(15) harvey danger, "flagpole sitta" defeats (2) the heights, "how do you talk to an angel" 163-38 and will move on to the 2d round
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchfadness twitter poll. The polls closed 9am Arizona time 3/2.
j. ken stuckey on "how do you talk to an angel"
It's a poorly kept secret that people would just as soon watch a song as hear it. I don't just mean that people want to go to concerts. Even when a song is on the radio, the experience in one’s mind is likely as not to be visual. Why else did young girls go to Beatles concerts and do their level best to out-scream the music? Ultimately every song was just a rapturous gaze at those bowl haircuts. Fortunately for the culture, the Beatles made music worth listening to anyway. The Monkees, not so much. But for better or worse, as we listen to songs, we see the singer, or the scene from the video, or the scene from the film it soundtracked, and the singer strums our pain with his face if not his fingers. Perhaps the gift of the 1980s was that people stopped apologizing for their visual appetites, and stopped pretending that they were teeny bopper impulses we'd eventually outgrow. MTV spread those appetites out like so much pizza dough, but the visual experience of music was hardly confined to that. The confusion of sight and sound could be had at the movies and on network television. Apart from Miami Vice (a highly celebrated series which generated its own No. 1 hit, Jan Hammer’s instrumental theme song), there was no critical glory in that sort of synesthesia. There has always been something a little tawdry about liking a song because it served you something sexy, especially if you were drooling over someone younger than you.
The story of “How Do You Talk to an Angel” and its pretty-boy lead singer actually begins almost ten years earlier, through another cute white boy. Family Ties, like so many shows before it, backed its way into youth culture by purporting at first to be about the parents. Steven (Michael Gross) and Elyse (Meredith Baxter-Birney) gradually receded into the wallpaper behind the breakout star, eldest son Alex P. Keaton (Michael J. Fox). Somewhere around Season 4, Alex developed a tortured relationship with a young woman named Ellen, portrayed by Fox’s eventual wife Tracy Pollan. In addition to apparently kindling their true romance, the TV love story also kindled a No. 1 song, the mournful, saccharine “At This Moment” by another one-hitter, Billy Vera and the Beaters. The song gave Alex a depth he never seemed to have before. The ballad’s popularity was endlessly curried by the show, and the effect was predictably reciprocal as radio airplay became a de facto commercial for captive elevator audiences around the country.
Fast forward to the 90s. The Fox Network was still fledgling enough to be the frequent self-referential punchline of its own characters when Beverly Hills 90210 debuted. And at first, the show struggled to gain an audience. By airing original episodes in the summer of 1991, the show became a sudden hit, and Luke Perry and Jason Priestley, among others, became teen idols. Hunkalicious Grant Show (the Luke Duke of the 90s) became the linking character for the memorable spin-off Melrose Place, which also became a hit. These two successes marked a stage in Spelling’s career that was decidedly more youth focused. The series The Heights lives in my mind as still another spin-off because its putative star was eventually cast as Tori Spelling’s boyfriend on 90210, but The Heights was an autonomous Spelling franchise. This new show focused on members of a young fictive band, led by Alex O’Brien (Jamie Walters). Walters was the visual love child of Priestley and Perry. Or perhaps Perry was the father and Priestley the son, fittingly making Walters the Holy Spirit since The Heights so quickly gave up the ghost.
Before the show tanked, its band gave us the song. “How Do You Talk to an Angel” builds its narrative drama on a premise that made Alex unlike the other muscular pout-agonists in the Spelling stable—he lacked confidence. Perhaps that's why the show failed. After watching Brandon, Dylan, and Jake confidently flexing and pouting their shirtless way through greater Los Angeles, it was hard to believe or care about an intrepid knock-off. Or perhaps the problem was that Spelling’s real strength was always his women characters—memorably bookended by Angels and Charmed Ones. The Heights (show) failed at almost precisely the same time that The Heights (band) hit No. 1, November 1992. Fueled by a moody, confusing music video that spotlights Jamie’s Corey Hart sulk, the song stayed atop the charts for two weeks and notably ended Boyz II Men’s almost permanent residence in that position with their “End of the Road.” No other television soundtrack songs have topped the Billboard Hot 100 since “Angel.”
