Review Summary: Iconic. Frighteningly familiar.
Eighteen years. That’s how long it’s been since I sat in my eighth grade social studies class, watching the World Trade Center towers crumble before my eyes following the most devastating attack to occur on United States soil since Pearl Harbor launched the United States’ involvement in World War II. I can still hear the echo of a classmate sitting a few chairs back yelling that a plane had just hit the Pentagon. This was before smart phones, so we all sat there – dumbfounded – watching the news as extremists laid siege to one important symbol of freedom after another, killing thousands in the process. I bet they attack the Liberty Bell next!
, a friend of mine dumbly quips. Middle schoolers are the real American idiots. However, it just goes to show how naïve our world view was at that age, in 2001, when we were conditioned to believe that America is untouchable, the very best, invulnerable
. If you want to talk about illusions shattering, 9/11 might as well have been the hammer drop to our collective glass ego; this blind hubris brought about by a lifetime of invincibility propaganda. That went out the window around the same time as the people leaping from the top several floors of those towers, choosing a quick death over a slow burn from within the unbearable heat of flame-engulfed steel.
was, indirectly, a byproduct of the September 11th attacks. My generation found itself asking more questions than ever before, especially in the years that followed. Nationalism became rampant, with an us or them
mentality. Personal freedoms were dismantled with haste in the name of national security. Many of us had friends or family members who were being shipped off to Iraq to fight for what my parents told me was freedom, but what felt more like the misplaced vengeance of a world power that was eager to flex its muscles but unsure of where to point the finger. There’s something about watching your country ardently reverse course on its longstanding mantras that forces you to grow up quickly. Everything was shifting – I could sense it, my classmates and teachers could feel it, and I’m sure my parents could as well. It was not just a turning point in American history, it was the fulcrum upon which the left and right began to pivot further and further apart; one side preaching security and isolation, the other vying for inclusion and acceptance regardless of the risk. It’s odd to now witness a nation that is possibly more divided than ever, with plenty of disillusioned teenagers nearing adulthood who weren’t even born in time to witness 9/11; unknowingly residing in the aftershocks of that horrid day.
Before today’s youth, living in a society where politics invade every aspect of one’s life down to the very music you are allowed
to listen to, there was me in eleventh grade – for the first time feeling the full weight and importance of a presidential election. My English and Social Studies classes were frequently the scenes of heated debates, which often devolved into shouting matches over Bush vs. Kerry
. It was the first time I remember feeling shamed for supporting one candidate over another, and quite frankly, I didn’t even know who I wanted to win. It was an identity crisis in which I felt insurmountable pressure to identify as either left or right, and then to push the virtues of that ideology within all aspects of my life. I imagine many people felt the same way if 2016 was their first election, as the level of vitriol between Republicans and Democrats was (and still is) at an all-time high. Enter American Idiot
, which became the soundtrack to all of the frustration, anger, and confusion that occurred between 2001 and 2004. The politicized elements of the record are more flash than substance, but the bleeding vulnerability at its core perfectly captures what it was like to endure one of the most tumultuous eras in American history, and then promptly vote on a candidate to lead the country from there. If you want to talk about disillusionment in pop culture and politics, American Idiot
was there long before Norman Fucking Rockwell
. To some extent, that makes American Idiot
a landmark record – whether you like the music that comes with it or not.
Of course, it helps that the album swelled with popularity. Not only was it Green Day’s most commercially successful album, selling over sixteen million albums worldwide, but it also felt like their most culturally relevant record. Say what you want about Dookie
’s impact on the punk rock scene – which was admittedly massive – but American Idiot
was the soundtrack to a sociopolitical movement. Some may scoff at the comparison, but I say our parents had their Vietnam protest albums, and we had American Idiot
. From a musical standpoint, American Idiot
is thrilling if fundamentally simple, so it doesn’t truly aspire to the standards or merits of the best protest albums of all time – but in terms of its far-reaching influence, it’s in the same conversation. Ask anyone in their late twenties or early thirties about American Idiot
, and they can at least tell you something
about it, even if it’s as simple as naming the artist behind the record. Out of that sample size, however, I’d be willing to wager that a larger percentage would go as far as to cite the record as a major influence in either their personal or musical maturation. For me it was both, as it sparked the courage to rebel against some of the rigid beliefs that had been passed down to me, while also expanding my musical scope beyond the likes of 70’s progressive/classic rock which – like those beliefs – had been grandfathered in as the only way to go. American Idiot
was an album just as much about turning the page as it was enduring the tension and panic of the time.
Coined as a punk-rock opera, American Idiot
only partially delivered on its ambitions. Nine minute multi-suite epics such as ‘Jesus of Suburbia’ and ‘Homecoming’ remain highwater marks in Green Day’s canon to this day, while more rudimentary pop-rock songs like ‘Extraordinary Girl’ have become less essential with time. The storyline has its bullseyes (the saga of St. Jimmy, a punk messiah) and its misses (the blurred lines between romance and politics). Certain political anthems succeed on their own merits (‘Holiday’ and the title track are particularly iconic), and ‘Whatsername’ might be the most heartbreaking love song in the band’s discography, but ultimately the concept collapses under its own weight. In a roundabout way, that’s what makes it perfect though – a messy album for messy times; one that reflects the cynicism, confusion, and pain of the children who witnessed 9/11 and its aftermath. American Idiot
offers no solution, it merely stews in its own apathy.
The best albums have a way of preserving themselves, and while American Idiot
is invariably tied to 9/11, the Bush administration, and the Iraq war, it’s had a way of coming full circle. Punk-rock is hardly the genre of choice to reach the masses anymore, which is why the torch must be passed – but the sociopolitical atmosphere in America feels all too familiar. For those who immersed themselves in American Idiot
back in 2004, there’s still plenty to be gained from listens in 2019 – and it feels relevant on a whole new level. For those who didn’t, or were too young, the album might best serve as historical documentation. This is what change sounded like in 2004. It’s the political turmoil of my
youth, wrapped in the hysteria of the most devastating terrorist attack in American history. It’s a reminder of what division sounds like, as one might reference the blatant presidential call-out on ‘Holiday’. The old school train of thought was being challenged by ideas of progression and evolution. If that doesn’t sound familiar, then it should
– which I suppose ultimately proves our lack of progress when it comes to uniting the nation. My parents failed after Vietnam, and if the 2016 election and its subsequent fallout is any referendum, then I’ve failed as well. Perhaps the up-and-coming generation can finally succeed. Maybe, as the album’s namesake suggests – and as an esteemed colleague of mine once wrote – concepts such as division and inequality will one day be viewed as primitive; an idiot’s concept. American Idiot
is indicative of that cycle, a pattern we’ll one day hopefully break.