Deconstructing the influence of the American flag on popular culture

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It’s hardly a controversial stance to claim that the American flag is one of the greatest flags in the world. Hell, it wouldn’t even be that controversial to call it the best, period. A big part of said greatness is in its malleability. Pick apart any element of the American flag, whether its those five-pointed stars or that deceptively simple contrast of colors, and you’ll immediately recognize its symbolism and its origin.

Try and deconstruct the Brazilian flag in the same way, even the French one, and you’ll be left with an indecipherable, albeit colorful, racket of nothing. For Old Glory, its strength is its ability to be completely torn apart yet remain clear in its origins. So it’s no wonder it’s been exploited for its artistic and symbolic power throughout pop culture history, reflecting different time periods, varying political moods, and ever-shifting fashion.

Its malleability in fashion is especially striking, particularly when two icons of the same time period appropriate the flag for symbolic purposes, but with it representing two radically different perspectives.

Evel Knievel was a hero of the American heartland, his flag-inspired ensembles an attempt to create a uniquely American icon -- as wild, daring and unpredictable as the American character itself. But it was a character rooted in a specific sort of machismo, representing good ol' boys who drink from the can, like fast things, and watch sports with a lady on their arm.

While Evel’s interpretation of the America flag represented a capitalist, masculine version of freedom (the freedom to work, to earn money, to take care of your wife and children), 1969's Easy Rider took the word literally. Released around the same time as Evel's peak popularity, the movie's version of freedom, experienced by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, was based on spontaneity and hedonism, living off-grid and taking America as it comes, rather than reaching for an impossible dream. It’s a freedom that goes awry, but spoke to a collective mood in American society at the time.

The jacket worn by Fonda’s character throughout the film, decorated with the American flag, quickly became a symbol of the counter-cultural sixties, of a youthful, impulsive freedom that rebelled against the rigid straightness of their elders.

Fonda and Evel appropriated the same flag, but for wildly different purposes. Both however were linked by the thread of American opportunity, a sense that any mere mortal can achieve their own personal greatness. Not that the power of the flag was constrained to mere human beings.

In forming the visual appearance of comic book characters at the turn of the century, many creators turned to the symbolism of the flag when designing their protagonists. In shaping an all-American hero like Superman, illustrator Joe Shuster utilized the red and blue of the flag when developing his wardrobe, attempting to create a symbol of superheroic hope in a time of economic uncertainty in the USA.

Captain America was even less subtle. The cover of its very first issue, released in 1941, depicts the titular stars-and-stripes-suited superhero literally punching Hitler in the face. The sheer might of the American flag, one of its stars emblazoned across a warrior's chest, thick red and blue stripes shaped into his shield, was enough to bring down the Nazi regime, the cover cried. It was propaganda, absolutely, but pretty damn cool all the same.

Soon enough, the Captain America comics were being regularly used as an avatar for the power of the American flag. Mere months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Captain America just so happened to face off against an enormous Japanese sea monster in the pages of his comic book. He won, naturally.

After 9/11, comic books responded to an America suddenly awash in actual superheroes. Wonder Woman, with her stars-and-stripes hot-pants, suddenly felt like an unnecessary distraction. Where once the symbols of American heroism were men and women with super powers, now firefighters and police officers were identified as the real heroes on the front line.

DC Comics’ 9/11 memorial issue (yes, there was such a thing) is anchored by an undeniably powerful image: Superman, once the icon of truth, justice and the American way, looking up at a billboard decorated with an image of New York cops, doctors and firefighters, merely saying “Wow”. It’s unsubtle, sure, but a moving gesture.

Then there’s the elephant in the room. Sometimes the most effective use of the American flag in pop culture, and certainly the most attention-grabbing, is destroying it all together. Burning the flag is sacrilegious, the sort of unheard-of madness that gets people cast out of communities or, even worse, Twitter-shamed by a baying mob. But for fans of provocation, it’s the quickest way to be heard.

Marilyn Manson’s Burning Flag, from his 2000 record Holy Wood, tackles the conservative hypocrisy that engulfed Manson in particular in the wake of Columbine. “You can point your gun at me, and hope it will go away,” he yells. “But if God was alive, he would hate you anyway.”

A year prior, Rage Against the Machine finished their set at Woodstock 99 with a rendition of Killing in the Name accompanied by a flag burning. Like Manson, burning the flag was a reaction to perceived hypocrisy at work across the American landscape — a nation pledging allegiance to a symbol, but ignoring the death in the streets.

“You justify those that died by wearing the badge,” they sing. “They’re the chosen whites.”

When it comes to less provocative musical representation, few so embedded the American flag into their imagery more than Bruce Springsteen. The tracks that made his name, most obviously Born in the USA and My Hometown, spurn vaguely mindless worshiping of the flag, and instead replace it with a prideful depiction of truth.

Something like Born in the USA, with its iconic cover of Springsteen leaping in front of the American flag, gets to the heart of the American experience: constantly searching for some kind of meaning, despite feeling disconnected from many of the symbols that are supposed to represent you. “My work has always been about judging the distance between American reality and the American dream,” he has said.

Naturally, the song was misconstrued by conservative pundits at the time as a traditional flag-waving pop anthem. "Surely Springsteen must be conservatively-minded!”, they seemed to bellow. “He has the flag on the cover of his records!” Reagan was so sure of Springsteen’s endorsement that he referenced his songs repeatedly at election rallies before being informed otherwise.

But Springsteen's use of flag imagery shone a spotlight on alternative takes on American pride. That the flag and all it represents are in fact nuanced and fluctuating, rather than merely clear-cut. That one can be respectful of what the flag symbolizes while still acknowledging its faults.

For many the flag represents the freedoms of America, its strong moral integrity and the potential for each individual to achieve their dream. In a less rose-tinted-glasses view, it’s a symbol of oppression, one that provokes a sharp divide rather than a win for unity.

It’s an idea given significant weight in 2016, principally via San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick refusing to salute the flag during games. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he explained to NFL.com. “To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Once again the American flag has been deconstructed, not just as a literal canvas of stars and stripes waiting to be molded and shaped elsewhere, but as a symbol of widely unspoken power structures and the inadequacies of the so-called American dream. Throughout popular culture, the flag and its varying interpretations remains a source of constant inspiration.