In fact, The Heights’ exception seems almost to prove the rule that the power of television to generate a hit song is remarkably limited. Even the ratings juggernaut American Idol never really lived up to the promise of its title. The show seemed stuck in cute-white-boy quicksand as a string of them won the competition in its middle years, only to meet with little musical success. Brooding brunette Lee Dewyze was stylistically Walters’s heir apparent—their vocal tones and prospects for career longevity proving remarkably similar. Phillip Phillips seemed poised to bring gravelly voiced white boys some redemption as his single “Home” reached No. 6 and completely dwarfed all other Idol songs’ sales figures. But four years later, he is still waiting for his second top 10 single.
Meanwhile, Walters seems to have gone on to live a happy life after Heights fame. He had the aforementioned golden-parachute role on 90210; he had a modestly successful solo music career; he became a paramedic and firefighter; he dodged an ill-fated marriage to Drew Barrymore; and on the reality series Confessions of a Teen Idol, he got to bunk with faded glories like Billy Hufsey, Adrian Zmed, and the charitably cast Jeremy Jackson. (Don’t bother trying to recall who he is.) Though not quite the rival of stunningly preserved castmates David Chokachi and Eric Nies, Jamie was clearly more telegenic than the rest of the house, but that series apparently could not compete with the other VH1 dreck such as Celebrity Rehab. Wikipedia indicates that Jamie’s wife Patty filed for divorce in 2015. Perhaps Jamie would now consider reviving both his career and love life through Dating Naked. Of course that would beg a new question , how do you talk to a naked angel? That is surely best answered by 80s boy band Go West: “Don't look down, girl—no, don't give the game away!”
J. Ken Stuckey lives in Boston and is a senior lecturer in English and Media Studies at Bentley University. His most recent article for the Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide examines sexual politics in the life and career of the artist Prince.
lawrence lenhart on "flagpole sitta" & the pop stylistism of harvey danger
According to Laver’s Law (first published in Taste and Fashion, 1937), styles can range from the indecent to the beautiful. It all depends on the ‘when’ of perception. Meaning Stephen Foster is about to be beautiful (150 years after his time); Jelly Roll Morton is nearly romantic (100 years); Chuck Berry is on his way to charming (70 years); Diana Ross is verging on quaint (50 years); Kurt Cobain will soon be amusing (30 years); Bloodhound Gang will (once again) be ridiculous (20 years); and Avril Lavigne is next up for “hideous” (10 years). Already, last year’s Skrillex and Diplo single featuring Justin Bieber is dowdy. Making what smart? Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” (Billboard’s current No. 1) is apparently as current, as smart as it gets. Outré (1 year before its time)? Shameless (5 years)? Indecent (10 years)? See Pitchfork.
A fashion-obsessed hipster, perched on the bleeding edge of taste, takes advantage of a Laver’s Law loophole. Because current fashion (year zero) is a fickle thing—mostly undecided, fleeting—a hipster’s preference is always the smart one. “You’ve never heard of Shamir? You should check him out before he blows up.” From this strategic vantage, the hipster is first through the turnstiles that separate what’s outré and smart.
I am wary of the notion that current fashion is “smart” fashion. From the Latin fatuus meaning stupid, fad was once “faddy,” once “faddish,” once “fiddle-faddle.” Add an ‘e,’ and fad fades. An apparition. When interrogated, you’ll play coy. You’ll tell people Tragic Kingdom was your first album when actually it was Backstreet Boys. (& WTF: Is that chrome Word Art on the album cover?) How things could have been different had you opened Jenny’s birthday gift first, and not mom’s.
Fad always seems like something someone else is doing. Your friend’s older brother duplicating radio onto cassette, compiling nu-metal playlists and selling them for $5. The girls who listen to ska wearing checkered bras. People in other towns wearing zoot suits and winking a lot, calling you “cat.” Makes you want to meow at them. (Even the Swing Revival is susceptible to Laver’s Law; it’s the nineties way of saying the forties are quaint.) Though La Macarena—we all did La Macarena. A fad begins when your older cousins teach you how to Macarena, and it ends when you forget to teach your younger cousins the same choreography. The chain gets broken. And the whole time you’re paranoid, unsure whether that sexed-up loop of a laugh at the end of the song is laughing with you or at you, you dowdy boy. (When I got married last summer, 22 years after La Macarena, my fiancée and I decided: no Los del Río. The DJ looked at us as if we were being “ridiculous” for even mentioning it. As if.)
