American Idiot. Green Day.
2004, Reprise Records. Producer: Rob Cavallo and Green Day.
IN A NUTSHELL: American Idiot, by Green Day, is a punk rock opera, and the band offers up the variety of sounds and styles that an opera requires, all while keeping their punk attitude and spirit in place. Billie Joe Armstrong can write hooks and riffs in his sleep, and supported by Tre Cool’s frantic drums and Mike Dirnt’s bass and, especially, vocal harmonies, he creates songs I want to hear again and again – even if I don’t really understand the story. But that’s opera for you.
NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
Ah, politics. How I hate politics. I hate politics because I am, by nature, someone who wants to get along with people and who seeks to avoid conflict. If I can engage someone in conversation about music or books or movies or sports, I can generally steer things away from politics. This tactic reveals something about me that I’m not thrilled with, and that I’d like to improve, but that is true, nonetheless: I can be quite judgmental. I won’t judge you for the sports teams or books or movies or music you like (very much). I probably will judge you for your politics1. It’s a character flaw, and I am working on it and have learned to get past it.
I generally don’t write so directly about politics on this blog. And even though I have done so in the past, don’t worry – you can read this post without feeling the tut-tutting, scolding, finger-waving author on your shoulder, telling you what a lousy person you are because you disagree with him about tax law. You see, this post will not be about politics. It will be about political music.
I was a kid in the 70s, during and just after The Vietnam War, so I certainly was aware of political music from the time I was aware of music. I grew up in a very conservative area in Pennsylvania, and my family was conservative2, and so we just didn’t discuss the political nature or the situations that necessitated writing such songs as “For What It’s Worth” and “War” and “Get Together.” Most folks I knew liked the songs, ignored their messages, and mocked the hippies that sang them.
The vast majority of the political songs tended to come, politically-speaking, from the Left, where a long tradition of protest music wound its way from folk music into rock. There was at least one popular 60s political song from the Right (here’s a second version), but most musical conservative viewpoints came from Country Music, which my family hated, and so which I never listened to (although that’s changing). In the 70s, most “protest” songs (if you will) that commented on The Left came in the form of novelty songs like “The Streak” and “Junk Food Junkie” and “Disco Duck.”
Growing up, and even through high school and college, I disliked the lyrical content of most political songs (except the novelty songs, which I loved). At that time in my life I often disagreed with the lefty sentiments3, and I also felt uncomfortable that many of the songs seemed designed purely to piss off half the listeners. The ones I did appreciate were songs like “Fortunate Son,” by CCR, which seemed to have a message that everyone4 could get behind.
Also, by this point the 80s were in full swing, which was NOT an era of protest. The hippies had become yuppies, and coffee-achievers, and they put Deadhead stickers on their Cadillacs. Popular “protest” songs were now just cheesy pop songs in disguise. The real protest songs were unheard on radio, confined to sub-genres and underground styles. But by the end of the decade, the burgeoning and suddenly popular hip-hop scene brought back a healthy dose of the sounds of protest.
Throughout all this time I was happy that the protest songs had taken a backseat. I didn’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable. But in 1991, R.E.M. changed my perspective. I was watching that year’s MTV Music Awards and the band cleaned up for their video for “Losing My Religion.” With every win, singer Michael Stipe appeared onstage in a different t-shirt bearing a statement for a cause he supported: handgun control, rainforest conservation, safe sex, etc. I’d always been an R.E.M. fan, and in watching that show, I understood the desire for certain people to use their platform to raise awareness. Since then I’ve made peace with musical protest. Whether or not I agree with the sentiment5, I no longer feel uncomfortable that they’re putting it out there.
But despite my newfound acceptance of such efforts, the 90s weren’t exactly a hotbed of protest songs. The Gen-X/Slacker/Whatever era was in full swing, and detached indifference and woe-is-me angst were all the rage. Oh Well, whatever. Never mind. Also, mainstream hip-hop had pivoted away from violent (perhaps) protest to pure violence. The Lilith Fair era late in the decade could certainly be seen as a protest against a male-dominated music industry, but the music wasn’t uniformly dissent-rock6, and stuck mostly to the popular 90s personal-problems motifs.
Since that 1991 epiphany, I began to reconsider the nature of some of the music I’d loved my whole life: The Beatles, John Lennon, Pink Floyd, Lynrd Skynrd, The Rolling Stones, R.E.M. They’d all been political, at least in some points in their musical careers. Some of them were subtle in how they expressed it, some weren’t. But it’s only natural that most artists would feel compelled to put their beliefs and ideas and opinions into their art. It’s just, kind of, what they do. So I’m no longer put off by music with a message. Unless I think the song sucks.
