American Idiot is what every edgy teenager was thinking in the early noughties. We were growing up and started to believe we were seeing how the world was actually working. Blistering attacks on the government (for a Top 40 album, at least), thinly veiled references toward American cultural hypocrisy, and a protagonist who really wasn’t all that much of a good guy but kinda figured stuff out along the way? This album was a fucking godsend for teenaged angst.
And the zeitgeist ran with it! Allmusic gave American Idiot five stars.1 Rolling Stone named it #225 on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.2 Green Day even won a Grammy Award for Best Rock Album and scored a nomination for album of the year. It was like a rallying cry of the disenfranchised suburban middle class kid, even if his or her knowledge of politics didn’t extend too far outside of watching Jon Stewart make fun of the president for mumbling “strategery” during a press conference. Hell, it even made fun of Jesus!4
But it wasn’t too mean with its criticism, either. American Idiot might’ve been pissed – and so were we – but it had an underlying theme of hope and redemption that was remarkably positive for a down-and-out punk/alternative album. Yeah, we’d hear about the dangers of failing oneself and ending up on a boulevard of broken dreams from our parents way before we even knew what a green day was, but we’d also listen to how the rest of our lives were dawning and we sure a shit weren’t going to fuck that up. Green Day were angry, but they weren’t hopeless. They were about change, and back in 2004 – before “change” became a political buzzword – it actually seemed like a new teenager sitting in his eighth grade history class listening to “Holiday” for the first time could do something more than go home after school and wake up in the morning. Sometimes we were like tiny adults, and to an extent we might’ve even believed that we were.
The pop punk-revival of the mid-noughties will reside in a special place of the heart for many members of the Millennial generation. Ironically or otherwise, the music here is remarkably potent a decade later as the 2016 presidential election elicits similar feelings of striking against an oppressive establishment where the talking heads change but nothing else does and fire-mouthed rhetoric spills from the top brass. American Idiot was one of the first albums that many of the new generation saw as a collective “fuck you” to the hegemon of which we could only dream to understand.
Sure, our parents might’ve thought Blink-182 had a few too many jokes about poop and oral sex,5 but it felt like Green Day were really attacking those core American beliefs of God, justice, and freedom. After all, we were the good guys in these wars, and if you question if we’re the good guys, doesn’t that mean you’re attacking freedom as well? Most of us weren’t yet old enough to really “get” Black Flag, Minor Threat, Dead Kennedys, and all those other old-guard punks – let alone know who they were – so Green Day seemed fresh and exciting. And I’m willing to bet that if you’re currently into punk, heavy metal, or post-hardcore, then Green Day was your gateway drug.
It was like Billy Joe Armstrong was talking to us in “Jesus of Suburbia” when he sang “I don’t feel any shame / I won’t apologize / when there ain’t nowhere you can go / running away from pain / when you’ve been victimized.” When you’re young and struggling to create your own identity in a rapidly integrating world, it was refreshing to see a potential media role model who didn’t seem like he’d figured it all out, either. Hell, Armstrong definitely wasn’t perfect – just look at that chipped tooth – and neither were we.
Sure, the story was a little over our heads, but American Idiot was the first real “concept album” that exploded on the alternative/pop stage in our days, and that made it smart. Yeah, it’s goofy in retrospect – I can’t sit though the title track and “Give Me Novocaine” without smirking a little bit – but they were great when we didn’t know any better. With the whole contemporary emo trend popping up, it just felt good to hear someone say that we didn’t have to force ourselves to be happy all the time in order to still live positive lifestyles. There’s even a quotation of Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69” in “Jesus of Suburbia,” for chrissake.
“She’s a Rebel” taught us the word “revolution” and that being yourself was hot.6 “Extraordinary Girl” told us that it was cool to be sad every once in a while, since that made you a human being who could relate to others. “Homecoming” warned us that – with enough time – we could become exactly what we hated, and you sure as hell better not let that happen. Finally, “Whatshername” told us that as hard it may be to move on, just because you want to forget the person doesn’t mean that you need to forget the time.
Every generation and every subculture has some work, some band, or someone like this – something that just kind of works for its time and place. The disaffected suburban youth of the noughties had Green Day’s American Idiot. It’s bloated, but so was our perspective of the world. It’s stubbornly optimistic, as we liked to think we were. It was angry and occasionally heartbreaking, which our teenage selves were experiencing for the first time in all their crazy emotional affect. Sure, American Idiot wasn’t punk – at least according to the geezers sporting Nirvana t-shirts – but it was fucking ours.
1. American Idiot – (2:54) – ★★★☆☆
2. Jesus of Suburbia – (9:08) – ★★★★☆
3. Holiday – (3:52) – ★★★★★
4. Boulevard of Broken Dreams – (4:20) – ★★★★★
5. Are We the Waiting – (2:42) – ★★★★☆
6. St. Jimmy – (2:55) – ★★★☆☆
7. Give Me Novacaine – (3:25) – ★★★☆☆
8. She’s a Rebel – (2:00) – ★★★☆☆
9. Extraordinary Girl – (3:33) – ★★★★☆
10. Letterbomb – (4:06) – ★★★☆☆
11. Wake Me Up When September Ends – (4:45) – ★★★★★
12. Homecoming – (9:18) – ★★★☆☆
13. Whatshername – (4:12) – ★★★★☆
1Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. “American Idiot – Green Day.” Allmusic. Accessed March 13, 2016. http://www.allmusic.com/album/american-idiot-mw0000387172.
2“Green Day, ‘American Idiot’ – 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” Rolling Stone. Accessed March 13, 2016. http://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/500-greatest-albums-of-all-time-20120531/green-day-american-idiot-20120524.
3“Past Winners Search.” The GRAMMYs. Accessed March 13, 2016. http://www.grammy.com/nominees/search?year=2004.
4Oh man, Mom is gonna *hate* this.
5… and sometimes all at once.
6Inspired by Bikini Kill, too!