Americans Fetishize Their Stars and Stripes in 'Capture the Flag'

Every cult needs a birth narrative. Betsy Ross and the works of art her myth inspired “recall the nativity of Christ or the Adoration of the Magi”.

Capture the Flag: The Stars and Stripes in American History

Publisher: NYU Press
Length: 192 pages
Author: Arnaldi Testi
Price: $22.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2010-06

John Prine once sang “Your flag decal won’t get you into heaven anymore”. While that may or may not be true, the American flag has always been more than a piece of cloth or even a symbol of a nation. What that “more” is, Arnaldi Testi sets out to explain in Capture the Flag: the Stars and Stripes in American History. Testi shows that the flag sits at the intersection of all that is held to be American.

In ways he says that are unique to the US, the stars and stripes have a “very special status… in the consciousness of the American people”. There exists according to Testi, a “flag fetishism” and his book seeks to depict the special American “cult of the flag”.

Flags came about to serve mundane purposes: to mark territorial boundaries or identify ships at sea or to rally an army in combat. National flags before the American and French revolutions belonged to kings and queens and ruling families. They were coats of arms which represented people or rulers. The American flag was the first to represent a nation with no monarch, it was the people’s flag. Testi demonstrates that the American idea of its flag developed from the blood of a civil war, and became tangled up with ideas of American exceptionalism and empire.

Every cult needs a birth narrative. Betsy Ross, or rather her legend, supplies one for the flag. Testi outlines how the myth of the mother of the flag was constructed to meet its burgeoning devotion. Historically speaking the creation of the flag was the result of a banal act of a congressional committee and the actual shape and size and manner of its first construction remain obscure. However, the story of Betsy Ross and the works of art her myth inspired “recall the nativity of Christ or the Adoration of the Magi”. She becomes the “hallowed mother of the flag and the nation.” Testi sees her “in effect as the Founding Mother, the incarnation of the ideal of the republican mother of the nineteenth century culture”.

This maternal image was itself the result of a devotion to the flag that had its roots in the horror of the Civil War. The secessionist threat to the Union inspired “a wave of patriotism and outrage at the breakup of the Union” and the Northern people “covered themselves in the national colors.” It was the incredible numbers of war dead, however, and the seemingly ocean-size spill of American blood that fertilized an astonishing growth in zealous enthusiasm for the flag. The idea of America for which the union soldiers died took on a tangible form in the flag now known as “Old Glory”. The sheer number of dead seemed to demand a commensurate attachment to an object that stood for their sacrifice. The more blood shed, the deeper grew the zeal for the flag.

The War of 1812 produced the “Star Spangled Banner”. The sacrifices of World Wars I and II (as well as the events of 11 September 2001) showed a rise in flag devotion and display. The flag has become an emblem of the far flung missions of national might; it has been hoisted over Puerto Rico in 1898, Iwo Jima in 1945, the moon in 1969 and Bagdad in 2003. This connection to war and the death of soldiers for the sake of the nation is seen most clearly in the need for celebration and remembrances of the dead in the years following the conflicts. Parades need banners and the fading memories of those who died is given a sacramental focus in the red, white and blue.

The stars and stripes signify a national flag that changes and grows along with the country itself. The number of stars are tied to the number of states in the Union. As the Unites States acquired more states, so too the flag its stars.

Besides being a territorial and national marker, Testi makes clear that the flag is a kind of national, secular sacrament, a quasi religious, tangible object demanding faith, worship and sacrifice around which a disparate community seeks to find unity. There are ceremonies and creeds and holy days and rubrics that have clustered around the “sacred emblem”. The historical roots to these observances show that of course America was not born with an intact flag cult. It developed over time.

At the end of the 19th century, Flag Day was instituted in schools to inculcate patriotism. Acceptance of the Pledge of Allegiance spoken by public school children was pushed through at the same time. The social context for these new liturgies was the increasing waves of immigration and the nervousness that these new immigrants had to be somehow Americanized or the strength of the nation would be at risk.

This rising devotion to the flag was not without is ironies. Testi notes that the author of the Pledge of Allegiance was a socialist:

“Francis C. Bellamy, (was) a rather colorful character, a journalist who had formerly been a Baptist minister, rejected by his church because he had preached Christian socialism against the evils of capitalism… He often likened the Pledge to the Lord's Prayer, but he also thought of including in it 'the historic slogan of the French Revolution which meant so much to Jefferson and his friends, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.'

In the end, he deleted the French quotation, maintaining that equality and fraternity would be too controversial, too anti-individualistic for the Americans of the time. He considered the words freedom and justice to be more ecumenical, 'applicable to either an individualist or a socialist state.' Optimistically, he left the option open to future generations.”

This socialist who was so devoted to the flag and allegiance to the country it represents points to another part of the American flag phenomenon Testi does well in explicating. The flag has meant many different things to many different people. It has served as the rallying point for the Ku Klux Klan, women suffrage, the Civil Rights movement, the NRA and labor unions. The flag has the quality of a patriotic Rorschach test. One sees in it the values one holds dear about America. All see the red white and blue but one sees a strong military, another the bill of rights, another Pilgrim ancestors, another capitalistic greatness, another oppression by federal government, and so on.

Testi is an Italian who teaches US history at University of Pisa. He brings freshness and an outsider’s perspective to a topic that may be too close for many Americans to consider objectively. As a European intellectual, Testi is masterful in his cultural and historical analysis. However, in his otherwise insightful investigation, Testi misses the chance to understand the simple patriotism wrought by the positive attributes of the American experiment, and gratitude for the prosperity and freedoms it has brought so many.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

Next Page

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

Acid house legends 808 State bring a psychedelic vibe to Berlin producer NHOAH's stunning track "Abstellgleis".

Berlin producer NHOAH's "Abstellgleis" is a lean and slinky song from his album West-Berlin in which he reduced his working instruments down to a modular synthesizer system with a few controllers and a computer. "Abstellgleis" works primarily with circular patterns that establish a trancey mood and gently grow and expand as the piece proceeds. It creates a great deal of movement and energy.

Keep reading... Show less

Beechwood offers up a breezy slice of sweet pop in "Heroin Honey" from the upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod.

At just under two minutes, Beechwood's "Heroin Honey" is a breezy slice of sweet pop that recalls the best moments of the Zombies and Beach Boys, adding elements of garage and light tinges of the psychedelic. The song is one of 10 (11 if you count a bonus CD cut) tracks on the group's upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod out 26 January via Alive Natural Sound Records.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.