Dusting 'Em Off
Revisiting an album, a film, or an event on its anniversary

Green Day’s American Idiot Turns 10

on September 21, 2014, 1:00pm

Ryan Bray (RB): Think back to September 2004. W’s first term was rapidly coming to a close, while the fight for the White House was reaching fever pitch. Between a hotly contested presidential election and two hopelessly gridlocked wars, it really felt like the world was living in a pressure cooker there for a bit. There was a potent mix of fear, frustration, anger, and excitement in the air. Emotions were running pretty damned high.

Out in the East Bay, Green Day sensed how fucked up things were. They saw the country unraveling feverishly into red states and blue states, conservatives and liberals. They saw the world around them cowering in paranoia and fear, struggling to come to grips with the post-9/11 world. Certainly, they weren’t the only band in the world that saw the dangerous sea changes. It’s just that they were the perfect band in the perfect place to call the world out on how much of a fucked-up place it had become.

Green Day have always been game for causing a ruckus. They built their name on it. Dookie, released 10 years earlier, found them proudly waving the flag for insolent but irresistibly catchy pop punk, but that was a rebellion of a whole different kind. Dookie was a celebration of all the dopey, teenage shit that drove kids crazy, but its targets were pretty simplistic: girls, drugs, struggling to find your place in life as a kid. After a few records, though, the band was getting too old to revel in their teen angst, and by the time of 2000’s Warning, Green Day sounded like they were running on empty. If they were going to survive another 10 years, something had to change.

The change they so desperately needed came in the form of American Idiot, a bold, feisty concept record driven purely on sociopolitical rage and crazed ambition. While firing off political truth bombs is an act as old as punk rock itself, no other band had dared to go this big with their anti-authoritarian message. Punk rock might have been born and bred in the clubs, but American Idiot, for the first time, made punk rock the stuff of big, bombastic arena rock. Call it a matter of right time and right place, but Green Day sounded totally revitalized in their newfound megastar status. They were ready for the next decade and then some.

So with that, what do you guys think? What were your first impressions of American Idiot upon its initial release, and how does it strike you now. Has it held up? Waned?

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Collin Brennan (CB): I’d like to first challenge this notion that Warning was a failure on Green Day’s part or that it somehow represents a creative nadir in the band’s career. That certainly seems to be entrenched in the popular narrative, thanks to the album’s lackluster commercial performance and the band’s decision to drastically reinvent themselves (eyeliner and all) on American Idiot.

But when I listen to Warning, I hear a maturity — both creative and personal — that’s largely missing on its follow-up. Billie Joe Armstrong had grown from a proudly snot-nosed kid into a husband and parent, and he seemed anxious to own that transformation on Warning. It’s easy to see how longtime fans could be let down by Armstrong’s inward-turning approach — hell, even I remember thinking that “Waiting” and “Church on Sunday” were a little wimpy. Of course, I was probably a bit too pubescent to relate to the subject matter at the time.

american idiot booklet Green Days American Idiot Turns 10In light of my thoughts on Warning, I’m inclined to think of American Idiot and its arena-ready sound as a self-conscious step back (or at least a step to the side) rather than a leap into the next stratosphere. In any case, it can’t be argued that it marks the watershed moment in their career. The sprawling rock opera became their calling card, contemporary political issues began to crowd their lyric sheet, and Armstrong’s freshly straightened hair and freshly scuffed-up wardrobe somehow made him look a full 10 years younger. This certainly counts as a “revitalization,” though it came at the expense of the no-frills honesty I always loved about this band.

Look: I am myself a product of the Bay Area/California punk scene, and as such I’m one of the bigger Green Day apologists you’ll find. Though I was initially let down by American Idiot, I can relisten to it and pick out songs that really do stand the (relatively short) test of time. The title track hews way too closely to the opening riff of Dillinger Four’s “Doublewhiskeycokenoice”, but “Jesus of Suburbia” remains compelling throughout, which is no small feat for a nine-minute pop punk song.

I think the album stumbles most on power ballads such as “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and “Wake Me Up When September Ends”, both of which ring hollow compared to a song like, say, “Macy’s Day Parade”. But I’m willing to hear an argument for either of those tracks, and hopefully one that isn’t pinned to their rock-radio ubiquity.

