Hype Hype Hooray is a biweekly “critique” of the music scene and the blogosphere that feeds it, told through the lens of Jamie Hale, a journalist who likes music about as much as he likes scotch and a firm leather chair. Please enjoy with a grain of salt.
Last May I finally sat down and listened to Thriller. It was an eye-opening experience that gave me a newfound respect for Michael Jackson and ’80s pop as a whole. In the comments, Cars Simplified asked whether somebody would ever do a similar treatment of Green Day’s American Idiot, and wouldn’t you know it, that’s a fantastic idea.
I have a complicated relationship with American Idiot. I hate it more than most records of the ’00s, but I never actually sat down and listened to the thing. As a longtime Green Day fan, I worshipped everything from “At the Library” to “Ha Ha You’re Dead.” The first singles from American Idiot were like a dagger through my heart.
Since their inception, Green Day had always been more pop rock than punk rock, but their manic energy, subversive attitude and excellent songwriting had raised them above the sad fates of their pop-punk peers. Their potential, it seems, grew to such extraordinary heights that the band was lured to retool their sound motivated not by artistry, but by money. American Idiot was the sound of the band’s dignity collapsing, some grinning charlatan rising in its place, selling Green Day thongs and Billie Joe bobble heads.
But is it really fair to judge an entire band’s career by an album I never heard? To either change my stubborn mind or strengthen my opinions, I sat down on a cloudy weekday morning with two cups of coffee and American Idiot. The following are my notes on the six-time platinum, Grammy-award winning album of my nightmares.
The leadoff title track is fairly classic work for Green Day. The song is crisp and deliberate – a sort of hallmark for Armstrong’s crew – but it somehow sounds even more crisp and deliberate than before. It’s sort of nauseating. It really tries to hit you over the head with this anti-capitalism, anti-redneck political stance that seems hard to connect with now, nine years later and a full five years since a U.S. president provoked the ire of musicians.
“Jesus of Suburbia”
This is where Green Day’s songwriting takes an interesting left turn. After the second chorus, when you think we’re going right back to the verse, the guitars make room for a twinkling piano and quickly slip into an arena-rock pattern, punctuated by a fist-pumping chorus of “Hey!”s that quickly evolve into something else entirely.
It’s almost like a tour de Green Day, the band running through their punk rock beginnings, their radio pop turn, and a whole plethora of potential personalities. They’ve always had an identity crisis, and this is a brutally honest, and impressively mature admission.
It’s beautiful if you ignore the lyrics, which now introduce us to the hero of our story, Jesus of Suburbia. Our hero is a social isolate who hates his dumb suburban town, presumably because nobody gets him. My hope is that Jesus learns and grows into a thoughtful human being who sees value in different ways of life, but I won’t hold my breath.
Admittedly, I’ve always liked this song. It sets an anti-war message to a marching-orders rhythm, and plays out its anti-American sentiment with fist-pumping camaraderie. In one fell swoop it tears down the system and builds up a new one. It doesn’t leave us standing in the rubble with questions of “why” or “what now?” – at least not just yet. It’s anarchy for a generation that doesn’t really like making waves. In that sense, these ideas are only fantastical.
“Boulevard of Broken Dreams”
On this version of the album, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” is paired as one track with “Holiday,” offering a insightful afterthought to the ra-ra-protest anthem. The reverberating guitar echoing across the first half of the song is a great addition, as is the acoustic turn halfway through. All of that great work nearly goes by the wayside when at the end the song breaks into some cheap sweeping rock opera thing. This is Green Day getting cluttered, trying to fit too much concept into too small a space.
“Are We The Waiting”
This is where I really roll my eyes. This song has a simple message and that message is “Are we we are the waiting?” Huh? That’s not just something to ponder, go the lyrics, but something to scream. Life is so bad for Suburban Jesus, it seems, that he just can’t take it anymore. Despondent, he dreams of escaping to the city, where he can presumably become Jesus of the City and really make a difference in society. Until then, is he he is the waiting – or whatever.
Finally in the city, Jesus meets a guy named St. Jimmy, “the patron saint of denial.” He’s a snot-nosed punk kid, a characterization of Green Day’s origins who seems sort of out of place in the 21st century. Appropriately Green Day is bouncing back to their roots here, although Armstrong seems to be more concerned with crafting this character than with writing an interesting song.
