Utah’s new flag unfurled despite a ‘Heads, we win. Tails, you lose.’ petition

Utah's new state flag waves in the breeze next to the U.S. flag and a flag for Real Salt Lake at America First Field in Sandy, Utah, on Wednesday, June 7, 2023.

Utah’s new state flag waves in the breeze next to the U.S. flag and a flag for Real Salt Lake at America First Field in Sandy, Utah, on Wednesday, June 7, 2023.

Utah’s flag officially got an upgrade this month and I couldn’t be happier. The new banner features a large, golden beehive in a blue hexagon over three horizontal stripes representing the state’s red rocks, white mountains and blue skies. It succeeds the old design, which was primarily the state’s seal on a blue background — an approach emulated by about 23 other states. More on that later.

The new design had to survive a challenge from a relatively small group of unhappy residents displeased that the old design was being demoted (but not eliminated). Despite the group’s claims of erasure, the old flag remains the state’s historic flag and people can fly whichever flag they choose. Additionally, the state seal that the old flag is based on remains as-is.

The residents against the new flag twice attempted to gather enough signatures to force a vote, but fell considerably short of their goal both times. While I appreciate their democratic efforts, I felt the proposal would undo a compromise to keep both flags in favor of solely the older design. Hence why I called the proposal from Restore Utah’s Flag as “Heads, we win. Tails, you lose.”

The old flag would have survived as a state symbol no matter what, so they didn’t really have anything to lose:

  • Had the measure succeeded, the old flag would’ve been the sole flag.
  • Had the measure failed, the old flag remains an official flag in addition to the new design.

Truly a win-win for supporters of the old flag. Not so much for everyone else.

Had the proposal passed, the state would’ve lost out on what is arguably a better way to represent the state (in flag form).

With that said, the new flag probably wouldn’t have entirely gone away had the Restore Utah’s Flag effort succeeded and voters had excised the new banner as an official state symbol. Even before the new banner officially became the state flag this month, the design was becoming widely adopted. I’m fairly sure that the design would’ve thrived even without the state’s imprimatur.

My homage to the new Utah state flag depicts a curling stone as a beehive in a blue hexagon. It's part of a variation of the new logo of the Oval Curling Club.

My homage to the new Utah state flag depicts a curling stone as a beehive in a blue hexagon. It’s part of a variation of the new logo of the Oval Curling Club.

After the Utah Legislature approved the new design last year, I began thinking about ways to incorporate the banner in the team attire of the Oval Curling Club. Many sports uniforms feature the flag of the state or province they hail from (think of Baltimore Ravens and their embrace of the Maryland state flag in their logos).

My curling club is undergoing a rebranding and I took the opportunity to design a logo that incorporated the new Utah flag. I also designed a variation that depicted a curling stone as a beehive in the blue hexagon. I’ll be forthright here and note that the club’s members seem to prefer the original beehive version over the curling stone beehive.

I was honored when the club members voted for the designs to be the new logos for the club (more on that in a future blog post).

I wouldn’t have jumped at the opportunity to incorporate the old flag into the club’s logo or uniforms. At most, it could’ve been used as a shoulder patch.

Challenging the new standard

Over the past year or so, it’s been interesting to see the arguments about why the new flag was a harbinger of the end of civilization and the only way to stave off this chaos was to have the old flag be the only official state flag. Every few days, I would search Twitter for “Utah flag” to keep up on the hyperbole.

Defenders of the old flag touted the difficulty in adjusting the design for other purposes as a feature, not a defect. They lamented that people jumped on the opportunity to remix the new flag design for fun or to make a point.

It has been popular since the new design was introduced last year to replace the beehive with another symbol, like a popular whale sculpture on display in a Salt Lake City roundabout. Others changed the flag colors to represent LGBTQ+ identities, which generated ire (although it must be pointed out that people could also put the old flag over a rainbow background or the like, but most never really bothered to before).

Expressing outrage at the possibility of a symbol being embraced and remixed by non-traditional groups was one of the tactics frequently deployed by proponents of the old flag. Other posts on social media asserted that the new flag (approved by the heavily Republican Legislature) was somehow Marxist or an attempt to erase history — which doesn’t make sense when the old flag still has official status.

Another argument was against the $500,000 cost for the new flag proposal (which has already been spent, to the best of my knowledge). It was primarily for outreach efforts — most of the flag replacement costs weren’t included in this figure because groups would simply get a banner with the new design when their old flags needed to be swapped out due to wear and tear.

