Across the Alienation: Green Day’s ‘American Idiot’ at 15

A decade after Dookie, Mike, Tre and Billie Joe hit creative paydirt with pop’s last great rock opera

Green Day American Idiot, Reprise 2004

Ten years after the explosive success of Dookie in 1994, Green Day was in a creative slump. Each successive album had sold increasingly less. There were speculations that the band had lost their way, that their bratty punky-pop/poppy-punk act was getting old. The band had started work on an album provisionally entitled Cigarettes and Valentines, only for the master tapes to be stolen, forcing them to start from scratch.

Or so they said. The “master tapes were stolen” story always seemed a bit murky, especially as the band members began revising it, guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong suggesting to Q that perhaps the tapes were “mislaid,” and bassist Mike Dirnt telling Billboard that the masters were really erased from a computer drive, and that “We still have some burned CDs but those are not good enough to release” (they later said they’d recovered some “rough mixes” of the tracks). Perhaps it was simply that they’d decided they needed to make a clean break and create something entirely different.

There were inner band tensions to work out as well, with Armstrong, Dirnt and drummer Tré Cool going so far to make time to sit down together and thrash out all their old grievances. So it was fitting that American Idiot began not with a song by Armstrong, the band’s primary writer, but by Dirnt, who was alone in the studio one day waiting for the rest of the band to arrive. He passed the time by writing a jokey, feeling-sorry-for-myself number called “Nobody Likes You.” When Armstrong and Cool finally showed up, they were keen to knock out a quickie tune themselves, and before they knew it — boom! — Green Day had completed a nine-minute medley (“Homecoming”).

 

VIDEO: Green Day performing “Homecoming” on VH-1 Storytellers

And things progressed from there. Having thrown off any restraints, Green Day let their creativity wander wherever it wanted, tapping into the zeitgeist of those fraught Bush II years, the era of “Freedom Fries,” color-coded terrorism threat levels, and a war based on a lie with the American taxpayer left to pick up the tab. Grim days indeed, Armstrong had little patience with the accompanying rampant rah-rah patriotism that was meant to provide a soothing balm. “I know how Americans are often viewed by the rest of the world,” he told Kerrang! in 2004. “We’re seen as being dumb and arrogant, which is a pretty lousy combination. Americans talk about how their country is the best country in the world, which I something I don’t notice people in a lot of other countries doing.” In song, he distilled this sentiment to a succinct seven words: Don’t want to be an American Idiot.

American Idiot is seen as Green Day’s “political” album, though in fact only two songs have political themes: the title track and “Holiday.” And even then, the songs are not so much an attack on a particular administration, as a denunciation of an entire cultural climate, spelled out in “American Idiot” via words like “mania,” “hysteria,” “tension,” “alienation,” “propaganda,” and “paranoia.” The bitter “Holiday” mourns the high cost of war (the luckless souls who died “without a name”), as well as hypocrisy of progressives who sell out once they realize “the money’s on the other side.” Songs sadly relevant today as well.

A vague storyline ties the rest of the album together, a trawl through an urban wasteland populated by characters like the Jesus of Suburbia, St. Jimmy (or is St. Jimmy merely another aspect of Jesus’ personality…?), and Whatshername, which is how the album came to be called a rock opera. In this sense, American Idiot is also a coming-of-age story, a tale of a young man trying to learn who he is and find his place in the world, undergoing all the passion, fear, exuberance, and disappointment that such a journey entails.

Artwork for “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” single

You need music that’s bracing and bold to bring such a vivid story to life, and Green Day delivered there as well. Just compare the thin sound of the similarly themed “Minority” on the band’s previous album, Warning, to the enveloping, muscular attack of “American Idiot.” The video for the latter song is a straight forward performance piece, with minimal special effects; the band simply didn’t need them. And don’t forget that this is an album with not just one, but two nine-minute medleys (“Jesus of Suburbia” being the second), swirling together a history-of-rock mix of power pop, punk rock, hard rock, thrash rock, Beach Boys harmonies, Queen’s flamboyance, The Who’s anthemic power, and the unmitigated joy of rock ‘n’ roll.

Green Day even became ballad friendly, though thankfully neither “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” or “Wake Me Up When September Ends” ended up too mawkish or cloying (the fatal trap of the power ballad). The melancholy also matches the overall mood of the album, which closes with the dispiriting “Whatshername,” with our suburban Jesus left alone, facing an uncertain future. The album’s release marked a turning point for the band, as well. With American Idiot, they reinvented themselves, and began taking more chances, with all the highs and lows such risk entails (2009’s 21st Century Breakdown was another tour de force, but releasing the three albums over four months with ¡Uno!, ¡Dos!, and ¡Tré! in 2012 was perhaps not the best idea). Each generation thinks their experience of growing up is unique. But that intense period of heartbreak and hopefulness (“rage and love,” as Jesus of Suburbia would put it) is common to all. Green Day took those feelings, set them against a backdrop of current events, and came up with an album that turned out to be timeless.

 

AUDIO/VIDEO: Green Day’s American Idiot (full album)

Gillian G. Gaar

Seattle-based writer Gillian G. Gaar covers the arts, entertainment, and travel.

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