In the summer of 2004, I read an article that was previewing what would become American Idiot. It stated that Green Day were working on a rock opera about the state of the nation. One song, the article said, was about 10 minutes long and would contain multiple sections. At the time, it seemed quite ridiculous. Green Day, was after all a band that sang about masturbating and smoking weed. And who knows, maybethey sang about doing both of those activities at the same time. Green Day were a good band, a fun band. Billie Joe Armstrong might have borrowed Joe Strummer’s snarl (and occasionally the accent), St. Joe he was not. During a drunken night, I told one of my friends about the alleged 10 minute song I read about in the article. “Shut the fuck up, Matt,” He told me with a bit of disdain. “Next, ever speak of this again.” Afterall, who would want to listen to Green Day’s thought on the state of the nation?
As it turned out, Green Day would prove the skeptics wrong. American Idiot, would end up becoming one of the defining albums of the era in part because many of its song were protests against the War In Iraq. While there plenty of artists making statements and complaining about the war, they seemed to be few and far between. And it wasn’t just the Dixie Chicks who got some shit. Dozens of fans walked on a Pearl Jam concert in 2003 when Eddie Vedder sang the anti-Bush song, “Bushleaguer”. If artists were speaking out against the war, they certainly weren’t doing it on the radio. Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief didn’t receive much play, Neil Young’s Greendale only spoke to his devoted fans, and Conor Oberst was too much of a niche artist at the time to make any impact. But when “American Idiot” came blaring on the radio in the summer of 2004, it suddenly became clear that Green Day were no longer trying to be The Clash. They were The Clash for this generation. When Armstrong suggested that ” Everybody do the propaganda and sing along to the age of paranoia” it was a rallying cry to wake people up. And if the lyrics didn’t cover that ground, the sonic assault of the song was just as arresting.
While many of the songs are a protest agains the War in Iraq, making no pretense about the band’s stance, it’s also much more than that. In a decade where everything seemed to teeter out of control from every direction. “Hey can you hear the hysteria?” Armstrong asks. But then he takes it one step further – “The subliminal mind-fuck, America.” Somehow Green Day managed to tap into the cultural zeitgeist – a fusion of anger and disillusionment. It was an era where many seemed destined to “fall in love or fall in debt” .
Of course, Armstrong’s instincts and intentions would mean as much if the songs on American Idiot weren’t good. The aforementioned 10 minute song, “Jesus of Suburbia” combined punk and elements of prog-rock. Amazingly the 5 pieces of the songs fit together perfectly, and the result became of the band’s best songs. “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” with that weird feed-back loop managed to be the successful song on the album. The band managed to cover a lot of ground, without missing a step. The lyrics may have the focal point of the album, but their content also never got in the way of a good rock song. Which American Idiot was full off.
American Idiot brought back some of the spirit of the 60s and 70s – when music actually meant something, that it could be a catalyst for change. If a group that previously known for being dumbass stoners ends up releasing the album that best sums up what it was like to live in the mid 2000s, I’m not sure whether Green Day deserve even more credit than they already have, or if I should point a shameful finger at others for not stepping up.
(And for those who might suggest I’m only basing this off of one album, The Sex Pistols only had one album as well.)