Why Harvey Danger’s ’90s alt-rock hit “Flagpole Sitta” endures

Why Harvey Danger’s ’90s alt-rock hit “Flagpole Sitta” endures

Photo: Marina Chavez
Photo: Marina Chavez

Earlier this year, a very savvy TMZ snooper captured video footage of exiled NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and his girlfriend. The clip featured the pair hanging out in their kitchen in Russia, cooking dinner just like any other couple. This mundane domestic bliss became notable, however, for its apparent soundtrack: Faintly but distinctly in the background, viewers can hear the strains of Harvey Danger’s 1998 hit “Flagpole Sitta.” This didn’t escape the notice of Harvey Danger frontman Sean Nelson, who posted the clip on Facebook with the comment, “Thanks to the power trio of Pete Miller, TMZ, and the NSA, I now know that Edward Snowden and I have very different ideas about how to spend one’s time in exile. HASN’T HE SUFFERED ENOUGH?”

Nelson tells The A.V. Club that the Snowden clip was authentic, and not just some internet apparition or clever troll playing around with video-editing software. He also acknowledged the insanity of hearing “Flagpole Sitta” in such a random place. “I mean, it’s insane and therefore also in keeping with the general never-ending bizarreness of the whole experience,” he says. “It has never not been surreal. It’s never gotten normal, especially now that it’s been what, 16, 17 years? It’s been bizarre. Actually, that’s sort of the definition of [the song’s] place in the culture is that it’s going to turn up in weird ways when you least expect it.”

For Nelson, those ways have included recently hearing the song in the background of a video featuring San Francisco Critical Mass bicyclists wailing on a driver—which he wrote about in a piece titled “I Already Didn’t Know How To Feel About Critical Mass. Then I Heard My Song In That Video of Them Attacking A Zipcar”—or the time when the second he turned on a rental car, the radio happened to be on already, and “it was just in time for the drum roll of the beginning of the song to start. There’s a little ego boost and then also the [sense that] no matter whatever you try to do in your life, this is going to be following me. Because literally, it followed me around and continues to.” Harvey Danger drummer Evan Sult tells The A.V. Club he’s had similar experiences encountering “Flagpole Sitta,” such as recently when he heard the song during a ’90s music marathon on a local St. Louis community radio station.

“Flagpole Sitta” isn’t necessarily 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. This is partly a function of location and historical context: The band formed and lived in Seattle, and wrote the song in the mid-’90s, during a time when the city (and, by extension, its music scene and its denizens) was “getting turned into the worldwide theatrical production of rock music of the alternative culture, right there,” as Sult puts it. “You’re watching the land you are standing on get commodified.” No wonder “Flagpole Sitta” finds Harvey Danger exploring the tension between being both a cultural observer and a participant—when you’re self-aware enough to notice how the underground is being co-opted, but yet simultaneously caught up in (and horrified by) this commodification.

“[‘Flagpole Sitta’] manages to snag some sort of zeitgeist experience,” Sult says. “I think it’s a really true version of what it felt like to be alive, at least in Seattle [when] we actually wrote it. The ironic remove and the innate suspicion of both the mainstream culture and the alternative culture, and the yearning to be part of something, but not being able to get around the suspicion and the self-loathing. And then the ‘bah-bahs’ are just also the joy of being alive. It resonates with a frame of mind that turns out to be more universal than I would’ve thought. It’s both really upbeat and kind of savage and snarky at the same time.”

Despite (or maybe due to) these mixed messages, the song absolutely resonated. It was a huge modern rock radio hit, peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard charts, and appeared in the official trailer for the 1998 Katie Holmes teen-horror flick Disturbing Behavior. Later that year, it was also part of the first-ever American volume of the wildly popular Now That’s What I Call Music! series, sandwiched right between Fastball’s “The Way” and Spice Girls’ “Say You’ll Be There.” The song also played during a pivotal scene of 1999’s American Pie, when the four main characters outline their sexing strategies.

But the song never crossed over to the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, and it was only a moderate hit on the Adult Top 40 (No. 31), Mainstream Rock Songs (No. 33), and Hot 100 Airplay (No. 38) charts. Yet healthy mainstream radio visibility seems to be a big factor as to why “Flagpole Sitta” endures. For the recent week between October 25 and November 1, radio stations monitored by Nielsen BDSradio aired the song 431 times. Fifteen of those spins alone came from the Florida modern rock station X102.9 (“Jacksonville’s New Alternative”!), while 13 spins came from venerable Boston alternative station WBOS, whose slogan is “The ’90s…To Now.” Out of the 57 alternative radio stations monitored by Nielsen BDSradio, all but five aired the song in that timeframe.