Dusty Henry (DH): I came to American Idiot with a bit of a blank slate. I was only 14 at the time and still exploring what punk was all about. I didn’t realize, at the time, what Green Day’s history was or how divisive this album would be for die-hard fans. So, once I finally moved on to Green Day’s back catalog (by way of International Super Hits), I grew ashamed for American Idiot being my gateway to the band and was embarrassed for liking it so much. I spent a good amount of effort in the years following trying to cover up my sentiments about the album, lying to myself along the way.

I’ve grown up over the decade and can now truthfully say I love this record for all of its flaws and cheese. Admittedly, it’s in large part due to nostalgia, and the jury’s still out about if it measures up to Dookie or even Nimrod. But for a 14-year-old kid living in the conservative suburbs, this album was pivotal. It was the first time I can remember ever discussing politics with my friends and finding out we didn’t agree at all. The album was pervasive in that way. I can remember drawing the heart grenade all over my binders. Classmates who loved to joke about John Kerry’s purple hearts would also blast “Holiday” in the school parking lot, seemingly oblivious to what it was talking about. It’s a testament to the juggernaut that Green Day had become, as well as their catchy songwriting.

Sure, Armstrong’s political views are a bit in your face at times and often ill-voiced. But it felt like they were at least trying to say something at a time when a lot of people had similar frustrations. It was an outlet. But it’s a theme that doesn’t carry over so well a decade later. For those of us who can remember the public backlash and debate to Bush understand where it’s coming from, but I wonder if today’s high schoolers really “get it.” Songs like the title track and “Holiday” are so specific that they blatantly date themselves. It’s a time capsule of an era. Not just politically either. The power ballads Collin mentioned, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and “Wake Me Up When September Ends”, embody the early 2000s emo revival.

I feel like those tracks cemented the genre’s prevalence, as if Green Day was giving the stamp of approval to say, “You guys should listen to this type of music now.” “Jesus of Suburbia” is full of so much angst and edge that you’d almost have to be from the suburbs to appreciate it. I’m sure punks rolled their eyes at lines like “To fall in love and fall in debt/ To alcohol and cigarettes/ And Mary Jane to keep me insane/ Doing someone else’s cocaine,” but my Old Navy-wearing self ate that shit up. Having done none of those things, I could live vicariously through St. Jimmy’s rebellion. I really don’t feel like this album wasn’t made for people indoctrinated in the punk scene and the reception to it shows.

Side note: Remember the whole “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and “Wonderwall” debate? It was always more shocking to me that no one called out “Whatshername” for sounding nearly identical to The Wallflowers’ “One Headlight”.

CB: Good catch there. It’s also shocking that Green Day was never called out for aping Jawbreaker’s “Boxcar” on the verse to “She’s a Rebel”, as the two groups rose to prominence in the same Bay Area scene. All the same, I’m generally willing to let Armstrong off the hook when it comes to plagiarism; the guy has 20-plus years of evidence backing up his ability to write a pop song, and the genre we’re dealing with here doesn’t exactly prize originality, anyway.

You also bring up a valid point about American Idiot’s intended audience. I suppose I overlooked the fact that this album really was a lot of young people’s “first contact” moment with punk culture, and so it warrants appreciation as a gateway drug at the very least. Not everyone grew up with a subscription to Maximum Rock’n’Roll, and other prominent pop punk bands at the time (here’s looking at you, Blink-182) were basically building an entire worldview around skateboarding and goofing off.

Returning to one of Ryan’s initial points, it’s absolutely true that “something had to change” for Green Day in the early 2000s — at least if they were going to enjoy the same levels of success and relevance they were accustomed to. Regardless of my personal fondness for Warning, venturing further down that path wasn’t going to win back the fans who had moved on, nor was it going to cement Green Day’s place as genuine rock stars.

It seems as if they analyzed the environment and saw this new “mall-punk” scene that was growing in popularity but essentially vapid at its core. And so they decided to make a record within that framework that would at least fill that core with something substantial — if maybe a little silly.

