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Number One Record: “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” by John Prine

In reference to the concentrated artistic resistance to the Vietnam War, author Kurt Vonnegut once said, “The power of this weapon turns out to be that of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high.” Generally speaking, he was correct. Art of resistance has very little potential to affect material change in the world, whether it comes from the anti-war movement of the 60s and 70s or the anti-Trump movement of today. Where legendary folk artist John Prine was concerned, however, protest music wasn’t about changing policy or wielding political strength, but about depicting something so nakedly and charmingly that it resonates for years beyond its conception. In a career of great examples of this, I think his satirical track “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” stands out as one of his most poignant as well as one of his funniest.

“Flag Decal” comes from Prine’s 1971 debut and album simply and appropriately titled John Prine. Before the album came to be, Prine was famously working as a mailman and singing at open mic nights was the extent of his musical career. After a small break in the form of a positive Roger Ebert review, an even bigger break came when Kris Kristofferson attended one of his concerts and was blown away. This led to his eventual signing to Atlantic Records and the release of this album, which sent his career rolling.

Prine would come to be a towering icon in the world of folk and country music, and the pure strength and wit of his songwriting made sure that the branches of his influence could be felt far and wide. I was a late-comer to Prine’s discography and unfortunately didn’t find my way to him until after his untimely death this year, but I immediately resonated with his work like I had known it my whole life. His music has a quality of feeling immediately intimate, like stumbling upon an old memory that only grows in strength and in vibrancy as the years go on. A lot of this can be attributed to the timelessness of Prine’s lyrics.

John Prine, as a lyricist, reminds me a lot of David Lynch. They are both able to capture the sadness and darkness rumbling below the surface of ordinary life without discarding the value and the charm of that top layer. This total base understanding of the people and places that surround them allows them to warp these images in effective ways, with Prine’s depictions being a lot less unnerving and more focused on a homely brand of humor and honesty. On “Flag Decal”, this image comes in the form of a caricature, but not one so distorted that it’s unrecognizable.

In the song, Prine switches perspectives between this caricature, a man patriotically obsessed with American flag decals, and himself commentating on this character in the chorus. Our protagonist is a man who, beaming with pride, compulsively collects stickers of the American flag to place on his car. Eventually, in the final verse, his flag covered windshield causes him to not only die in a car crash, but also be denied at the gates of heaven. Prine, in place of Saint Peter, repeats the chorus: “Your flag decal won’t get you into heaven anymore/We’re already overcrowded from your dirty little wars.”

It’s a darkly funny narrative, and one that Prine sells with the same whimsy he puts in all his songs to varying degrees. The song was written for the Vietnam-era, but it’s message against the perils of toxic and consumer-based nationalism only becomes more and more poignant as the years go on. The same rotten strain of Christianity founded on patriotism and capitalism still exists today, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some folks out there who still think their car ornaments and lawn signs can buy them favor with God. I don’t think this is a case of Prine predicting anything or seeing the writing on the walls, but rather just seeing something for what it truly was. Prine’s image, as exaggerated and comedic as it might be, is so true to the inner reality of the matter that it can’t be tied to a single narrative or time period.

Truth be told, I think “Flag Decal” is only about the the third or fourth best song on John Prine, and it’s tough competition when you share a space with some of the greatest folk songs ever made. But what draws me to “Flag Decal” is the same thing that draws me to the works of Kurt Vonnegut. It’s so impressive how Prine can make such meaningful and important point while wrapped up in such a jaunty and downright silly package. “Flag Decal” is as delightful as it is scathing and truthful, and it takes a true talent to pull off that dichotomy without coming off as an arrogant asshole.

And it’s here that I find myself disagreeing with the inherent pessimism in Vonnegut’s statement. It’s a powerful thing to hear a truth reflected in song, especially when it’s a truth that was always swirling in your head but you had never heard put into words. This experience, the experience of being understood even by a stranger, is as essential as it is empowering, and John Prine’s evergreen adoration and influence can be partially traced to this phenomenon. Prine was so close to the heart of life that he could make any life seem so close to our own, whether that be the patriotic oaf of this song, an old woman named after her mother, or Jesus Christ himself. His humanity eternally shone through, especially when he was at his funniest.

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