Happy 15th Anniversary to Green Day’s seventh studio album American Idiot, originally released September 20, 2004.
Boy, did we need American Idiot.
At the time it certainly felt like we did. Green Day’s seventh studio record surfaced in September 2004 at a time when the American Empire was expanding its military might in Iraq and Afghanistan and the country’s cultural footprint was trampling across every continent in the world. Coming just three years after the events of 9/11 and in the dying embers of George W. Bush’s first term as President (he’d be reelected on a slim margin come November), the album offered a savage critique of what it was like to be an American (or just any young person) during turbulent times.
It has been quite well documented that being openly critical of the United States and the Bush Administration’s decision to go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan could get you into a lot of trouble with the media. For example, whilst touring the UK in 2003, the Dixie Chicks commented on stage that they were opposed to the war and felt ashamed that the President was from the same state as them. When the story broke, the band’s fortunes suddenly plummeted. Record sales fell, live shows were cancelled, and the band became the subject of many demonstrations in which copies of their records were bulldozed into the ground.
But unlike the Dixie Chicks, Green Day were in no danger of destroying their careers in being openly critical of the U.S. Government. The Dixie Chicks, after all, were a country pop band working within a genre whose audience is generally conservative, Republican voter based, and patriotic. The essence of punk rock has always been anti-establishment, so perhaps it could have been expected that a punk rock band would’ve been and could’ve been openly critical of any government. Also, Green Day had nothing to lose. Their previous record, 2000’s Warning, whilst selling well and being generally acclaimed, had underperformed in comparison to Dookie (1994), Insomniac (1995) and Nimrod (1997). So at this point, the band was free to go in any direction they chose.
The American experience presented was not one that was told in the patriotic mantra of major news headlines. The viewpoint of American Idiot did not come from a war hero, a politician, a sportsperson, or a celebrity. American Idiot was the voice of a disenfranchised populace, one that had been ignored, forgotten, abused by the system and left behind. Through its interconnected songs, the record conjures up images of suburban wastelands, closed stores, disused highways, and abandoned shopping malls and offers a running narrative throughout the record that follows the exploits of a character named the Jesus of Suburbia, a nihilistic teenager and a representative of the American underclass. Two other characters appear throughout as well. St. Jimmy is a swaggering punk rocker, whilst the female character, Whatsername is a “rebel saint” with a more constructive attitude than that of St. Jimmy and Jesus.
The whole perspective of American Idiot comes out of some so-called rebellion against the norm, but it was certainly not a revolution the band were pushing. During the run-up to the 2004 election, the band openly endorsed the Democratic nominee, John Kerry. A more radical band might have opted for Ralph Nader who was running as an independent or David Cobb who was running for the Green Party.
But if it’s not political rebellion that Green Day were pushing in the content, it sure sounds like a riot. Apart from their early nineties efforts Kerplunk (1991) and Dookie, Green Day have never sounded so energized and alive than what they pulled off on American Idiot. When the master tapes of their original album demos went walkies, the band restarted the recording process and arguably made a record that sounded angry and alive and was a staple punk rock masterpiece that strayed very far from the three-chord two minute stab, incorporating instrumentation and styles not associated with traditional punk rock music.
Take for example the second track “Jesus of Suburbia,'' a rollicking nine-minute mini rock opera that features five different though expertly blended “movements.” Each could easily be expanded into typical verse- chorus-verse dynamic, but instead they barely stick around for two minutes a piece. Something similar happens towards the end of the record with the song “Homecoming,” another nine-minute, five-movement stomper. One could even argue that Green Day merged the unrelated genres of Punk and Prog into a kind of Prog-punk or Punk-prog, depending on your preference.
And it’s not all “1, 2, 3, 4!” gestures. Within the overarching narrative, the band offer reflective and subtle moments. “Give Me Novacaine” offers an acoustic sweetness similar to the band’s quite beautiful ballad “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).” The chill of “Give Me Novacaine” makes the following song “She’s a Rebel” burst out of the speakers in even ruder form.
