January 28, 2019
Todd plays "Flagpole Sitta" on the piano.
HARVEY DANGER - FLAGPOLE SITTA
A one-hit wonder retrospective
Todd: Welcome back to One Hit Wonderland, where we–
Suddenly, he makes drumming motions to the intro of...
Video for "Flagpole Sitta" startsTodd: [clears throat] ...where we take a look at bands and artists known for only one song. I've got a couple of requests left to go. I think it'll take me a full year to get to all of them, and this time we're gonna do one that a looot of people have asked me for.
Sean Nelson: I'm not sick but I'm not wellTodd (VO): That's right. Harvey Danger, and their hit, "I'm Not Sick But I'm Not Well." That's...
Todd: ...not actually the song's title, but I think more people know it by that name than [single cover for...] its actual one, "Flagpole Sitta."
Todd (VO): 'Cause even if you don't recognize the name, you certainly recognize the chorus. It was one of the biggest, most overexposed alternative rock hits of the late '90s. And to this day, one of the best remembered rock songs from 1998.
Todd: So...take that Everclear.
Todd (VO): In fact, "Flagpole Sitta" kinda feels to me like the last alternative hit.
Todd: The final ebb of the Nirvana revolution. [beat] OK, that's not a feeling that remotely holds up to scrutiny.
Brief montage clips of Red Hot Chili Peppers - "Californication"; Foo Fighters - "The Pretender"; Weezer - "Hash Pipe"; Rage Against the Machine - "Guerrilla Radio"Todd (VO): Like, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the Foo Fighters, Weezer, Rage Against the Machine, they all had big hits after this.
Todd: But...let's say they were the last...
Video for "Flagpole Sitta"Todd (VO): ...new band to come out of that sound. Them and the [clip of "Sex and Candy" by...] similarly named, but much different Marcy Playground. Those were the...
Todd: ...last ones to really break through.
Montage clips of Blink 182 - "All the Small Things"; Korn - "Falling Away From Me"; Train - "Drops of Jupiter"Todd (VO): Now pop punk, nu metal, and alt-rock's whimpier cousin, adult alternative would all continue to thrive and grow, but...
Todd: ...alt-rock as we knew it was...pretty much done.
Clip of "Flagpole Sitta"
Sean: Paranoia, paranoiaTodd (VO): Well, if this was the last big move of the alternative nation, it was a good note to go out on. "Flagpole Sitta" is a fantastic song.
Todd: It's also the least surprising one hit wonder ever.
Todd (VO): "Flagpole Sitta" is a goofy title that says, "We didn't expect to be here, and we're going to leave shortly." But was that really the case?
Todd: And in the end, were they sick, or were they well? Well, get your tongue piercings ready, 'cause we're about to find out.
Sean: The agony and the irony, they're killing me, whoaBefore the hit
Clip of interview with...Todd (VO): Harvey Danger was formed in 1992 in Seattle by a bunch of students at University of Washington [clip of another interview on MTV Beach House] They are lead singer Sean Nelson, guitarist Jeff Lin, bassist Aaron Huffman, and drummer Evan Sult. Their name comes from a piece of random graffiti. Not [images of...] one of Anthony Weiner's sex aliases.
Todd: Since "Flagpole Sitta" was their first hit, I thought I'd just skip to that. Except I found out one major thing. Around [another image of...] the same time that Harvey Danger was starting to cut demos...
Clips of...Todd (VO): Sean Nelson started his career as a music critic, which continued concurrently for twenty years. In fact, up until a few months ago, he was a writer and arts editor for the [images of magazine covers of...] Seattle Alt Weekly, The Stranger, a publication I read all the time, so I've probably read a good chunk of his work.
Todd: I-I admit, I'm a little intimidated.
Clip of Sean reading aloud in a dinerTodd (VO): He's a published author; I'm some dipshit with a webcam. If he saw this, he could not only correct the numerous factual errors I'm about to make, he could also tell me why my analysis sucks and he could do it better. [book cover for Court and Spark] I bought his book for the record.
Todd: [holding up said book] I'm learning so much about Joni Mitchell! Anyway, they released their first album in 1997. And out of nowhere in '98, their first single gets really big.