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Dominick Mayer (DM): It was even more than American Idiot serving as a gateway for young punks. To return to Ryan’s point about the album’s Bush-era context for a moment, the punk revival came at a time when the previous generation of punks were trying to tell their kids and others alike about how terrible everything was becoming. That, coupled with the distressing post-9/11 return to traditional rhetorics (the bellwether of punk in virtually all of its boom periods), meant that Green Day found themselves in the rare position of being able to engender a new punk movement in pop culture.

And yeah, that meant an uptick in the general presence of eyeliner and empty activism, but I can say from personal experience that for a lot of suburban kids, American Idiot was a quick-and-easy introduction to liberal American politics circa 2004. Like Dusty said, it was those suburban kids who embraced it, because it was kind of like the film Crash in that it exposed an audience who’d never heard or seen these ideas enacted to an easily comprehensible template. For as much as I’m dissecting it here, I don’t entirely think that’s a bad thing.

Musically, while it’s often right in line with its third-wave emo contemporaries, the nine-minute epics that bookend the record say a lot about the appeal. (Again, for us suburbanites weaned on “Bohemian Rhapsody” and the noble works of Meatloaf, it was a natural transition.) Green Day weren’t merely trying to make a political statement, or profit from that political statement, or affect the career reinvention that everybody’s touched on thus far, in a vacuum. They were doing all of those things in the service of making their truly indelible classic. Don’t get me wrong, Dookie (and probably Insomniac as well) are among the great rock records of their decade. But American Idiot boldfaces that aspiration and underlines it in triplicate.

To some, that’s probably more than a little grating. But as I listen to the five-part suite “Homecoming” now, I’m reminded of how passionate and powerful the idea of sending my love a letterbomb to visit me in hell really was. And I’m sure a lot of people had that reaction at the time, and probably still would, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that there’s more than nostalgia at work here. It left an indelible impression, the exact one Green Day were trying to nail down.

RB: You guys are hitting nails straight on the head here. Personally, I look at Dookie and American Idiot as the two major pillars of the Green Day catalog, with the other records more or less circling around one or the other. They were people’s inroads to the band, pure and simple. I can speak first-hand of just how seismic a record Dookie was for kids growing up in 1994, and while I was almost through with college by the time American Idiot landed 10 years later, I can definitely see how that record might have had a similar impact on fans like Dusty who were coming around to the band for the first time. Yeah, some of their rallying cries might make your eyes roll at times, and maybe they tried a little to hard at times to be inflammatory (the way that Armstrong forcefully stress the “Faggot America” line on the title track still feels like a deliberate move to make everyone gasp with shock).

But to Dominick’s point, maybe American Idiot‘s value rested in the way it at least got kids thinking about world issues and politics, even if it took the shape and form of a concept record and arena rock show. We live in an era where more than ever it’s important that kids understand what’s going on in the world beyond their fenced-in yards, and maybe this was Green Day’s way of doing their part to give kids the CliffsNotes.

DH: That’s the thing with American Idiot: everything is over-exaggerated to play up the absurdity of it all. Armstrong isn’t just talking about corruption in the government; he’s rallying against “a redneck agenda.” This isn’t just a concept album; it’s a “rock opera.” Even the title American Idiot is absurd. Everything is on this massive, fly-or-die scale. It’s what most social commentaries are made of. Sure, they totally built a straw man argument, but it got people talking.

Dominick is right in saying this was Green Day trying to forge their classic. And despite what people thought about it, it was a huge part of that decade. There’s so much imagery attached to it that has stuck with me over the years. The heart grenade, the green American flag in the “American Idiot” music video, and the black shirts with the red ties. People will still remember the impact the record had in another 10 years, not because it was a masterwork but because it represents a whole ideology – just like we remember acts from the Vietnam era like Buffalo Springfield.

As you’ve all mentioned, this was a turning point for the band. The success of American Idiot and their newfound audience ensured their relevance for a decade to come. I’d love to see statistics of how this album affected Hot Topic’s sales. The album really did feel like a movement. Myself and others wanted to dress like Armstrong, have grand, sweeping opinions, and thickly apply “guy-liner.” They were able to ride the wave and success of this album for a while, too. There’s a longer gap between American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown than between Warning and American Idiot (if we don’t count compilations and live albums).

