Review Summary: Despite all the odds, a definitive album.
There’s a reason that pop bands tend to write only of love and heartbreak: if they try to write about anything else, there is generally a lack of credibility apparent that surprises no one. Such songs are generally less marketable to boot, although there are exceptions. Take, for example, Good Charlotte’s “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” released as the first single from The Young and the Hopeless
in 2003, when a band like Good Charlotte could still get a large amount of television play. Of the album’s four singles – including the pandering, saccharine “Hold On” – it was the most popular, even though, first, it wasn’t a very good song, and second, the band failed in their attempt to highlight the ridiculousness of celebrity life because the song was the same radio-pop sugar that was the direct result of the very society they were maligning. It also mostly failed at being tongue-in-cheek; it was bizarre to hear a couple of kids who named their pit-bull Ca$hdogg lampoon celebrities for their love of money, and the capping line, “Think we should rob them,” only furthered their cultivated image of punk kids, and not in a good way. It seems then that one can’t necessarily fault pop bands for writing about the same things over and over – it is, at least, what they know about, and many times they come off more sincere than the ones who try their hands at societal criticism.
Green Day’s American Idiot
is, somehow, an exception to that exception. It is an album that is, most importantly, genuinely great, and also manages to accurately convey the feeling of the American 2000s. People will point to the politicized aspects of the album to highlight such statements, but those aspects are fairly anomalous on a record that is, for the most part, about the pain birthed when nationalism isn’t earned by its target country. For that reason, the album is also incredibly tactful, despite its blunt title. The verbal witch-hunt that the Dixie Chicks faced in 2003 when they announced to a British audience that they were against the war and “ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas” was avoided by Green Day at a time when even the slightest whiff of supposed anti-Americanism was decried at every turn (President Bush’s response was uncharacteristically smooth and clever, allowing that the Chicks were free to speak their opinion in America, “in stark contrast to Iraq,” a Nixonian getting back to the “real” issues at hand, be it the threat of Communism or a false war). For all its operatic swagger, American Idiot
is vulnerable, afraid. It is an album that remembers the Watts riots, that remembers Klansmen painting “NEVER” on campaign billboards for politicians supportive of civil rights, that remembers the Red-baiting ‘50s. Remembers and does not want its country to go through such things again.
The band was, admittedly, an unlikely source for an album like that. Although they were rightly considered the harbingers of punk’s shift toward pop in the mid-‘90s, they were also the harbingers of the natural progression that all pop bands seem to go through – from pop that was, if not incendiary, then at least memorable, to a softer alternative rock that was purportedly more mature but mostly just boring. American Idiot
, released in 2004, was Green Day’s first album since 2000’s decent but underwhelming Warning
(besides two seemingly ominous compilation albums), and four years is a long time for a pop band to go without recording. Or perhaps it was the perfect move: pop’s audience is a fickle one, but it is also always up for a comeback, for heavyweights-turned-beleaguered-has-beens to shake things up. It was in an American landscape that harbored discontent underneath an idyllic consensus that Green Day did just that.
The thing about American Idiot
is that it almost doesn’t work as a cohesive album. For a supposed rock opera, there seems to be little consistency from song to song. Listening in order, one hears the raucous, placeholder-seeming “She’s a Rebel” following the slow cry for numbness that is “Give Me Novocaine.” There are times when the album seems haphazard, confused even. But taking a step back and seeing the whole picture does wonders. The stunned search of the American people for clarity within this decade begins to take shape in these songs. “Wake Me Up When September Ends” seems, at first, like a generic ballad of the type that helped make Green Day famous, but there is such a primal, monumental pain delineated by the song, putting into words what so many felt foolish for thinking, to be put to sleep until someone has figured out what’s happening and made the hurting stop. It is obvious in the best sort of way, in that it is necessarily blunt to combat a complex time when no one knew what to feel.
Sometimes the album disappears inside its own concept. Songs like “She’s a Rebel” and “Extraordinary Girl” seek to plant the album back into its narrative and the album suffers for it. But Green Day’s tale of love in a messed-up time, though it has missteps, makes the album more endearing. It tells of a love that ultimately fails because
of the time in which it takes place, because sometimes the world we have built does not cultivate happy endings. But the St. Jimmy narrative is largely wonderful even if the image of a punk messiah was made generic long before Green Day employed it. Here then is the “Jesus of Suburbia,” a skinny, tattooed freak looking to save someone, anyone, but too damaged to do anything but fail. It is the definition of American Idiot
, and at the end of St. Jimmy’s titular song, when Billie Joe Armstrong yells, “…and don’t wear it out!” there is a desperation beneath the bravado, an unspoken but implicit “please.” It is a perfect complement to the expertly phrased (and “screamed”) chorus in the preceding song: “We are the waiting.”
That the album is musically accomplished is a testament to the band’s collective older age (so-called “three-chord rock” has never sounded so dynamic and fresh); that the lyrics are similarly accomplished is not. As a band, Green Day appeals to younger people, and perhaps it is that appeal that allowed them to so tenderly guide a younger generation into acceptance of their flawed but beautiful country, to become who they are in the shadow of a land that sometimes causes them pain and seems to work against its own interests. Through all the smoke and mirrors of overlong music videos, excessive airplay, and Broadway adaptations, American Idiot
manages, in spite of itself, to be both timeless and wonderfully of its time. Surprising as it is, a band named after a day during which one does nothing but smoke marijuana created the modern American album, warts and all, highlighting our fear, our rage, and most of all, the pain that we feel in "the spaces between insane and insecure," which we all at some point occupy. American Idiot
knows that America sometimes isn’t all that great, perhaps never even was, but that it could be, maybe, years from now when inequality is forever ago and barely remembered, an idiot’s concept.