The big hit
Todd: "Flagpole Sitta" is an obvious smash hit from its opening notes.
Video for "Flagpole Sitta" starts againTodd (VO): It just didn't sound like any other song. It sounded immense right away. That smashing drum intro, and then that weird hook where the riff is being played on distorted bass instead of lead guitar.
Todd: This song has hooks for days.
Sean: I'm not...Todd: It has the greatest backing vocals...
Video for...Todd (VO): ...of any rock band since "What I Like About You" by The Romantics.
The Romantics: What I likeTodd: [singing along] Bah!
Video for "Flagpole Sitta"Todd (VO): In fact, it originally was gonna have no chorus. Just "Bah!"
Todd: It would have worked.
Todd (VO): So yeah, it sounds great. But what's it about exactly?
Todd: What's a flagpole sitta? OK.
Clip of people...Todd (VO): Flagpole sitting was a weird and stupid fad from the 1920's, where college boys would climb up to the top of flagpoles and see how long they could stay there. It was the Tide Pod challenge of a hundred years ago. It has nothing to do with this song.
Todd: The word "flagpole" is used once.
Clip of "Flagpole Sitta"
Sean: 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 doesTodd: [beat] I literally just realized that line's about masturbating.
Sean: And when I feel a bit naughtyTodd (VO): Get it? His fingertips feel naughty, they run up the flagpole. Twenty years, and I never got that.
Todd: [sarcastically] Yeah, sit on my flagpole, baby. Yeah, no shit no one salutes that.
Todd (VO): So, if it's not about flagpoles, what is it? Well, you gotta understand that it was 1998. It's so 1998 that there's a [various clips of "Flagpole Sitta" with arrow pointing at...] guy in the video wearing one of those stupid Cat in the Hat hats. It is of its time.
Todd: So with that in mind, let's talk about irony.
Clip of Alanis Morissette - "Ironic"
Alanis Morissette: And isn't it ironicTodd (VO): Not like...actual dramatic irony. Or even the Alanis Morissette misunderstanding of that concept. But...the irony that became the hallmark of the '90s and alternative rock specifically.
Todd: Now it wasn't actually irony either. And that may or may not be ironic in itself. Actually, it's hard to say what it was.
Clips of South Park...Todd (VO): Mostly it was just a style of communicating where you undercut everything you say so that no one could tell what you actually mean.
...and The Simpsons
Teen #1: Are you being sarcastic, dude?
Teen #2: I don't even know anymore.Todd: And that indirect "not really meaning anything..."
Video for Nirvana - "Come As You Are"Todd (VO): ...was related to the one big lyrical trick in alt-rock.
Todd: Saying something, and then immediately contradicting it. "I'm not sick, but I'm not well." "Take your time, hurry up."
Brief clips of Meredith Brooks - "Bitch"...
Meredith Brooks: I'm a child, I'm a mother
...Alanis Morissette - "Hand In My Pocket"
Alanis: I'm here but I'm really gone
...and Bush - "Glycerine"
Gavin Rossdale: I'm never alone
I'm alone all the timeTodd: It's the sound of frustration.
Video for "Flagpole Sitta"Todd (VO): It tapped into that Gen X, indefinable sense of wrongness, of not one thing or the other. And the youth of America felt it really deeply. [clip of live performance of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by...] Obviously Kurt Cobain tapped that feeling first. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is a famously inarticulate song, and to this day, no one knows what the lyrics mean.
Todd: But even so, it was a very directly emotional song. Very...
Todd (VO): ...angry and unimpressed with the world. And you feel Kurt's frustration at everything, maybe even at his own inability to articulate what he means.
Todd: Oh, well! Whatever! Never mind!
Video for "Flagpole Sitta"Todd (VO): But that was 1991. By '98, alternative rock wasn't the alternative to anything anymore. Crippling angst was out of the mainstream, and a lot of it sucked. There was no more illusion of profundity...
Todd: ...which is where Harvey Danger comes in.
Clip of "Flagpole Sitta"
Sean: Put me in the hospital for nerves
And then they had to commit meTodd (VO): "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was a cry of anger.