A half million is a hefty sum for you or me, but it’s 0.0017% of the state’s $29.4 billion annual budget or about 14 cents per Utahn.

Speaking of costs, many heritage flag opponents ignored or justified the cost of running the petition for a public vote. Setting aside all the money and effort that the signature gathered expended, county agencies needed to spend money to verify petitions (which admittedly is part of their jobs).

Had a special election been called as it would’ve been under the original effort, the cost of that would’ve been in the millions (which is more than a half million). Spending millions to fight a half-million dollar expenditure seems like the textbook definition of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.

Ultimately, I don’t have any reason to doubt the sincerity of the heritage flag proponents, but many of the arguments put forward seemed breathlessly disingenuous.

At the same time, some of the critiques of the new flag’s design seemed valid — appreciating design can be largely subjective despite efforts by flag enthusiasts to apply some objective guidelines (which some then try to apply far too rigidly). It’s kind of funny when some call the new flag as being overly corporate — many big corporations are deemphasizing logos in favor of quirky wordmarks.

Even if the new flag isn’t perfect, it certainly seems like an improvement.

The ol’ SOB (seal on a bedsheet)

Find the Utah flag among the state flags displayed in the warm room of the former Southern California Curling Center in Vernon, Calif., on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022.

Find the Utah flag among the state flags displayed in the warm room of the former Southern California Curling Center in Vernon, Calif., on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022.

Prior to the current flag fervor, I didn’t give too much thought to Utah’s flag. It was always a bit ho-hum and I never owned a copy of it. I did buy one once — as part of a fundraiser for the now-defunct Southern California Curling Center in Vernon, California.

The curling center had asked people to buy a flag to represent their state, nation or province in the new facility. I hesitated making the purchase — I didn’t particularly care for the flag, but I ultimately contributed because I wanted to ensure that Utah was represented at the unique sport facility just south of downtown Los Angeles. I was also supposed to get a curling center nametag with my name and the flag, but the facility closed before that came to pass.

At the time I was making the donation in 2021, there was buzz about changing Utah’s flag. There was a flag to commemorate the 125th anniversary of Utah’s statehood, but I was ambivalent about that design too — the banner was divided into red, white and blue quadrants that resembled an “X” underneath a circle featuring the beehive. It just didn’t work for me.

In any case, I donated for the old Utah flag and I told myself I would be happy to buy a new flag to replace it whenever that came to pass.

When I finally made my way to Southern California to visit the curling center in January 2022, I tried to spot Utah’s flag on the giant wall with all the flags. It took me quite a while to locate it, even after I figured out that the state flags were displayed alphabetically.

My inability to find Utah’s flag in the pack of U.S. flags underscored one of the biggest complaints of the historic flag — as a symbol that should clearly identify the state it represents, the Utah seal on a blue background didn’t do a very good job.

There’s so much meaning in the old flag – like HATU and 6981!

The central part of Utah's historic flag is shown backwards.

The central part of Utah’s historic flag is shown backwards.

Defenders of the historic flag often like to point out all of the symbolism in the design, such as a bald eagle, American flags, bees about the beehive and sego lily flowers (which apparently helped stave off hunger during the state’s pioneer era).

All of these symbols are well and good (and survive on the state seal), but it’s extremely hard to appreciate the symbology when you’re looking at a flag a hundred feet away. At such a distance, it’s easy to miss details — such as a mistake on the placement of the year Mormon settlers first arrived.

That error wasn’t officially fixed until 2011, or 89 years after the goof was first committed (basically the year 1847 was supposed to be on the shield, but the original text of the law was easy to misinterpret and the year was placed below the shield to appear as if it were behind it).

Also, writing on a flag is generally considered to be a bad idea (although there are always exceptions to this guidance, like California’s flag). Utah’s historic flag is an excellent example of this, as it will be seen as backwards about 50% of the time when it’s on a flagpole.

As much as one might draw meaning from the words “Utah” and “Industry” and the years 1847 and 1896, what meaning can be gleaned from “Hatu” or “Yrtsudni”?

Some historic flag defenders will point out that it doesn’t matter that people can’t pick out Utah’s blue flag among dozens of other blue flags — in Utah, it will likely be the only blue flag flying. I suppose that consideration may also apply to all the symbolism on the flag — it doesn’t matter if few people can see it well enough to appreciate the intricate details, it’s enough to just know it’s there.

At the same time, is it fair to ask the general public to automatically know, understand and appreciate all the old flag’s intricate symbols when they’re difficult to make out at a distance?

