Sing Along To the Age of Paranoia
Yeah, I Bet You Recognize Those Lyrics, Don’t You?
So, my brain says to me earlier this week, “Hey, Ashly, you just decided you’re going to make this your official place for music blogging, that’s awesome, but now you have to lead with your best stuff, something relate-able and intelligent and definitely not an impassioned defense of Green Day’s ‘American Idiot.’”
Now, here is an impassioned defense of Green Day’s “American Idiot.”
OKAY, not really, but it is touching on why at the very least the title song needs to not be written off.
Honestly, part of what I want is to just write an impassioned defense of Green Day as a band, but there’s a few problems. First, it hits a point where any argument I could make will fall apart (Uno, specifically). And second, I’m not that optimistic that readers would get much further than commentary on “Nimrod” because, as we all know, everything after that sucked. Actually, if people read beyond the first mention of “Dookie” I’d even be surprised. Because there are few things TRUE PUNX like more than showing up to any mention of Green Day on the internet to remind everyone that “DOOKIE WAS GRATE BUT EVERYTING ELSE SUXX LOL SELL OUTS.”
And that’s actually important here because “American Idiot” is where the declaration of Green Day as “sell-outs” really began. Of course, the very concept of “selling out” in music is as annoying as “someone” using “too many” “quotation marks” “purely” for “effect.” But it persists and it’s especially prevalent when it comes to punk bands. That actually makes a lot of sense because of the basis of punk music being a rejection of the mainstream and a focus on DIY aesthetics. The issue of punk ideology being sustainable while under contract to a corporate entity is a big one, too big to tackle here, and I’m already gonna get pretty political later on, so let’s table that for now. And by “now” I mean “let’s never speak of this again.”
Anyway, in order to better understand the situation, I went deep into the most terrifying parts of the internet: message boards. Okay, maybe not deep, there’s only so much one blogger can take, but deep enough to kind of get the idea of the reasons people dislike “American Idiot.”
- This sounds too much like old school punk bands that Green Day obviously ripped off for this album.
- This doesn’t sound enough like old school punk bands, there’s slow songs on this album.
- This album isn’t political enough, Green Day only did this to save their failing career!
- This album is too political, Green Day only did this to save their failing career!
- Green Day sucks and can’t play their instruments.
You can see why my confusion continues.
First of all: if you don’t like Green Day, you’re not going to like the album. I mean, that’s common sense. I’m not going to listen to a Blake Shelton album and then complain because it’s a Blake Shelton album and I hate Blake Shelton. I’m not exactly qualified to give you my opinion on that. Simon Indelicate, of The Indelicates, actually dropped a line in an interview that I feel addresses situations like this, even if that wasn’t his intent. He said “a film reviewer who attends 5 press screenings a week and doesn’t read children’s books, for example, is entirely unqualified to tell a harry potter fan whether they’ll like the deathly hallows film.”
That aside, a lot of the commentary did revolve around the idea that Green Day was getting political/bashing George W. Bush because it was popular at the time. And yes, bashing Bush was popular, but for very legitimate reasons. Under his administration we witnessed a lot of negative, including getting involved in not one, but two wars with no clear way of getting out of them. Along with the political negative, we were subjected to a terrifying amount of seemingly-mandatory patriotism. Criticizing anything the government did was met with immediate reprimands from people who, at that time, conflated questioning the government with siding against America with the terrorists. There were always terrorists. We never stopped hearing about how they were coming to get us and if we didn’t show a united, American front, then they’d already won.
If this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because none of that has gone away. Only it has changed from “don’t question the government” to “don’t question the real American neo-conservatives who have our best interests at heart and will save us from that damned job-creating, deficit shrinking, gay marriage legalizing Obama!” In fact the very reason I’m writing this, and why I feel a need to bring “American Idiot” back into the narrative, is because it is still a frighteningly true critique of our culture.