Todd: "Flagpole Sitta" is a joke.
Todd (VO): The title is a joke. The lyrics are all jokes.
Sean: Hear the voices in my head
I swear to God it sounds like they're snoringA really clever joke to be clear. It's no surprise to me that Sean Nelson became a writer, 'cause there's a lot of words in this song. It's very literate, a lot of clever turns of phrase.
Todd: It's like a snotty '90s [image of...] Morrissey. And that snark is just directed everywhere. At the world...
Sean: That only stupid people are breedingTodd: ...at his own brain....
Sean: The rottenness and evil in meTodd: ...and most interestingly to me, at the burnt out alternative scene.
Sean: I wanna publish 'zines
And rage against machinesTodd (VO): Like, yes, we're all still angry and upset and fucked up. But we can't even take that seriously anymore.
Todd: And I love this song, I really do. But...I've always been a tiny bit uncomfortable with it.
Todd (VO): It's like irony on top of irony. There's a real sense of sarcasm poisoning to it.
Todd: [sarcastically] Flagpole sitta, yo!
Sean: Been around the world and found
That only stupid people are breedingTodd: Yeah, OK, smart guy. Wanna tell how much you love Fight Club next?
Sean: And I don't even own a TVTodd (VO): But if it's arch and snotty, like...it's earned. Like, who could take this kind of music seriously anymore?
Todd: Cobain took it seriously. He's dead.
Todd (VO): And Pearl Jam ran from the limelight, and Smashing Pumpkins were collapsing. You can't pretend this shit is still deep and meaningful. [clip of...] I read an interview from Sean Nelson, where the interviewer compared his big hit to...
Todd: ...other late '90s hits that were, you know, upbeat, but...
Video for New Radicals - "You Get What You Give"Todd (VO): ...disdainful with the superficiality of the world.
Gregg Alexander: You're all fakes
Run to your mansionsHe's talking about, like, "You Get What You Give" by The New Radicals, and [clip of...] "Walkin' on the Sun" by Smash Mouth.
Steve Harwell: And their kids were hippie chicks or hypocritesTodd: And you can tell, Nelson is super not thrilled to be compared [brief clip of "Walkin' on the Sun"] to Smash Mouth. But he's also like..."Yeah, that's not wrong."
Another clip of Sean Nelson interviewTodd (VO): He calls his big hit garbage, in the sense that all pop culture is disposable garbage.
Todd: And "Flagpole Sitta" is very self-aware of that fact.
Clip of "Flagpole Sitta"
Sean: I wanna pierce my tongueTodd (VO): It's self-defeating in that special '90s way.
Todd: And you can see that displacement reflected in the video...
Todd (VO): ...which shows the band being completely ignored as they drag all their shit through rooms full of preps, goths, ravers, punks...before blasting open the curtains and rocking the house for their true audience...nobody.
Todd: Again, it's like a parody of Nirvana.
Video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit"Todd (VO): Kurt Cobain got the pep rally full of moshing teens. [clip of "Flagpole Sitta"] All Harvey Danger gets is a single clapping monkey. For all they knew, this could have been the last video they ever made, and in it they chose to depict themselves as a band of no clique, no crowd, and no constituency.
Todd: And so it proved.
The failed follow-up
Video for...Todd (VO): OK, this is, "Private Helicopter," their second single. Got a cool, Pixies-esque bass line...and those fuzzy Dinosaur Jr guitars.
Sean: I'm on a private helicopter with my favorite ex-girlfriendSo...yeah, I like the sound of it, but I'm not sure what I think about this one.
Todd: Like, it's kind of a love song where he imagines himself in various situations with his ex-girlfriend when they're completely alone, like...
Todd (VO): ...in a private helicopter, or a foreign country where no one speaks English. [brief snippet of Harvey Danger flying close to...] Hi, Twin Towers. Or they can just be honest without anyone looking at them. And...
Todd: ...maybe they'll get back together. [shrugs]
Sean: I'm still attracted to youTodd (VO): I'm not sure it works. Like, this isn't "Flagpole Sitta"; it's supposed to be a sincere song about wanting to put the past aside, and rekindle that old flame.
