This Hurricane of Fucking Lies
The 2004 album American Idiot marked a turning point for the 16-year veterans of post-punk super-group Green Day. Not since the heyday of progressive rock, when bands like Yes and Genesis ruled the rock world, has such an ambitious project been undertaken, and never before in the realm of punk had a band attempted the opera contained in American Idiot's fifty-seven minute, eighteen second runtime. The opera chronicles the trials of a disenfranchised youth who becomes part of a subversive subculture to escape his disgust with American society. He later returns to mainstream society after losing everything and realizing that he is all alone. The catch is that, as complicated as this all sounds, it's an extraordinarily accessible album, and the songs also make sense as independent entities, which may be why there have already been 4 singles from the album (in chronological order): "American Idiot," "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," "Holiday," "Wake Me Up When September Ends." Let us also not forget that the album was nominated for seven Grammy's, taking home Best Rock Album, and also took home seven MTV Video Music Awards, including the coveted Viewer's Choice Award and Video of the Year. Also, it was certified triple platinum in March of 2005 (for those not in the know, that means it's sold over 3 million copies). While American Idiot still trails Dookie (released in 1994, and has since sold 7.1 million copies) as the best selling Green Day album, in my most humble of opinions, this is Green Day's best album to date, and the best album of the decade.
American Idiot accomplishes an incredible synthesis of musical prowess and social commentary. Green Day are masters of the three chord punk song, and they seem to perfect this method in American Idiot. The album opens with "American Idiot," a characteristically simple song driven by vocals and guitars which acts as an opening number for the journey of our "hero," Jesus of Suburbia, who comes to this realization that he no longer wants to be a part of this American culture. His eponymous song is the second track of the album, the first of two multiple movement pieces on the album, which formally introduces Jesus ("I'm the son of rage and love / The Jesus of Suburbia"), and goes more in-depth on his feelings of alienation in a false society ("In this land of make believe / That don't believe in me"), his witnessed decline of American society ("City of the Damned"), and his subsequent decision to become an exile ("Running away from pain when you've been victimized / Tales from another broken home / You're leavin' home"). This song is multifaceted, a blend of musical styles. They even use a xylophone during "Dearly Beloved." "Tales From Another Broken Home" has a perfect ending in pounded guitar chords and drums. The final symbol crash leaves you cheering for more, and fortunately, it's just gettin' started. "Holiday" plays like a military march, Jesus and his fellow rebels marching out of mainstream society and into the underworld, being sure to give a big middle finger to the establishment on their way out. The next two songs, "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" with its mournful tone, and "Are We the Waiting," with it's soaring chorus, convey a sense of being lost and disoriented out in this new world, and desire for direction. Then, about halfway through the album, our hero meets St. Jimmy, who seems to be a ringleader of sorts in the underworld. "St. Jimmy," a breakneck song, introduces this character. You can picture him standing on a soapbox above a crowd of rebels, inciting a riot. "Give Me Novocain" seems to be a plea to St. Jimmy to ease the pain of our hero's sense of isolation. Jesus finds comfort in having this character's friendship, reflected in the soothing quality of the music. It may even be that they are the same person. He then meets a woman simply known as Whatsername in the song "She's a Rebel," with whom he has a romantic relationship. We see his feelings for this woman in the ode "Extraordinary Girl." "Letterbomb," marks the beginning of the end for our protagonist; he realizes that St. Jimmy is a figment of his imagination, and Whatsername leaves him unable to live the life of a rebel any longer. "Wake Me Up When September Ends" is a moment of quiet reflection for our hero, pondering how he's come to this state, who he's become, and what he has lost in the process. "Homecoming" is the counterpart of "Jesus of Suburbia," the end of the protagonist's journey. "The Death of St. Jimmy" describes just that. The part of the hero that was St. Jimmy kills itself, the desire to be a rebel gone. Now floating, Jesus/Jimmy slowly comes to the decision during the next three movements of the song ("East 12th St.," "Nobody Likes You!," and "Rock and Roll Girlfriend") that he must return home. "We're Coming Home Again" is the end of Jesus/Jimmy's journey and it is a joyful one. With huge power chords, snare-drum pounding glory, and a chorus of voices singing "Home / We're coming home again!" The final song of the album is a catchy little tune remembering "Whatsername," perhaps the only thing he regrets losing from that time in his life. It provides an absolutely perfect ending to a wonderfully dynamic and catchy album.
The album denounces the American media culture, especially in the opening and title track of the album: "Don't wanna be an American idiot. / Don't want a nation under the new media. / And can you hear the sound of hysteria? / The subliminal mindfuck America." Later in the song: "Don't wanna be an American idiot. / One nation controlled by the media. / Information age of hysteria. / It's calling out to Idiot America." It's a scathing indictment of the American media for not fulfilling its responsibility to the American public, to protect them from the government and corporations by exposing corruption. Green Day, instead, see the media creating mass hysteria in the post 9/11 world by essentially telling us that there could be terrorists lurking in our own backyards. They see the media in the pocket of the institutions of which they are supposed to be critical. Green Day are acting as a watchdog for the media, which seems to have lost its sense of self-regulation, and they obviously don't like what they see. What's more is that Green Day are using the power of the institution that they are criticizing to broadcast their message, which is why it always amuses me to hear songs from American Idiot mixed into commercials and news reels. Truly, who better to lay open the problems of today's media culture than men who have been ingrained in it, contributed to its evolution, and yet remained skeptical of it, for the better part of two decades? Green Day truly capture an accurate and compelling snapshot of a moment in American society with this album.