Demanding a flag plebiscite when it had never been done before

Wrapping things up, I found it fascinating to see some demand a public vote on the new flag. I wasn’t necessarily opposed to the idea (despite the format heavily favoring the heritage flag), but insisting that the vote was absolutely necessary for a state symbol seemed to be a bit too much.

Some heritage flag supporters asserted that a public vote had been promised, but that isn’t my recollection of the process.

The state flag has been changed repeatedly over 121 years. (Utah didn’t really have a state flag for the first quarter-century of statehood, and early flags were typically one-offs until around 1921, according to a very thorough Deseret News article on the history of the state flag.)

There was never a public vote on any of the changes.

Also, Utah has 28 or so official state symbols. To the best of my knowledge, there has never been a plebiscite on any of them. As a curler, I demand a recount on making skiing and snowboarding the official state winter sports.

Many of the state’s symbols were adopted by the Legislature when school groups appealed to them to make the change (often as part of a lesson on how laws are passed at the state level).

In that regard, the new state flag has also provided a civics lesson — even if some people weren’t exactly civil about it. Having two state flags that residents can choose to fly was probably the best outcome of this process.

Both will be likely used more often than many of Utah’s other symbols, including the official state tartan.

Hoist with my own petard … on ongoing series

The karaoke crowd at Paxton Pub in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2024.

The karaoke crowd at Paxton Pub in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2024.

When I conduct an interview for my job, I generally use courtesy titles such as mister or miss unless the subject tells me it’s OK to use their first name. I don’t want to be overly familiar with people unless I’ve given permission to be less formal. (That said, my stories follow Associated Press style where the courtesy titles are omitted in most situations.)

That sort of came to bite me on the rear about a month ago as I was leaving a karaoke night at Paxton Pub in Salt Lake City. While I was walking outside to my car, I said good night to a younger woman on the patio.

“Good night, sir,” she said, or something like that.

Suddenly, I felt positively ancient.

I’m not used to being called “sir.” That applies in nearly all contexts, but especially in a social situation like a karaoke night. At the same time, I must acknowledge that I’m among the older people at such events these days.

I wondered if this was a feeling that my interview subjects had. After all, I’ve been using courtesy titles while conducting interviews throughout my professional career — including when I was the younger man.

While I’ve always strived to be professional, courteous and respectful, maybe people were put off by my use of courtesy titles.

I don’t think I’m going to change my practice. I just hope that it properly conveys the respect and professionalism that I’m working toward.

And when I’m on the other side of such honorifics, I hope I have the grace to casually wave it off and politely say that it’s totally fine to call me Ryan.

My Spotify Unwrapped for 2023 is a bit odd

With 2023 rapidly receding in the rearview mirror, it’s time to look back at the previous 12 months — or 11 months, in the case of Spotify’s 2023 Unwrapped. This is the first year that I really started using Spotify for much of my listening (in addition to BBC Sounds and the good old-fashioned over-the-air radio).

My Spotify Unwrapped has always been odd, but in past years, I could usually chalk it up to listening to a handful of songs sporadically over a year. Given that I was in the top 27% of listeners worldwide with 12,978 minutes worth of music in 2023 (and probably 14 hours of ads), I guess that Spotify may have a better finger on my listening tastes today than in years past.

And the verdict is — my listening tastes are still pretty weird. I seem to have settled on a couple of playlists and listened the heck out of them for months at a time.

My most-listened-to artist — a novelty a cappella group called The Blanks — is largely due to the fact that they’re on two separate playlists — a previous Top Songs list and a playlist I’m calling “Songs for the End.” Considering that The Blanks are primarily known for singing versions of TV theme songs and were most prominently featured on the sitcom “Scrubs” (where their most prominent performer, the late Sam Lloyd, was a recurring cast member) it’s an unusual artist to be my No. 1 of 2023. I apparently listened to the group so much, I’m in the top 0.05% of listeners to the artist.

A chart from Spotify 2023 Unwrapped shows when I listened to The Blanks, apparently my No. 1 artist of the year.

This year, Spotify provided charts mapping when I listened to each of my top five artists. While some of the artists were in pretty heavy rotation until the early summer when I switched away from a Top Songs playlist, The Blanks dipped a little in the middle of the year and then came back strong in July through September (when I created the “Songs for the End” playlist and began listening to a Top Songs playlist that didn’t feature the group as much).

‘Songs for the end’

The “Songs for the End” playlist are tunes that I thought would be nice to play at a memorial or funeral for me. Although I’m a journalist, I never had to do the Kobayashi Maru of journalism school projects — writing your own obituary.