During that same 2015 week, “Flagpole Sitta” 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; the closest competitor, “When I Come Around,” received 237 spins to 241 for “Flagpole Sitta.” Even a mega-Billboard hit like Oasis’ “Wonderwall” was only played three more times than Harvey Danger’s song.

This perseverance likely has something to do with the song’s unique timbres and unorthodox approach, Nelson theorizes. “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 memorable aphoristic slogan, which is by design, in a way. It’s also really snotty. There’s a snideness about it that is in keeping with the experience and the inner life of being a certain kind of teenager. It’s very anti-earnest. There was a moment after the period where that song came out where everything was humorless and grotesque. But after that, it seems like what happened was that everything got pretty earnest.”

Oddly enough, “Flagpole Sitta” seems to co-exist with that latter crowd too. Looking at airplay numbers in the last few years, “Flagpole Sitta” isn’t just an alternative mainstay: It’s also receiving airplay on genre grab-bag stations—the ones that program mainstream pop next to hits of yesterday, or stations that lump hits together from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. The most recent new station to play “Flagpole Sitta,” according to BDS data, is SiriusXM’s Triple A station.

“It’s funny, because I think that in the independent world, our song is considered as commercial as it gets,” Nelson says. “But in the commercial world, we’re still like a fringe-y weirdo… like, radio stations can sort of claim to be not totally square, because they play weird stuff, like ‘Flagpole Sitta.’ That’s my sense of it. There’s no way around saying that we had, like, the one-hit-wonder kind of ride. [But] our experience was not in any way like any other. It could only have happened then, and it was a weird thing.”

Unlike many hits of the era, “Flagpole Sitta” doesn’t owe its success to any major label push. The members of Harvey Danger—Nelson, Sult, guitarist Jeff Lin, and bassist Aaron Huffman—initially met in the early ’90s while working at The Glass Onion, the arts section of the University Of Washington’s daily newspaper. Sult remembers, “None of us were walking around in big leather jackets. We weren’t that world.” Adds Nelson: “We were this very hermetic group. We weren’t really part of the Seattle [scene]… We weren’t really part of any community.”

The band did have their fans, however: In 1997, Harvey Danger released its debut album, Where Have All The Merrymakers Gone?, which featured “Flagpole Sitta,” via an indie label called The Arena Rock Recording Company. The label was run by Greg Glover, an intern at London Records who saw the potential in Harvey Danger. Nelson says. “[Greg] wasn’t the very first person who ever believed in us, but he was the first person who was ever willing to put his money and his time on the line to work with us.”

Merrymakers is a rough but exuberant encapsulation of Harvey Danger and the band’s influences at the time, with the punkish, R.E.M.-esque jangle “Carlotta Valdez,” the Guided By Voices-reminiscent “Problems And Bigger Ones,” and the life-affirming indie wobble “Old Hat.” The clean, relatively pop sound of “Flagpole Sitta” stands out significantly. “‘Flagpole’ was the first thing anybody heard from us, other than maybe 500 people in the Seattle area,” Nelson says. “So everybody thought, ‘Well, this is the band that does that song.’ That wound up being our legacy in the world in terms of the wide audience. That was frustrating, because not only [did we have] lots of other songs, but none of our other songs sound really anything like that—it was a total outlier.”

Still, the band had an inkling it was a good anomaly, Sult says. “I think the day we wrote it, Sean said, ‘In some alternative universe where anybody knows about Harvey Danger, this would be a giant hit song.’ And then through very unlikely circumstances, it did get on the radio.” Call it a combination of fate and a fluke: Nelson worked across the street from where Marco Collins, a DJ with Seattle’s modern rock station, KNDD, lived. Inevitably, the pair crossed paths, and Nelson gave him a copy of Merrymakers.

“I was exactly the kind of person who always had copies of our record in my backpack,” Nelson says. “Though it was an embarrassing, tacky move, I believed in our band, and I was ambitious at that time, so I was like, ‘Well, what the hell? What could I lose? What’s the worst that could happen?’” Collins played “Flagpole Sitta” on the air, and within weeks, the song immediately took off both in Seattle and nationally. “We started getting calls from friends around the country, like in Florida: ‘What is going on? I just heard your song on the radio—and then I heard it again. And the DJ played it five times in a row and said it was his new favorite song. What’s happening?’” Sult says, and laughs. “We were like, ‘I have no idea.’”