Todd: But the band still...sounds kinda snotty.
Sean: I must admit I said a few things, butTodd (VO): Like...that was just their sound. Almost seems like he's insulting her somehow. It's not exactly a romantic chorus.
Sean: I'm on a hovercraft to Paris with...Well, I don't know, good luck to those two. I assume they're gonna get back together if they're taking private helicopter tours.
Todd: Like that's not a thing you do platonically.
Todd (VO): For what it's worth, this was not the single they wanted to release as their follow-up.
Todd: They wanted to release this one, "Carlotta Valdez."
Audio for "Carlotta Valdez" plays over live performance
Sean: Carlotta Valdez, Carlotta Valdez
Carlotta Valdez, I will make you herTodd (VO): Now that's a weird chorus. "I'll make you Carlotta Valdez?" What the hell does that mean? I didn't get it...
Todd: ...til I realized where the name comes from.
Clip from Vertigo
Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart): Carlotta Valdez?
Hotel Manager (Ellen Corby): Yeah, that's it.Todd (VO): Oh. Pffft, it's from Vertigo. He's singing the plot from the Hitchcock movie, Vertigo.
Todd: [bumps head] D'oy! And now that I listen closer, there were some subtle other clues in the lyrics.
Audio for "Carlotta Valdez" plays over another clip from Vertigo
Sean: Oh, vertigo, vertigoTodd (VO): [sarcastically] Oh, riiight.
Todd: Yeah, I guess the record company thought...
Clip of live performanceTodd (VO): ..."Private Helicopter" sounded more like their original hit. And maybe "Carlotta Valdez" was too punk-sounding, or...maybe they thought no one wanted rock songs about classic cinema, which is probably true.
Todd: Or maybe, only one semi-ironic geek band in '98 could have a song that mentions Vertigo.
Clip of Barenaked Ladies - "One Week"
Ed Robertson: See the show, 'cause then you'll know
The vertigo is gonna growTodd (VO): I mean, yeah. That's a [side-by side clips of "Flagpole Sitta" and One Week"] direct competitor right there. [brief zoom-in on "One Week" clip]
Todd: But mostly, there's a reason why I never did this episode, even though I have a lot of thoughts about "Flagpole Sitta." It's because I didn't think they'd have an interesting story.
Video for Harvey Danger - "Save It for Later"Todd (VO): I've never heard anyone mention a single thing about Harvey Danger. Like, I guess I've heard a couple people say they like that one cover song they did of "Save It for Later" by The English Beat, off the 200 Cigarettes soundtrack. But mostly I just get the sense that no one really believed in them.
Clip of live performance of...Sean Nelson points out that "Flagpole Sitta" is not just an un-commercial song title, it's an anti-commercial song title. They were not prepared, or necessarily even interested in mainstream fame. Their idols were all underground, lo-fi bands like Pavement or Guided by Voices. [brief clips of "Flagpole Sitta"...] In both of their videos, they're [...and "Private Helicopter"] being ignored. I think that was the image they were most comfortable with. [clip of MTV interview with...] And Kurt Cobain may have been unprepared for fame, but he did play into it. He was an entertaining guy on camera.
Clip of Beach House interviewTodd (VO): I've got one clip of Harvey Danger with Carson Daly, and they look so uncomfortable. And it's just crickets from the crowd.
Todd: You know who the labels really liked? Lit.
Video for Lit - "My Own Worst Enemy"Todd (VO): I remember Lit making all sorts of appearances on MTV and VH1. [brief clips of "Zip-Lock"...] They had big celebrities in their videos. [...and "Miserable"] Didn't do much for them in the end, but someone believed.
Todd: Harvey Danger never had that.
Clip of different MTV interview with Harvey DangerTodd (VO): Like, look at him. Nelson kind of reminds me of [image of...] Arnold from The Magic School Bus. They just did not look the part.
Clip of Beach House interview
Sean: Entertainment Weekly said that they were, um, threatened by our overt sexuality.They weren't pretty or cool. They weren't lovable, camera-hogging goofballs like the Barenaked Ladies. [clip of "All Star" by...] And they weren't sellouts like Smash Mouth.