I don’t feel particularly comfortable writing my obit today (despite winning the Nobel Peace Prize AND colonizing the Moon), but I believe that developing a playlist for a funeral is fun — memorial services need more bangers and jams. Another name I came up for the playlist is “Now THAT’S What I Call A Funeral, Vol. 7.” I’m not going to lie — I spent a few minutes trying to find a quick way to generate an album cover with that title.

As I starting adding tunes to this list, I prioritized songs that either speak of endings, would fit a spiritual or solemn moment (or tweaks such expectations), or otherwise speak to me from my past or memory. For example, I would often sing “Africa” or “It’s the End of the World as We Know it (and I Feel Fine)” to finish karaoke nights. The REM song feels a little out of place, but I’m sticking with it for now. I also opted for a cover of “Africa” that’s not as rockin’ as the Toto version.

I eventually started listening to the playlist more at work because the songs are pretty decent tunes to have on in the background while I’m trying to focus. That’s also why I started listening to BBC Radio 1 Relax a lot more over the past year (except some of the white noise programs, which are simply too distracting).

Ultimately, four out of my top five songs are from the “Songs for the End” playlist. The other song is the main theme from the Apple TV+ series “Severance,” which I watched the heck out of this year. One of the episodes is called “Defiant Jazz” — I pretty much _have_ to watch this show.

Odd conclusions

A Spotify Unwrapped graphic describing the author as a "vampire" in 2023 due to a propensity to listen to emotional, atmospheric music more than most.

A Spotify Unwrapped graphic describing the author as a “vampire” in 2023 due to a propensity to listen to emotional, atmospheric music more than most.

While Unwrapped is all in good fun, I’m not sure I agree with some of the conclusions. For example, it described me as a “vampire” because I listen to “emotional, atmospheric music more than most.”

I get that part, but I don’t necessarily make the leap between that and “vampire.” It’s especially odd because Unwrapped identified “My Top Genres” as Rock, Brass Band, Jazz, Jazz Funk and Soul. I listen to so much jazz, it’s on the list three, maybe four, times.

Maybe part of my objection is that I associate vampires musically with emo. It’s probably not fair, but I don’t necessarily feel like I fall in that category (although I also suppose that emo as a genre or vibe could be expanded to encompass many, many things). 

As I listen to music while I work, I definitely tend towards more mellow tunes to set a pleasant foundation for me to get stuff done. Over the years, I’ve been in workplaces that sometimes play rock stations on the radio. I’ve found it incredibly distracting if I’m trying to focus (unless I’m playing marching band covers of rock songs — I’m oddly OK with that).

What’s missing

As I mentioned at the top of the post, this is really the first year that I’ve listened to Spotify with any regularity. At the same time, I still do listen to radio stations — either over the air or streaming.

When I’m driving to work, I bounce between terrestrial stations like X96 or Power 949 because it’s often easier than making sure Spotify launches correctly. I used to listen to podcasts or news on public radio, but I haven’t been in the mood lately.

I sometimes listen to YouTube Music, as that’s where my music archive is saved. However, I’ve found that YouTube Music is a more frustrating experience than its predecessor, Google Play Music, so I don’t linger very long. It’s OK to listen to my own music, but YouTube throws an ad between every song elsewhere on the site. It’s unpleasant.

At work, I bounce between Spotify and BBC Radio 1 Relax because it’s pretty chill. After discovering that I can connect Shazam to Spotify, I’ve (mostly) enjoyed listening to the nearly 5 hours of songs that piqued my curiosity in the wild.

I used to listen to the “Hearts of Space,” but the distributor changed something up on its site and it isn’t easily available to me (unless I want to pay for it).

When I wind down for the night, I often queue up KUVO Jazz from Denver, KSDS Jazz 88 from San Diego, or “NIghtstream” from CBC Music (“Whatever gets you through the night.”). After I turn out the lights, I put KBYU Classical 89 on a sleep timer for the best way to end the day.

While I appreciate Spotify’s access to scads of music, I do find myself often sticking to one or two playlists (which, again, explains how The Blanks is my most listened-to artist of 2023). Many people decry over-the-air radio stations and their narrow playlists, but I find that these stations point me down different paths than I would normally travel. I appreciate the variety, which I guess explains why I bounce from station to station and different services over the course of the day.

I don’t feel as connected to music as I did when I hosted a jazz program on public radio, but it’s heartening to look back at some of the things I’ve listened to in 2023 and realize that music is still very much a part of my life. Here’s to the great songs that will be added to my 2024 playlist.