This Saturday at the Orpheum Theatre, country/folk favorite John Prine will play a rescheduled show originally planned for April. But while there’s a five-month delay in seeing the Illinois native take the stage, his music only continues to become more increasingly relevant. The political bite of Prine’s songwriting, as well as the comedic timing of his melodies, has garnered him a fanbase that has remained loyal for more than 40 years, spanning several administrations, epidemics, revolutions, and evolutions. So, why is it music that so topical almost a half-century ago continues to be so potent today?
There are plenty of reasons to make politically tinged music. Celebrating a social change, advocating for social justice, and challenging society’s directions have all lead to thousands of protest songs. From the campaign jingle to the cliché caricature of the cross-legged hippie with an acoustic guitar to recent issues with campaign theme music, the relationship between music and politics is a peculiar but potent one. Not unlike love songs, the most successful political music can be rooted in unbridled passion or the crestfallen depression.
That’s why it’s always tricky thing to evaluate political music retroactively. Perhaps, more than any other sub-genre, political music has to directly pull from what’s happening “today.” As a result, songs tend to fall into three camps. First, you have selections like the iconic songs that protested the Vietnam War, like Country Joe and the Fish’s “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag.” Directly name-checking the war, it's something of an American counter-culture time capsule, the type of nostalgia that classic rock stations thrive on. However, you also have songs that become immediately dated. Used CD stores are flooded with quickly assembled anti-Bush punk compilations, and it is off putting to hear pre-2011 rap songs lament “We’re NEVER going to find Bin Laden!”
But then there's the third of type of political song, written with such fine craftsmanship that their message lends itself to listeners across generations. Prine is one of the masters, going way back to his 1971 self-titled debut. Specifically, let’s examine one of his signature songs: “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore.”The song, a first-person narrative about an unnamed dope’s sudden interest in acquiring American flag stickers, match a subtle sarcasm with a well-timed trajectory of events, its blatant message strapped to the front of the chorus.
But your flag decal won't get you into heaven anymore /
They're already overcrowded from your dirty little war /
Now Jesus don't like killin', no matter what the reason's for /
And your flag decal won't get you into Heaven anymore.
For 1971, that’s a pretty serious charge for an affably silly, catchy song. A critique of the cross-section of religion and patriotism that spews a blind loyalty clouding one’s better judgment, it de-glamorizes the death attributed with war, pointing how absurdly problematic the act of misappropriating the American flag can become.
While digesting Reader's Digest in the back of a dirty book store /
A plastic flag, with gum on the back fell out on the floor /
Well, I picked it up and I ran outside, slapped it on my windshield /
And if I could see old Betsy Ross I'd tell her how good I feel.
“Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” remains a treasured song because of its timelessness. From the dutiful patriotic consumerism of the '80s to the readily ubiquitous merchandise of a post-9/11 miniature flag marketplace, the past 44 years have kept hypocritical flag-sploitation fresh, which no decal can truly remedy.
Just look at this week’s Republican presidential debate, featuring candidates competing for the Oval Office by trying to “out-American” the competition. Prine’s approach didn’t directly tie to a bunch of names found in current events, but the motivation that creates such social ills. That’s why it’s become a classic for listeners whose first times could be any time, and why fans still come to see Prine sing it today.