dare you! to steal a phrase from Greta. Why you must be one of those rich men he’s singing about, probably a pedo, too!
Sigh. What really bothers me about all this is that I actually DO think that Greta Thunberg is very brave. Oliver Anthony, too! It takes a lot of guts to write a song or a speech and then get up on stage to deliver it. And not just ‘deliver it’, but perform it with confidence, conviction and skill.
But I can admire both Oliver Anthony and Greta Thunberg as human beings of uncommon bravery and performers of uncommon skill AND believe that their political beliefs and policy positions are absolute bollocks!
It should be okay for me to write this. It shouldn’t make you anxious and angry for me to write that the celebrity of both Oliver Anthony and Greta Thunberg has been totally astroturfed, that their fame has been constructed by political entrepreneurs doing their best Dick Clark imitation. It shouldn’t make you anxious and angry for me to write that both Oliver Anthony and Greta Thunberg are profoundly political, and that the ONLY reason you have ever heard of these two individuals is that political entrepreneurs want to nudge you towards these political positions.
But it does.
It will absolutely make most readers of this note anxious and a little bit angry for me ‘to inject politics’ or ‘to talk this way’ about one or the other of Oliver Anthony and Greta Thunberg.
Such is the power of common knowledge within a tribe.
How do we break the spell?
Well, as my good friend and media oligarch Elon Musk says, there’s a difference between freedom of speech and freedom of reach. His point being, of course, that there is no freedom of reach, and if you want any reach on the social media platform that he owns, you have to pay for it. Fair enough. But there’s a corollary to this that I don’t think enough people have grappled with yet.
Any content that reaches you on a social media platform has been bought and paid for.
Not just ads. Least of all ads! ALL of the information that does in fact reach you on social media is the product of a great deal of effort and a great deal of expense. If you’re reading anything on social media that originates from or travels through a big account — what I call the Rich Men of Reach — the most important thing you can ask yourself is this: Why Am I Reading This Now?
Both Oliver Anthony and Greta Thunberg have got a good beat and you can dance to it. And if you like their ‘music’ — by which I mean their political message — then by all means get up and dance. It’s a free country. For now, at least.
But don’t dance to their ‘music’ just because the hosts of the party are telling you how big the party is and how much fun your friends are having there!
Because politics ain’t ice cream. Because your political autonomy is far too important to let it be nudged away from you by these lying political entrepreneurs on the left and the right.
When it comes to politics, you deserve to make up your own damn mind.
To learn more about common knowledge and the common knowledge game, check out these Epsilon Theory notes!