The Album List: #75 Green Day “American Idiot”

My beloved best friend Rose and I have an ongoing disagreement about two things. The Sex Pistols and Green Day. I think the Sex Pistols are nothing but a precursor of New Kids on the Block and the Backstreet Boys, a manufactured boy band disguised as punk rock to make the most of a genre that was hot at the time. She loves them. On the other hand, she thinks Green Day are the bane of all punk rock. I love her, but I think Blink 182 gets that title.  I love Green Day, by the way, and I always have. They scored their first hit single with a song about wanking while watching crappy day time TV. How can that not be the greatest coup in music history?

As great as Green Day were in the 90s, they showed a surprising maturity with the 2004 masterpiece, American Idiot. Released in the wake of the U.S. presidential election, three years after 9/11, to a nation afraid to say anything remotely polarizing, it was surprising it even sold as well as it did. I bought it as a cathartic experience- my Canadian socialis core felt crushed by fear, which was sold so well by the military industrial complex and their cronies.  What I got was so much more. It was precisely what I was thinking and feeling in 2004. And it’s precisely what I feel now in 2011. The faces may change, but the game is still the same.

It’s an ambitious album, and I admire it a lot for it. But it has the benefit of being a compelling collection of songs. The band took musical risks that were unexpected, or built upon styles that were explored in their previous albums, Warning and Nimrod. It has moments of quietness that are beautiful, and moments of rage that are inspiring. It’s a perfect balance of revolution and acceptance. It’s magnificent.

Take the title track, a ferocious three minutes of loud guitars and swearing, with some clever lyrical choices ( “All across the alienation” and “Subliminal mind fuck” are now two everyday phrases in my life). Billie Joe Armstrong rails against the fact that Americans seem proud of their ignorance and paranoia, as if it somehow makes for a superior nation, and accuses the media of capitulating to the government line instead of doing their job as the fourth estate and actually finding the truth. It’s all about propaganda and idiocy. It’s a nightmare vision. Too bad it’s a myth that isn’t being shattered.

The magical and epic “Jesus of Suburbia”, a five piece movement of punk rock and melodic brilliance. It’s the complex story of the album’s protagonist, who relays the tale of his broken home childhood and decadent lifestyle, the product of a generation raised with television babysitters and Ritalin. The movements flow beautifully without being sharply different from each other. It’s a cohesive piece of punk rock art.

The one-two punch of the classic punk rock strains of “Holiday” merging with introspective and mournful “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams” is beautiful. “Holiday”‘s seething about Americans military industrial complex, media co-operation with the propaganda, and self-absorbed world view remains a highlight of the band’s career. It is dwarfed, though, by the sheer beauty and naked emotional honesty of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”, a song that speaks to the isolation of modern Americans.

The memorable and incredibly sad “Wake Me Up When September Ends”, written about Billie Joe Armstrong’s father, but speaking volumes for those who lost loved ones in the wake of September 11, is the closest thing to a hymn to come out of punk rock. The song’s theme of loss of innocence and loss of a loved one hit me hard when I first heard it, and it remains a song I have difficulty listening to. The loss of my mother remains a fresh wound, and the song remains a reminder of the pain I felt and continue to feel.

The album is littered with punk gems like “St Jimmy”, “She’s a Rebel”, and “Letterbomb”, mixed in with lovely moments like “Are We the Waiting”and “Whatsername”, and the second epic song cycle “Homecoming” ( another five-part masterpiece). As a whole, it’s a cohesive piece, if not perfectly executed, then at least expertly done.  The fact that it translated so well to the Broadway stage ( with extra tunes from the follow-up Green Day album , 21st Century Breakdown) means that the complaints of its themes and music being a little scattershot were probably due to the lack of exposition the album has. The story is clear, but it’s not linked on the record itself, just in the interviews done afterwards by the band.  It’s the only failure of the record, the lack of story linking the songs together, but it makes so much more sense in the theatre.

The band’s ambition remains unabated, as the epic and excellent 21st Century Breakdown proves, as well as the Tony-nominated American Idiot Broadway show, and the new rumours of Tom Hanks wanting to produce the film version of the show. Yes, it’s the corporatization of punk rock gone mad. But with a song cycle this fantastic, I want the entire world to hear it.


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