Of all the acts who began hitting the charts in the early 90s, Green Day may have been the least expected to release a political statement album. Their breakout album, 1994’s Dookie, was terrific, but the songs focused on getting stoned, living in squalor and, well, getting stoned. But then again, they came from the East Bay DIY Punk scene which is inherently political, and they were always champions of social causes like gay rights.
Dookie was the first I’d heard of them, and I became a fan right away. Many of my friends dismissed them as a 70s punk ripoff band, and maybe they were, but their melodies and energy had me hooked. And even though they opened the door for a wave of bands ripping off bands who were ripping off bands who were ripping off 70s punk, I thought they were carving their own musical path. Through the 90s and early 00s they put out great records, including 2000’s excellent album Warning, which was, at times, almost a folk-rock album. My wife liked them, too, and for a while she took such an interest in front man and guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong that I took to calling him her boyfriend – a nickname I still use when I discuss him with her.
By the time 2004 rolled around, and W. was the USA’s figurehead7, I was ready for more Green Day music, and I was ready for an artistic expression of political outrage and resistance. However, I certainly didn’t expect I’d get both in one package: American Idiot. As with many Rock Operas and concept albums, the story in American Idiot doesn’t always hew exactly to the purported theme. In fact, a very conservative guy I worked with when it came out loved the album because the message was so muddled that he could listen and not even worry much about what he was singing along to8. Even the song “American Idiot” has a title that could describe anyone of any political viewpoint,
The album opens with the kind of catchy, simple guitar riff that singer/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong seems to write in his sleep. It’s straightforward, and drummer Tre Cool pounds a vicious beat throughout, and changes things up when they need it, like about 1:09. Armstrong plays a catchy guitar solo, and things wrap up nicely. The lyrics bemoan the American media and how it fanned the flames of paranoia after 9/11. It’s an opening blast that can’t be ignored, but it also could’ve been part of any previous Green Day album.
“Jesus of Suburbia” follows, and it’s this 9-minute, 5-song suite, with its multi-part story of alienated teens, that lets Green Day fans know this won’t be a standard, smirking Green Day album.
Part 1, “Jesus of Suburbia,” opens with guitar fanfare, and once again Tre Cool keeps a cool beat. I’ve always thought one of the secret weapons of the band was bassist Mike Dirnt’s playing and harmony vocals. He’s one in a long line of terrific harmony-singing bassists: Paul (of course), Michael Anthony, Randy Meisner, Mike Mills. The album doesn’t feature his playing as much as some previous records, but he provides the backing “Oooohs” and “Aaaaahs” and they sound great.
The song transitions to part 2, “City of the Damned,” nicely at 2 minutes with some piano flourishes. The chorus is catchy, and the shout-along background vocals provide some oomph. The dynamics shift between chorus and verse, then remain loud for part 3, “I Don’t Care.” It includes a fanfare, and, at 4:31, a violent, crunching litany of complaints, then finishes with a hooting “I Don’t Care!” At this point, I always think, “man! That song was awesome!!” Then the terrific part 4, “Dearly Beloved” begins, and I’m a bit more astonished.
It’s a bouncy, folky song with glockenspiel and more Mike Dirnt harmonies. Folks on YouTube, commenting on the video version of this song, say “Jesus of Suburbia” reminds them of a “punk ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.'” I guess I could see that. Especially as part 5, “Tales of Another Broken Home,” plays. It’s an operatic song that really stands on its own. Excellent syncopated drums at 7:00, to begin the pre-chorus, and the continued harmonies, have me singing along whenever I listen. The guitar solo, about 7:55, starts very simply, then moves to a cool riff. The final bit of the song, with soft piano and vocals building to the end, is quite satisfying. The first time I heard this 9-minute opus, I thought, “Holy shit.” And I still think it whenever I hear it!
Even the songs that aren’t part of named suites often run together, for example “Holiday” and “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” both of which hit the pop charts, with the latter being Green Day’s biggest commercial hit ever.
“Holiday” is another political song, and this time it connects and captures some of what it felt like in the early 00s to question a war that today has been proven to have been based upon lies. It’s got the classic Green Day/Armstrong riff and melody. The spoken word portion is great, and the refrain “Just cause,” which was a term thrown around quite a bit back in the day, is used to great effect. But it’s the melody, the riff, and the drums that I love.