The Century Dictionary puts it best, dubbing fad a “trivial fancy adopted and pursued for a time with irrational zeal.” To peer into the 1990s (from 2017) is to risk feeling “ridiculous” or “amused” for enjoying something that you once thought was smart. Only a song whose central thesis is self-critical (a deranged earworm with a hateful mirror) will allow us to not just peer into the nineties, but to inhabit the decade completely. “Flapole Sitta” is just that song. Named after a waggish fad from the 1920s, Harvey Danger’s one-hit wonder is Fadness Incarnate. But first, an assignment from the fourth grade.
In 1998 (the year “Flagpole Sitta” charted), we were supposed to find an obscure saint and report back on their Christian process. Ideally, it would be a saint with whom we could align ourselves for life. Clearly, the religion teacher had never before heard of Saint Simeon Stylites.
We had studied weak forms of asceticism before that assignment, I’m sure of it. I recall fabricating hypothetical forms of self-discipline with my friends in the parking lot playground: mostly calorie deprivation, self-flagellation, and in the case of J.S., there was a marked fascination with adult diaper-wearing. The sterile examples in the textbook, though, paled in comparison to Simeon, the ascetic who lived near the border of Syria and Turkey.
While Simeon’s monastic regimen began with deprivation (no eating, sleeping, bathing, or even sitting), it spiraled into a more extreme showcase when he, according to History Today (1978):
Tied a rope of rough palm [fiber] round his waist under his tunic that soon wore away the skin and produced nasty suppurating wounds. Legend has it that the worms falling out of the wounds gave him away…
Turned away from the monastery for this uncouth stunt, Simeon eventually travelled to a stony hillside that stood above olive groves and vineyards. There, he constructed a six-foot pillar upon which he stood, day and night, attracting a few curious pilgrims. Over time, he built the pillar up to avoid the crowd, and like the second third of a Dr. Seuss book, he was eventually standing on a plinth 45-feet high. The crowds continued to grow. This was Simeon’s cult of immobility.
At the time, Simeon’s story probably reminded me a bit of my own. In third grade, the class competed in a stand-on-leg competition. After several minutes, J.S. and I were the last ones standing, our thighs quivering. At some point, the competition had doubled into a staring contest. Our vanquished peers sat in their seats, cheering for one or the other of us, some in disbelief that we could endure—on just one leg! When I was the last person standing, my teacher was equally impressed. She wanted to know how long I would go. A minute more. A minute more. Eyes popped out of skulls. I teetered once, but regained balance with a single hop. Someone shrieked. And then, deciding we had to get back to curricular matters (there were Taiwanese pen pals awaiting our correspondence), I was asked to sit.
Simeon was just like that. Except instead of 8 minutes of immobility, he remained on his pillar for 37 years, enduring many seasons of the Syrian sun’s scorch, even winter snows. Village boys brought him daily bread, salt, and water by ladder or pulley. For exercise, Simeon practiced prostrations to God (a religious form of planking).
After he died at age 70 in 459 AD, his body was raked off the platform, and collected as a relic for the bishops of Antioch. Following his cue, other ascetics constructed their own “styles” (Greek for pillar). Even in his absence, 1,557 years worth of pilgrims journeyed to the remains of his pillar at The Church of St. Simeon Stylites, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This “infidel site” somehow avoided ISIL defacement during the outbreak of the Syrian War. It wasn’t until May of last year that Russian jets, flying over Qalat Siman, just northwest of Aleppo, raided the region, puncturing the façade of the church and toppling Simeon’s holy pillar.
Once, before the weirding of Brooklyn, Austin, Portland, and Nashville, Seattle was the countercultural capital of the United States. And that’s just the problem. To be credibly counter-, a thing must oppose capital in both senses of the word:
- It must not have a center.
- It must resist commercialization.