“Give Me Novacaine”
Another track another frustrating switch in tempo. Here’s a classic Green Day B-side – a simple song about the simple desire to go numb to the world. It’s not explicitly said, but it seems to be strongly implied that Jesus is getting his first taste for opiates, in some fashion, from his new friend Jimmy. It’s a fine turn of emotion, one that doesn’t quite feel out of place, but still feels a little forced.
“She’s a Rebel”
The story gets a love interest with Whatshername, a “symbol of resistance,” who might just have caught Jesus’ eye. Musically Green Day isn’t doing anything different here. This is pretty much par for the course, but it’s hard to tell – Green Day is playing on a different course now, one where the main goal is to spout anti-religious, anti-American ideals through a hackneyed story about wayward youth. It struck me that this could be some kind of irony, but I’m not so sure I want to live in a future where punk rock songs about rebellion are actually ironic statements in support of apathy in the face of oppression.
“Extraordinary Girl” is pulled straight from Nine Lives-era Aerosmith, sitar and all. But Green Day’s choice to jump between that interesting style choice and the tried-and-true style of their own comes off as cowardly. I find myself waiting for them to jump headfirst into experimentation, only to find them grinning sheepishly and kicking at the ground, like they were just kidding around the whole time.
“Where have all the bastards gone?” wonders Armstrong. “Where have all the riots gone?” If American Idiot has a message in the undertone it’s this lamentation of the protest era. Wisely, the record tries to lead by example, rather than chastise the youth for their apathy. This brief moment of frustration is a nice moment of honesty.
“Wake Me Up When September Ends”
Remember when Green Day fans were white with anger at “Good Riddance”? If they had any energy left, they would be spitting at the wistful capstone of American Idiot. It’s really a very well-written song. It’s not particularly experimental for the band, but it finds them wholeheartedly embracing the big sound of popular rock.
“Twenty years has gone so fast” Armstrong croons. And while he speaks from the perspective of Jesus of Suburbia, it’s interesting to note that 2004 was nearly two decades after he and Mike Dirnt formed the humble beginnings of Green Day. At 32 upon the album’s release, Armstrong was no longer the pimple-faced punk who made Dookie, he was a grown adult reflecting on his past. If American Idiot is a tale of his troubled path through life, “Wake Me Up” is his moment of epiphany. “As my memory rests but never forgets what lost,” he says, leaving us to decide whether he’s lost innocence, purpose or the will to go on fighting and growing.
There’s something inherently youthful about punk. Rebellions are for the youth, who have the energy and resolve to take to the streets to fight for systematic change. Those who don’t burn out will slowly fade away, many returning to the life they know well – back to suburbia.
The massive opus once again employs quick stylistic jumps which include great distant bells, a wild saxophone and doo-wop backing vocals, all weaved into Green Day’s trademark style. Somewhere in here we’re also supposed to understand that Jesus of Suburbia is actually St. Jimmy, in some kind of metaphorical multi-personality plot twist. I didn’t pick up on it.
“Whatshername” thinks back to life in the city, to the girl he left behind. It’s a textbook song about what-could-bes and what-could-have-beens, but Jesus ultimately shakes off regret as “useless in my mind.” It’s a song about moving on and growing up and finding a comfortable place in the world to curl up and settle down.
Jesus, as well as Green Day, find that comfort in the places from which they came. They walk back into town with their heads held low, eyes peeking modestly back up to the life they tried to leave behind. They tell us they learned something big, something profound about humanity and society, but in the end they’re still grinning sheepishly and kicking at the ground, pimple-faced punks building houses in suburbia.
It’s not that American Idiot is a bad album. Some of the songwriting, particularly on the singles, is the best the band has ever done. It was an ambitious project that turned out to be massively successful for Green Day, relaunching their careers into a level of fame no one thought was still possible for them. But an album isn’t just about being well-made – there are very important intangibles at play.
For me, It all comes down to authenticity. I don’t want to just hear well-written songs, I want to respect the musicians behind them. What bothers me about American Idiot is the idea that these musicians are getting filthy rich with an album that decries the very philosophy behind their income. It was different when they made millions on songs about masturbation and insomnia – back then they were using the system and laughing at it. You can either be rich, apolitical punk musicians or poor political punk musicians. You can’t have it both ways and come out with a shred of authenticity. By finally giving in to that money-making sound, towards which they were always inching closer, not with a record of simple pop songs but with a pseudo-anti-American rock opera that at once decries and embraces our warmongering, profit-hungry, big-house-in-the-farmlands-buying society, Green Day became everything their punk aesthetic despises.
And with that I walk away from the band. I wish them all the best, but their music’s not made for me anymore.