It also established Green Day as now seeing themselves as a band of self-importance, in a way not dissimilar to U2 – all the more confirmed by the two bands’ joint cover of the Skids’ “The Saints Are Coming” in 2006. Post-American Idiot Green Day continued with a political streak and leaning toward grand-scale concept albums. They’re almost a completely different band than they were in the previous decade when they wrote those formative, slacker anthems. American Idiot really did change Green Day as the public knew them.

Green DayCB: And as they knew themselves. In the post-American Idiot era, Green Day pretty much transformed from an ambitious band to a band about ambition (we’ll call this “U2 Syndrome”). I’m mostly a fan of the individual songs on 21st Century Breakdown, and I maintain against all common sense and decency that Tre! is a damn listenable album all on its own, but it pains me that Green Day is stuck on this gear of too-much-is-never-enough. And it makes me wonder whether or not American Idiot was too successful.

Doesn’t it seem that everything they’ve done since has been an attempt to top or at least match that effort? Their most recent series (Uno!, Dos!, and Tre!) illustrates the problem with this approach. There’s one good, 12-song album in that sprawling mess, and if they had simply separated the wheat from the chaff, they might have ended up with with something special. I’m all for bands like Green Day evolving, but by trying to make every single thing they do an Event, they’ve painted themselves into a corner — albeit a corner that includes sold-out tours of Asia.

RB: I’m with you, Collin. It’s as if they’ve shifted a bit to hard in the other direction. I would have preferred American Idiot to be a one-off thing, one giant stab at something huge and sprawling, rather than watch the band’s overeager sense of ambition sputter out over the course of a handful of inconsistent efforts. Still, American Idiot proved that it wasn’t safe to count Green Day out, even if their critical and commercial star was fading. The band made huge strikes in 1994 and 2004, and part of me was waiting for the next semi-reinvention to come our way at some point in 2014, you know, just to keep things on a steady 10-year cycle. But I haven’t ruled them out. My hope is they have at least one more very good to great record in them. Perhaps a grassroots, back-to-basics record would to the trick. I wonder what Rob Cavallo is up to these days…

CB: Pretty sure he’s calling the shots over at Warner Bros., so I’m not holding my breath for a reunion. In any case, we’ve pretty much established that American Idiot ranks among Green Day’s most important and influential releases — second maybe only to Dookie. It’s fascinating how much our perspectives on this album differ depending on where (and when) we were in life when we first approached it. Personally, I have a difficult time separating the album from its less-than-thrilling legacy. If I could pull off those mental gymnastics, I suspect I’d appreciate it more for its own merits, which Dominick and Dusty have done a good job of elucidating. Any closing thoughts, guys?

DM: I’d say that trying to view it outside of its very specific place in both rock history and Green Day’s oevure is a fool’s errand, because it’s wholly linked to both of those. In addition to the whole U2 complex that Collin illustrated, a fair amount of top-40 punk luminaries of the time were all trying to branch out from what they thought to be the limitations of the genre in their later material. Look at My Chemical Romance, who around album No. 3 decided they’d rather be Queen than a hardcore-tinged goth punk band. Or Thrice or Between the Buried and Me or Thursday or any of the other bands whose sounds ultimately expanded beyond the understood parameters of the genre at the time. American Idiot remains by far the most recognizable of these experimental phases, and it’s stuck to increasingly diminished returns; Idiot is probably the last time that Green Day’s skill was equal to their vision.

But at a time when punk had broken big (again), there couldn’t have been a better social climate for American Idiot to greet the world within. In addition to its Bush-era allegories, it was also a rallying cry for a group of teenagers attempting to understand why so much was suddenly being expected of them, and the struggle therein. It’s not something the album touches on overtly a lot of the time, granted, but it’s a part of the zeitgeist that it inadvertently tapped into all the same. There’s this notion that runs through it, of the youthful characters outlined (St. Jimmy, Whatshername, et al) being frothingly mad at their worlds and desperately trying to escape.

And in almost any generation of the past century, since teen culture really became a concept with social value, there have been musicians who were able to capture the discontent of their respective times. Regardless of its enduring quality (though I’ll throw in my lot with it being a damned good album to this day), Green Day captured something really genuine with this one, at a time when we didn’t yet fully understand how close the era of the album was to its end.

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