Harvey Danger & Underground Culture

The late 90’s saw the birth of countless garage rock bands and a whole new wave of alternative music. Lots of bands came and went, delivering often one major release and then returning to obscurity. Some of them get lucky and get a hit single which gives them a lifeline.

Seattle band Harvey Danger’s 1997 debut album Where Have All The Merrymakers Gone? features, in my opinion, one of the best alternative rock songs of the 90s – Flagpole Sitta. Iconic now for its usage as the intro to the 2000s Britcom Peep Show and subsequent overlap in fandom.

Flagpole Sitta is a dissection of the 90s music industry itself and modern culture, a cynical one at that. A jaded view on how underground culture is often manufactured and fake, and that deep down the people care more for they appear to others than how they feel about themselves and how it affects them.

The song’s lyrics are all meaningful and only the chorus is repeated, which is “I’m not sick but I’m not well, I’m so hot cause I’m in hell”. But what exactly does it mean?

Harvey Danger characterises the underground scene and attempting to fit into it as an illness, something not desirable or good for you. The attempts to be part of the underground and trying to be part of the “in” culture as maddening. Is it healthy to try and desire to be something you’re not if it’s the current culture? I think this message stays quite clear and poignant to this day.

I had visions, I was in them
I was looking into the mirror
To see a little bit clearer
The rottenness and evil in me
Fingertips have memories
Mine can’t forget the curves of your body
And when I feel a bit naughty
I run it up the flagpole and see
Who salutes, but no one ever does

The double entendre of “I run it up the flagpole and see who salutes” is the narrator saying he’s tried to give it a go but finds it doesn’t change how anyone sees him and he gets no personal joy out of pretending to be someone else.

Been around the world and found
That only stupid people are breeding
The cretins cloning and feeding
And I don’t even own a TV
Put me in the hospital for nerves
And then they had to commit me
You told them all I was crazy
They cut off my legs now I’m an amputee, goddamn you

The lyricism is arguably the best in the second verse. As insane as the last two lines may seem, it’s about feeling like your sense of identity and credibility are being taken away from you. He doesn’t even own a TV which is to say how would he even know what would be cool anyway?

I wanna publish ‘zines
And rage against machines
I wanna pierce my tongue
It doesn’t hurt, it feels fine
The trivial sublime
I’d like to turn off time
And kill my mind
You kill my mind
Mind

The bridge references zines, where are independently published magazines, mostly self-published. A sense of independence, while contrasting with a Rage Against The Machine reference that makes him want to be like everyone else in the underground subculture at the time.

It’s smart, but not too on the nose and allows you to think for yourself on every lyric and verse. The final verse before the chorus includes the line “if you’re bored you’re boring”, reinforcing the overall narrative of the song – you can try hard to fit in and be part of the culture but you may never truly be part of it and you probably shouldn’t try to be.

Paranoia, paranoia
Everybody’s comin’ to get me
Just say you never met me
I’m runnin’ underground with the moles
Diggin’ holes
Hear the voices in my head
I swear to God it sounds like they’re snoring
But if you’re bored then you’re boring
The agony and the irony, they’re killing me, whoa

The voices in his head is society at large, with the changing culture confusing him and leaving him feeling insane and lost in a changing world.

23 years on from release, the crux of the song still feels real and hits home. Are any cultural movements and the way we try and move to fit in with them actually healthy or good? Is there really any value in changing your sense of identity every year or two?

Whilst Flagpole Sitta can come off as perhaps self-indulgent and self-congratulatory for being able to “see through the matrix” it’s still piercing as a criticism of culture and how we consume media.

All I know is, it’s one of the smartest one-hit wonders I know and there’s some poetic irony to Flagpole Sitta being Harvey Danger’s only hit.

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