When I arrived at Brooklyn Bowl to see the Dum Dum Girls last December, the opening band had just started setting up. The lead singer was a lanky, scruffy guy with a dazed look on his face. His pants were loose as was his shirt, which was a large button down comprised of a well-worn cotton American flag. My ex-girlfriend Megan leaned over to me and said, “That kid’s going to be the next big thing.” I knew what she meant but when the band began to play the same reverbed jangle pop I already heard Wild Nothing do better the previous year, I was skeptical.
That band was called Dive (soon to be rechristened DIIV for legal reasons). They have since released their debut album “Oshin” which is now all the rage across the blogosphere. Now I’m not saying simply having the right look is all you need to make you a buzz band (I’ve listened to “Oshin;” It’s better than that performance but alas still a temporary Wild Nothing substitute), but sporting the now super-hip American flag on your body, stage setup, or record has become a surprisingly new way to get some notice.
For longer than I can remember, the image of the American flag has been the furthest thing from cool. In the indie rock community, patriotism was at an all-time low during the ’00s with George W. Bush making a mockery of our country on a regular basis. Even in those so-called golden days of Clinton, an era we typically reflect back on with no memory of Kosovo, the idea of sporting the American flag was not very common outside of MTV’s Rock the Vote campaign. Before that, the only era where it was a frequent occurrence was the late ’60s and early ’70s during the the Vietnam War, where it was typically used by bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival and Crosby, Stills Nash & Young as a protest emblem.
So why is the American flag suddenly a fixture in fashion and music? The simple answer is Obama. The more complicated answer is that there’s a different climate now given what he stands for and represents. In this age of the internet, we have a closer relationship with our president than ever before. Our commander and chief is no longer this far away image we see only through the TV as he gives speeches behind a podium. He has a Facebook page. We’ve seen pictures of him with his family, courting his future wife, smoking weed, etc. Past presidents have claimed to be our “every-man” because they do things that for some reason we considered universal like wearing sunglasses and playing saxophone, but have we ever had a person representing our country that has been quite as organic as Barrack Obama?
Obama’s 2008 victory created an ease in use of the American flag in pop culture. Previous usage of the flag by artists needed usually had statement behind it, typically an anti-American one. In the four years since Obama entered office, however, the flag became an increasingly common visual component in indie music with flags being sported by bands like Sleigh Bells and Best Coast in concerts and music videos. Even Jay-Z and Kanye West made a modified version of Old Glory the symbol for their “Watch the Throne” tour and promotion while newcomer Frank Ocean could be seen often sporting a red, white and blue headband.
The emergence of the flag was almost certainly an ironic statement at first. Its transformation into something that is actually cool and fashionable could be likened to how the “I Love NY” T-shirt has gone in and out of style over the years — when something is used in an ironic way, the desired effect is that its unusual usage is cool because of its odd placement. It naturally catches on and with time the line between irony and sincerity is blurred.
As I saw more and more American flags being used by artists and ordinary people, it became clear that our image of America had changed. While anyone accessorizing the flag used to be stone-cold patriots, the inward anger over our country has lightened considerably to the point where we have come to embrace it more than we’ve been willing to do in decades.
This movement in fashion and music has of course occurred in other countries — in 1992 when Morrissey would perform wearing the Union Jack, he was slammed by the press for being a racist, the flag being synonymous with the National Front. By 1996, Britpop artists like Oasis and Blur wore their English heritage like a badge of honor, this period also being a time of huge changeover with Tony Blair rising as the new face of Britain with New Labour.
I don’t know if I could ever see myself wearing an American flag shirt, namely because I feel hyper-aware of fads and could never fully give in to one despite my obsession with the ebb and flow of pop culture. I will say though that the flag has never seemed more visually attractive to me. While brandishing your country’s flag can carry a lot of baggage, the ability to focus on the positives about where you’re from is kind of a great feeling. What artists are saying by wearing American imagery is still not crystal clear — most bands using it now are fairly apolitical — but either way, it’s a fascinating 180 that we’ve made in such a short time.