Todd: They never had a chance.
Did they ever do anything else?
Clip of live performance of "Flagpole Sitta"Todd (VO): OK, so they had their one big hit. Alt-rock is an album genre; one hit is worse than no hits. They were very much in fear for their careers at that point. But...they had hope.
Todd: Because the year that "Flagpole Sitta" got big, there was released a little album. [album cover for...] A little album called OK Computer.
Clip of live performance of Radiohead - "Paranoid Android"
Thom Yorke: Why don't you remember my name?Todd (VO): Radiohead is the most nailed-on, dead-to-rights one hit wonder that ever existed.
Clip of "Creep"
Thom: But I'm a creepThey have no business existing after 1993. And yet here they are [another live performance clip; "Paranoid Android" plays over] two albums later, the most acclaimed, exalted musical act in the world. One hit wondom is escapable. If the "Creep" guys could do it, so could Harvey Danger.
Todd: All they had to do was record an era-defining masterpiece. [beat] The flaws in this plan became obvious pretty quickly.
Clip of Harvey Danger - "Sad Sweetheart of the Rodeo"
Sean: Sad sweetheart of the rodeoTodd (VO): Now I like this song, "Sad Sweetheart of the Rodeo." If they were ever gonna have a second hit, it was this one. But I have listened to the album...
Todd: ...and it is not their OK Computer.
Opening clip of "Sad Sweetheart of the Rodeo"Todd (VO): I mean, they did try to expand their sound a little, but...yeah. OK Computer was beyond their abilities; they would be stuck at Pablo Honey forever. Plus the label reorganized, they got lost in the shuffle, their album was delayed. And the '90s were over. Bands like them were on the outs. The new hotness was [image of The Strokes logo...] garage, [...Limp Bizkit...] or nu metal, [...and Creed] or hunger dunger dang butt rock.
Todd: I'm kind of impressed they were even allowed to record a video for this.
Clip of Living Dangerously (uploaded by YouTube user "elegantmess" on Sept 8, 2008)Todd (VO): I found an amateur mockumentary that some high school student made for class in, like, 2001 and then later uploaded it to YouTube. And it's about the band, and they're in it. I assumed this kid must have known them personally, but...who knows? Maybe their star had dropped so low that random high school students could book them for interviews.
Todd: They already seemed really disenchanted with their brush with fame.
Sean: I was interviewed by Carson Daly.
Evan: On the beach.
Sean: On the beach, in New Jersey. [laughs angrily] I think we know a little bit more about moviemaking than some movie studio in Hollywood.Todd (VO): According to the kid who made this...
Todd: ...this video got a D-.
Todd (VO): They broke up, then reunited in 2004 for one last album. And if you listen to it, you can definitely hear some commentary about their career arc, with lyrics like, "You don't have to be a genius, but it helps." And titles like [track listing for Little By Little with song circled...] "Diminishing Returns."
Todd just shrugs
Did they deserve better?
Todd: Maybe a little.
Clip of "Flagpole Sitta"
Sean: I'm not sickTodd (VO): If you're interested in a '90s alt-rock band with, like, clever Fall Out Boy-esque lyrics, then yeah, maybe check them out.
Todd: In hindsight, it's kind of incredible that a band like Harvey Danger had even one hit, but...
Todd (VO): ...that one hit song is undeniable. Had they broken earlier or been a little more willing to go commercial, I think they could have had at least a couple other hits, but that wasn't them. [footage of reunion concert] Harvey Danger have reunited on and off over the years, but they've played their final shows, and they all went on to other successful pursuits. In writing, in art, business, the independent music industry. And Nelson has performed with bigger bands that came up after like Death Cab.
Todd: Their one hit is still surreal to them.
Video for "Flagpole Sitta"Todd (VO): It's amazing that this self-trashing song lasted this long, but it deserves it. Still one of the best rock songs of the '90s.
Todd: One, two, three, four!
Video endsClosing Tag Song: "Flagpole Sitta" - Chiodos
"Flagpole Sitta" is owned by Arena Rock Recording Company
This video is owned by me
THANK YOU TO THE LOYAL PATRONS!