Thanks to this early 1998 surge, Harvey Danger ended up signing with Slash/London. This thrust the band into the world of large-venue radio festivals with cheesy names, playing in front of audiences who likely only knew (or wanted to hear) “Flagpole Sitta.” Sult recalls feeling frustrated at playing to crowds who didn’t share their musical DNA or frame of reference. “It felt like we had kind of missed our audience, you know?” he observes. “We were writing to our peers, who, we were 24 years old and into Pavement, Sebadoh, and Guided By Voices. We felt like, ‘We’ve never been cool before, and now we’re not cool except to 13-year-olds who heard us on the radio. No wonder they don’t recognize the irony or the sarcasm in the song.’”

For the band, this fish-out-of-water feeling was magnified because the previous year, “Flagpole Sitta” and Merrymakers had received bursts of positive attention from college and independent radio and media, which is where the band felt most closely aligned and comfortable. The song had landed in the top 20 of the 1997 year-end list at the University Of Washington’s then-radio station KCMU, which thrilled Nelson. “It felt like, ‘Oh my God, finally, this is the context that we have been aspiring to!’” he says. “And then six months later, the song had become a hit on commercial radio, basically by accident, and suddenly, the cool publications were not interested in us, because they thought we were a major label fabrication. They thought we were the Backstreet Boys or something, which is really, really absurd, [because] if you listen to any 30 seconds of that record, you would know, there’s nothing slick about it.”

As “Flagpole Sitta” gained momentum, its underlying skepticism seemed even more prescient: The band was thrust into this alternative-gone-mainstream culture they didn’t necessarily agree with or relate to and dealt with having their nuanced societal commentary be misconstrued. “In the mid-’90s, the idea of deflating what was considered alternative culture still seemed like a pretty valid artistic point to make,” Nelson explains. “And what we didn’t realize—or what I didn’t realize, because I wrote the words—[was] to what extent I lived in this sort of weird culturally utopian bubble here in Seattle. When we went out into the world and toured around, it became clear that people were kind of just taking it at face value.

“The best example of that I can give you is that literally hundreds of kids came up to me and said, ‘I got my tongue pierced because of that song.’ And they would show me and I sort of thought, ‘Well, that was not my intention.’” He laughs. “I wasn’t trying to give a boost to the tongue-piercing industry—I just thought that the idea in the song was that people are letting these sort of outward signifiers stand in for real kinds of rebellion, and isn’t that silly? But if I were in academia, I would say that it wound up sort of reifying the more superficial elements, which was very bizarre.”

“Flagpole Sitta” unwittingly resonates on multiple levels. On the surface, it’s a pop song that can be appreciated for its earworm chorus and how it crescendos to a perfectly calibrated, cathartic punk explosion. It can also be viewed as a neatly packaged encapsulation of the decade’s underground signifiers and teen angst. Dig a little deeper, and it’s a rallying cry for anyone who loathes the pomposity of the mainstream alternative pantheon. Dig deeper still, and it’s a crisp, intellectual evisceration of pseudo-rebellion and bloated self-importance—but yet, skillfully and luckily, doesn’t fall prey to either of these foibles.

The song’s distinctiveness led to plenty of licensing offers. The members of Harvey Danger were perfectly fine letting some of those go—most notably, they turned down having the song be the theme for the Jimmy Kimmel and Adam Carolla bro-down The Man Show. Other lost opportunities stung a little bit. Sult says that then-120 Minutes host Matt Pinfield was a fan of the band, and wanted them to release the jangly “Carlotta Valdez” as the follow-up to “Flagpole Sitta.” Their label had other ideas.

“[Our record company] decided they wanted to do a different song, ‘Private Helicopter,’ because they really wanted to appeal to as broad an audience as possible,” Sult says. “They felt ‘Carlotta Valdez’ was too punky or whatever. I do feel like there would have been a much higher likelihood of there being more songs in the common Harvey Danger canon among people if that song had gone forward.”

Music is littered with misguided or ill-chosen second singles, and even more examples of thematic nuance being lost once a song becomes a hit. The members of Harvey Danger also had to deal with their own internal frustrations: They were in their very early 20s when they wrote “Flagpole Sitta,” and by the time it became a hit several years later, they had to balance how they felt then with how their perspectives, worldviews, and songwriting had evolved. That juxtaposition especially affected Nelson, since he was responsible for the lyrics.

“It’s not just that it was everywhere, I had to sing those words every day, like multiple times a day,” he says. “Even though you do get into a little bit of autopilot when you’re on tour, it still was like, ‘God, do I really mean this? Can I stand by this statement anymore?’ If you examine anything like that closely enough, of course the answer is no, because you don’t know what you think every day. So you try and take some solace in the fact that, ‘Oh well, it’s just a song. It’s a pop song, people are having fun.’ But then you’re like, ‘No, these words are coming out of my mouth! I don’t want it to not mean anything.’