We must also acknowledge the amazingly provocative punk ballad “Wake Me Up When September Ends.” Although in the context of the record it might not appear to offer much, the release of the song as a single and the accompanying music video in which two young lovers become separated by war turned the song into an achingly sad and very moving portrait of love and loss. Its close association with the events of Hurricane Katrina have also given the song more gravitas. In the wake of the disaster, a blogger used the song to accompany footage of the devastation the hurricane caused and the video was viewed millions of times online. It’s hard not to hear this song now and not think of loss and devastation and a society gone to pot.
The band also shifted their style for American Idiot by wearing matching uniforms of black shirts, black trousers and skinny ties and, a la Johnny Cash’s concept of wearing black for the “poor and beaten down,” Green Day were also trying to give a voice to the voiceless and shining a light on an American underclass that was being left very far behind in the neoliberal and empirical pursuit.
Although it’s controversial, we could now argue that the American underclass presented in American Idiot might possibly be the same American underclass that voted for Donald Trump in 2016. A hard pill to swallow, I know. In his campaign, Trump was all about talking to and talking up the American underclass and those he considered ignored by the liberal elite. He spoke about the crime-ridden cities, the rotting infrastructure, the closed shopping malls and the bad financial deals with foreign powers that had crippled American workers. With punk’s original intent to disrupt the establishment, Donald Trump did, at least during his campaign, disrupt the established order.
There is a good argument to be made given recent events that punks of the 1970s and 1980s and their so-called anarchism morphed into a more sinister anti-establishment or that their anarchism has been exploited at the very least. Look to Sex Pistols icon Johnny Rotten who came out in support of Britain leaving the European Union. Look to Glenn Danzig of The Misfits who spoke out in support of Trump’s Muslim ban. Fox News host Greg Gutfeld called Trump the “Punk Rock President,” while The Atlantic published an article comparing a Trump rally to a Sex Pistols show. The disillusionment and resentment towards U.S governments over the past forty years and against corporate elites heard on American Idiot went unanswered and the vote for Trump was arguably a punk rock gesture that the characters on this record could have easily performed?
After all, American Idiot came before the financial crash of 2008 and the perpetrators of the crash, the bankers and speculators, were bailed out by the U.S Government. Anger emerged as evidenced in the Occupy movement, but ultimately this fizzled out and those left with minimal job options, foreclosed homes and riddled in debt watched as the top 1% reaped the rewards. Trump, however dishonestly, spoke to those people and gave them an answer. In Rolling Stone, John Colapinto noted that American Idiot “gives voice to the disenfranchised suburban underclass of Americans who feel wholly unrepresented by the current leadership of oilmen and Ivy Leaguers, and who are too smart to accept the ‘reality’ presented by news media who sell the government's line of fear and warmongering.” Take out American Idiot from that sentence and insert Donald Trump and your left with, however baseless, a perfect little campaign slogan.
Of course, we also could argue that Bernie Sanders spoke of the same resentment and channeled it into his own Democratic campaign for nomination in a more positive sense, but nobody could vote for Sanders in the end, as the Democratic fat cats took care of that. So, regardless, it was a nihilistic move and one that has hardly reaped rewards for those that chose to vote for Trump, but a two-fingered salute to the mainstream nonetheless.
Not that we can blame Green Day for this. Far from it, in fact. Thirteen years after its original release, the title track and lead single “American Idiot” rocked up the UK charts in 2017, just as Trump was landing for a state visit with the Queen. Billy Joe Armstrong has also been an outspoken critic of Trump (as he was with Bush Jr.) and even told fans to stop listening to his music if they supported Trump’s policies. Green Day might be “fuck you” punks in their music, but their politics have always been more based on positive action as opposed to apathy and nihilism. Punk still has the power to call out abuses of authority despite its attitude being co-opted by the right and by corporatism. The vast majority of Green Day's listeners are far too intelligent and more critical than to be duped by Donald Trump and his shenanigans.
American Idiot is a very important record, but clearly it made no substantial impact on American political life, but maybe music isn’t the place to find or even start a political movement. Nonetheless, music and art are great places to grow a political conscience and Green Day, along with a ton of other great bands, artists, thinkers and philosophers can act as pointers towards bigger movements and educative means that can have an impact. Don’t write off punk rock now or in the future. It still has relevance and should always be cherished. After all, the whole premise of this particular record was to rebel against the stupidity of the times. That in itself is an important lesson to carry forward.