“Boulevard of Broken Dreams” is one of those songs that just stays with you. I don’t know if it’s something about the chord pattern, or the sounds, or the sad-sack lyrics to which anyone who’s had a bad day can relate. This is a song that Dirnt’s harmonies really shine on, and the little touches of piano and a constant feeling of swelling help make it resonate. The outro riff (7:30 in the video above) sounds like Classic Rock 101, reminiscent of The Beatles “She’s So Heavy,” which is perfectly fine by me.
“Are We the Waiting” is a power-ballad of a song, without the mushy love of those 80s power-ballads. It’s got cool girl-group drums and a nice arpeggiated guitar line. The song is one of a few on the album with shout-along lyrics designed especially to connect with angsty teens (and adults who remember being angsty teens!) I’m not sure who the Jesus of Suburbia is, even after listening to this record a million times, but when Billie Joe sings that the Jesus of Suburbia is a lie, the 15-year old in me knows just what he means. And the disgust he feels gets him ready to bang his head right along to “St. Jimmy,” a song about a character in the story. It’s an aggressive punk song, with great drum fills as it changes (4:40) to a Beach Boys-esque number.
At this point in the American Idiot story, I’m not too concerned about whether it’s a cohesive narrative. I’ve decided to just enjoy it. “Give Me Novocaine” and “She’s a Rebel” continue the slow song about sadness/fast song about wild abandon pattern that’s been established. “Extraordinary Girl” is straightforward pop about a girl, with terrific harmony vocals. Then comes one of my favorites on the record, “Letterbomb.”
I like the tinny guitar that opens it, and the energy and melody. I like the guitar line throughout, and (of course) the harmony vocals. But what I most love, as a Cheap Trick fan since middle school, is how Green Day cribs a bit of the melody from Cheap Trick’s “She’s Tight.” The lyrics involve a part of the story where (I think) a realization is made and someone leaves town.
It sets up one of Green Day’s biggest hits, the song of loss (written for Billie Joe’s father, who died of cancer when he was 10) “Wake Me Up When September Ends.” Much like the bands 90s hit “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” this is a song that many punk diehards will detest out-of-hand, despite the thumping choruses. However, it is a testament to the band’s range and power. And it’s understandable why the song became so important to so many non-punks.
After all this, the band still has time for one more epic, multi-part suite that tells the end of the story, and – shockingly – sends the band into near prog-rock territory! It’s the formidable (and somewhat exhausting?) “Homecoming.”
It starts with distorted vocals and guitar on “The Death of St. Jimmy,” and “East 12th St.,” and in both, the band recapitulates all that’s come before: melody, harmonies, cool drums, Beach Boy oohs, shout-along lyrics. “Nobody Likes You” repeats the melody of “Letterbomb,” and “Rock and Roll Girlfriend” gives drummer Tre Cool a few seconds at the mic. By the time “We’re Coming Home Again” ends – with tympani, chimes and as much pomp as punk can muster – I’m reminded of Abbey Road‘s side two medley. I reach the end of American Idiot feeling like I just experienced something great.
And it finishes with a perfect album closer, “Whatsername.”
Despite its dance-beat opening, there’s a kind of sadness, a finality to the song. It’s about an old girlfriend who’s left, a character in the opera named Whatsername. I hear something Westerbergian (songwriter from The Replacements) in the song – a sense of trying to seem fine despite the pain. The harmonies at 2:36 often bring chills to me, and after Armstrong’s last verse the song ends suddenly, which somehow seems fitting after 20 songs of so much drama. “Whatsername” feels like the coda the album needed.
I don’t like discussing politics. I do like discussing music. What’s great about American Idiot, and most of the political or protest songs that I’ve loved, is that you don’t have to agree, or even care, about the themes and statements to appreciate the music. Maybe I’m an American Idiot for saying this, but I think American Idiot is an incredible record no matter what your political beliefs may be.
“Jesus of Suburbia”
~~i. “Jesus of Suburbia”
~~ii.”City of the Damned”
~~iii. “I Don’t Care”
~~iv. “Dearly Beloved”
~~v. “Tales of Another Broken Home”
“Boulevard of Broken Dreams”
“Are We the Waiting”
“Give Me Novocaine”
“She’s a Rebel”
“Wake Me Up When September Ends”
~~i. “The Death of St. Jimmy”
~~ii. “East 12th St.”
~~iii. “Nobody Likes You”
~~iv. “Rock and Roll Girlfriend”
~~v. “We’re Coming Home Again”