“So the outcome of that, unfortunately—or maybe fortunately—is that when it came time to make the next record, every line suffered in a way from some of the same self-seriousness that I was making fun of in the first song. I was so convinced that whatever I said was going to have to be something that I could stand behind every minute of the rest of my life that it was like, ‘Well, you can’t say anything, if that’s what you’re thinking.’ That was a whole other set of problems.”

Harvey Danger’s next record, 2000’s King James Version, didn’t take off commercially, but helped cement the band’s legacy in a way. Sult discovered this when his former band, Bound Stems, toured with the Promise Ring offshoot Maritime. “[The Promise Ring] had a single out when Harvey Danger had a single out,” he recalled. “We thought about asking them to tour with us, but we thought, “Ahh, we’re not nearly cool enough for them.’ Then Bound Stems went on tour with them and those guys said, ‘Hey, by the way, your second album, King James Version, we really loved that album. Good work.’ It was like, ‘Wow, that’s fantastic!’ These guys whose work I really respect liked our album. It’s the magic of broadcasting your work out where people can hear it.”

Sult also discovered that those detestable radio fests eventually had a silver lining: The longer he kept playing music, the more he met people who might have seen Harvey Danger at those shows and subsequently started bands of their own. “They’re like, ‘Oh man, I went and see you at Pointfest,’ or whatever,” he explains. “And now they’re in some super-cool band. I realized one of the advantages of having a hit song at that time is, if you stick to playing music, you will actually have had an influence on the people you’re around. It’s this weird almost time travel, to have a song that hit the radio in 1998 reflect on the kinds of music people are making around me in 2015. That is something I’ve become increasingly appreciative of.”

The endurance of “Flagpole Sitta” also stems from its constant pop-culture presence, whether it’s a radio spin, Deer Tick’s cover of the song on A.V. Undercover, or when it appears in a random movie, like 2003’s Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star. But in general, what’s it like for Nelson having a pervasive song like “Flagpole Sitta” always lurking in the background and emerging unexpectedly?

“It’s a mixed bag for me,” he says. “It really depends on what else is going on in my life. If I’m in some sort of creative rut or something, it can be a little boost, saying, ‘Oh look, it’s not like you’ve done nothing with your life, you know. You did do this, technically.’ But then at the same time, I would maybe compare it to… it’s like a light monkey’s paw. There’s nothing about it that’s a curse, because there’s nothing that’s preventing me from doing anything else with my life. The other stuff I’ve done, partly by design and then partly by circumstance, has certainly [been] below that particular cultural radar.”

Nelson remains even more validated that “Flagpole Sitta” has been the theme song to the British comedy Peep Show since 2004: “It’s a joy to be affiliated with something that’s so smart and so funny and so kind of rude and weird.” And the lingering legacy of “Flagpole Sitta” has indeed helped keep the rest of Harvey Danger’s catalog in the spotlight. In 2014, indie label No Sleep orchestrated a vinyl reissue of Merrymakers—no small feat, considering they had to navigate the byzantine major label world to obtain the proper rights and clearances. Something like that is also “incredibly gratifying,” Nelson says.

Both Nelson and Sult have remained active in music and journalism. The former is the arts editor at Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger, while the latter is the publisher and editor-in-chief of the St. Louis-based monthly music publication Eleven Magazine. Sult plays in the noisy, girl-group-meets-indie-grunge duo Sleepy Kitty, and Nelson has completed his Harry Nilsson tribute—Nelson Sings Nilsson, in which he’s backed by a 27-piece orchestra. While “Flagpole Sitta” is certainly not far from either of their minds, it’s not the albatross it once might’ve been.

“Imagine you’re at a party and you say something that makes the whole room crack up,” Nelson says. “And then every party you ever go to, for the rest of your life, somebody says, ‘Tell that joke again.’ It’s fine, and there are times when you are happy to do it, but it does get a little bit wearying when you feel like you have other stuff to say. But, you know, because the song was successful and opened doors and is in the culture, you sort of lose your license to complain.”

Sult too says he’s “happier than ever” about the song and its permanent place in pop culture. “I get texts all the time from people who are like, ‘Dude, I just heard your song on the radio.’ I just got one of those yesterday, which I love.’” He laughs. “How cool is that? None of the articles I wrote in [defunct Seattle weekly newspaper] The Rocket in 1998 are causing people to text me today and say, like, ‘I just read that article, that was so awesome.’ That stuff’s all gone. But this song is still stuck in the sand, where people can run across it.”