And yet halfway through the nineties, Sub Pop (the independent label that first signed Mudhoney, Soundgarden, and Nirvana) sold 49% of itself to Warner Music. Thus began, according to Harvey Danger drummer Evan Sult in the A.V. Club, “the worldwide theatrical production of rock music of the alternative culture.” What was meant to be the normalization of grunge became the post- of it. Take a band like Jimmie’s Chicken Shack (Remember them? No? Not even a little?), and ask yourself: Did we really need Jimmie’s Chicken Shack? And what for? The only answer I can think of is that the Shack was part of the tedious buffer between cultures. And in the ambivalent melding of the two, Harvey Danger emerged with an unhinged swan song for the intergenre. Sult admits the song isn’t “the most obvious candidate to be embedded in ‘90s retromania or nostalgia, mainly because it’s so deeply skeptical about the decade’s collision of alternative and mainstream culture.”
Released in 1998, “Flagpole Sitta” peaked at No. 38 on the Billboard Top 40 Chart. In his introduction to the 33-1/3 book about Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark, Harvey Danger frontman/Seattle-based music critic, Sean Nelson wrote: “One thing that can’t be argued, however, is the insufferably pompous entertainment industry maxim that a hit is a hit. (Some things are true even if music biz weasels say them.)” And what a hit “Flagpole Sitta” was! In an interview with Alternative Press, Nelson said, “radio programmers went apeshit with that song.” One station in Atlanta would play it three times in a row. “We went from being completely anonymous to totally overexposed in a month,” Nelson notes. Off-radio, the song’s ba-ba-bas can be heard in the trailer for Disturbing Behavior, and it’s the backing track to the go-get-’em montage in the teen-libido comedy, American Pie (’em being the female characters of course).
Recently, A.V. Club writer Annie Zaleski discovered that in a single week in 2015, the song “received seven more alternative radio spins than Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ four more spins than Beck’s ‘Loser,’ and more airplay than any recurring Green Day hit.” Why is it that “Flagpole Sitta” is still being broadcast 431 times a week while its contemporaries are starting to fade? Nelson’s theory:
I think it jumps off the radio. The fact that the distorted bass is a lead guitar element is really unusual. That shuffle beat is incredibly captivating and fun. It sounds noisy and chaotic and raucous, but then the melody is very catchy. And almost every line is sort of a memorably aphoristic slogan… It’s also really snotty. There’s a snideness about it... It’s very anti-earnest.”
Sult echoes this sentiment: “It’s both really upbeat and kind of savage and snarky at the same time.” Even the title, with its sensational spelling of “sitter,” is anti-earnest. Cacography is cocky; it’s a lazy way of signaling cool. See Korn. See Limp Bizkit. See Kottomouth Kings. Whomsoever thinks “Sitta” is cooler than “Sitter” probably suppresses giggles when they pass a Chick-fil-A billboard on the Interstate.
In high school, Christians gathered around the flagpole in the parking lot, holding hands, looking Godward. The first time I saw it, it was a dark winter morning, and I could see their breath as clouds of prayer. Keith, who I used to altar-serve with, saw me passing and invited me to join. I stood with him, with them for an awkward half-minute. I looked up, my eyes following the bright tilt of the spotlight, saw nothing at the top of the flagpole, and left.
In one of my favorite photographs, a flagpole sitter balances on a small platform 54 feet above a field of upward-looking marathon dancers. The photographer, who must be hanging out of a building window, is looking down on two fads of the 1920s, watching them watch each other. Like the Byzantine “stylites”—indeed like Simeon—this flagpole sitter has attracted a cult of immobility from the most unlikely of audiences. He is a modern-day pillar-saint, and the marathon dancers, whose only rule is to keep moving, look envious of the man’s stasis. They look like they’ve picked the wrong fad. Though of course, in the photo, all are static.
In high school, it seemed like we (all 1600 of us) were dating Ryan Faddish, a clean-cut looker whose brother and father were all jaw and crew cut. I remember us engulfing him at prom in orgiastic grind. Our knees dunking. Our torsos undulant. Our hands… Where did we put our hands? Where even are we supposed to put our hands when we dance? Though the photo suspends our vigorous motion, I remember bobbling to the singles of 2007, 6, 5, 4… I check the yearbook: Faddish is dead-center in the prom photo. As editor-in-chief, I made sure of it. With my 10-year high school reunion just a season away, I wonder why the images have not yet started to fade like in my father’s books. We sprung for the chemically-treated (patina-preventive) pages. It is a way of keeping smart (then) looking smart (now). Give us the gloss.
When Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly died (he was the face of the flagpole sitting fad), apparently he was clutching, with metacarpal rigor mortis, tattered clippings from newspapers that detailed his past life as a pole sitter. While his longest sit (49 days and 1 hour) pales in comparison to Simeon, it still bests my stand-on-one-leg feat by 49 days and 52 minutes.
I live in a town named for a flag. Flagstaff, Arizona was named for a flagpole (a stripped Ponderosa pine) staked in the ground next to the original post office. By the 1980s, the most famous poles were the ones in the small town’s several strip clubs. When I moved here—the flagpole was gone, the strip clubs all closed—I wanted my own flag experience, so I searched for the word in my iTunes and found Less Than Jake’s “I Wish I Had My Own Flag” and Harvey Danger’s “Flagpole Sitta.” I played these songs relentlessly for about a week. When I see “Flagpole Sitta” has nearly 14 million plays on Spotify, I wonder what percentage of these listens were generated from binge: repeat playing the retro-angst, retro-irony, and retro-paranoia, paranoia, everybody’s coming to get me.
There’s one review of Harvey Danger in Rolling Stone that claims, essentially, that they were no different than a boy band assembled by lawyers, just playing at “alternative.” Nelson claimed that the band internalized all the self-doubt. Whether nationally or locally in Seattle, the band was met with widespread skepticism. As Nelson puts it, “there was still a stigma about major labels vs. indie labels, commercial vs. underground… there was some subtle indie-rock McCarthyism going on.” This is why even Weezer was cold-shouldered by alternative insiders.
Worst of all, "Flagpole Sitta," which was written for thirty-somethings wholly familiar with the music industry, found a young radio audience who couldn't detect the irony, the anti-earnestness. Nelson describes the disappointment of being approached after a show by a teenager who claimed to have pierced his tongue because of the song (“I want to pierce my tongue, it doesn’t hurt, it feels fine”). How many others must have published zines upon hearing this song. How many others must have raged against machines! Even if I wasn’t the intended audience of this song, it certainly played its small part in setting me on a path that, for this moment, loops back to the writing of this essay. How few songs from the nineties can still provoke me into thrash-mode in my bedroom. See me headbang-ing the mattress, whisper-screaming at the cat, throwing laundry like confetti. And when I catch my breath on the floor, see my boxer-briefs clinging to a fan paddle, I know: I’ve just sweated to the not-so-oldies.
As far as I can tell, the most recent example of stylitism is extreme ironing.
This fad’s every bit as look-at-me as Simeon, as Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly, as Harvey Danger. But it’s millennial, so fuck that.
As Nelson writes in Court and Spark, the mainstream made possible his love of Joni Mitchell, and of songwriting in general; this circuit completes with the ascent of his own single: “And let’s not forget that this whole scenario was made possible by the radio—possibly AM, probably top-forty, definitely commercial.”
I wonder if I encountered “Flagpole Sitta” while writing up my Simeon report that year, how close I might have come to detecting the convergence of the two fads. (Then again, maybe the saint report was in fifth grade, though I don’t think so.) I see Sean Nelson much like I see Simeon the Stylite and Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly, momentarily suspended above me, attracting wide attention before coming back down to little, maybe nothing. Though Simeon’s pillar has been crumbled by Russian jets and Shipwreck’s sits were swiftly forgotten due to the Depression, Nelson still has golden evidence that he was up there at the end of the millennium; he has confessed that, with some encouragement from his partner, his gold record hangs low on his apartment wall.
Lawrence Lenhart holds an MFA from the University of Arizona. His first essay collection is The Well-Stocked and Gilded Cage (Outpost19). His prose appears in Conjunctions, Fourth Genre, Passages North, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. He is a profferer of fictions and essays at Northern Arizona University and a reviews editor and assistant fiction editor of DIAGRAM.