We’re currently seeing the disaster that is Donald Trump’s presidential campaign (hopefully you’re reading that name the correct way, using the Make Donald Drumpf Again extension for Chrome). The disaster, of course, being its success. And while I’m assuming anyone reading this is joining me in praying that a Trump presidency never becomes reality, the fact is the damage has already been done. We’ve seen the very worst of America, and it didn’t even take much to draw it out into the open. Xenophobia, racism, sexism, homophobia, you name it, it’s been on display at a Trump rally while the man with the tiny hands himself makes promises, offers no plans and sometimes…ugh…talks about his penis.
That’s the most extreme example, but it’s also an important one. Because part of the point of “American Idiot” in the first place was the blurring line between the reality of living in Bush’s post-9/11 America and the rising phenomenon of reality TV. And Trump’s a literal example of that, a man who has long been famous, but rose to new heights of exposure with his own reality television show. It is a frightening scene because it is an example of how much sway the media has over us as a culture and how easily we can be manipulated by it.
And it did manipulate. It took the natural fear stemming from the 9/11 attacks and following wars, and built a platform of paranoia and dependence. Thinking about all of this leads to fear, so give us a way to just not have to do it, to let someone else handle it. Just tell us we’re going to be safe. Tell us who the bad guys are and the easiest way to recognize them.
To take it one step further: “American Idiot” was actually made into a successful Broadway Musical of the same name. The set of the show is covered in television screens and they are a key component in the performance. Audiences are bombarded with images and media from them, while the action takes place on stage. There is no traditional overture, instead the curtain rises to the sound of jumbled media broadcasts that all become totally meaningless, the cast is on stage with their eyes glued to the TV screens which are flashing images of news casts, commercials, TV shows, literally anything, even after the recognizable opening guitar riff plays and strobe lights flash. Then, slowly, one by one and one line at a time, they turn away and declare they won’t be part of That America.
But it’s a small cast. It’s actors aware of what’s going on for them.
And of course, all of the media manipulation that’s being done is backed by research, by advertisers who literally work on ways to bypass even the subliminal and hit right in what they call “lizard brain.” It’s not even done with any kind of malicious intent, it’s just about money. Which, ironically, makes it the cheapest of all evil schemes possible.
“American Idiot” doesn’t feel like it was meant to be the kind of wake-up call that we associate with political punk. It’s not Anti-Flag screaming “TURNCOAT! KILLER! LIAR! THIEF!” It wasn’t meant to sway our actions in who we voted for or if we voted at all. “American Idiot” was a reflection of life in the world that the politics at the time had built.
It’s certainly not perfect. The story of the album is, by Green Day’s admission, what it’s like to be a kid in the suburbs. I’ll go one further: it’s specifically a white suburban guy’s experience. While I’ve related to it, I was a wide eyed college freshman in September of 2011, just moved to the “big city” of Pittsburgh from my smaller hometown. There was a certain amount of that experience I shared, but it’s clearly not the same. It’s even more apparent in the stage version where there’s only one female character with a name, the other two are simply “Whatshername” and “The Extraordinary Girl” and all of their story arcs are entirely driven by their relationships with the male main characters. And of course, it’s super fucking white. It doesn’t touch on being non-white in this culture and honestly it would feel disingenuous if it tried. There’s been complaints over Billie Joe Armstrong dropping the word “f*ggot” in the song in reference to himself, while the singer does identify as bisexual and seems to be using the word to reflect the insults lobbed at men who eschew traditional heterosexual masculinity (wearing eyeliner, for example) it is a question of whether or not that’s a word he can really reclaim.
But it was a major label release, well-reviewed and commercially successful, that reflected a feeling of being lost. Of feeling like we had no fucking future. It wasn’t about not being able to get a girlfriend, it wasn’t about just hating your parents (and please don’t write it off as that), it was about having this rage you couldn’t direct and not knowing what to do with it. Feeling like maybe there’s nothing you CAN do with it. It’s recognizing those feelings as valid and shared. It’s important, no matter how much we might want to brush it off.
It’s not really commodifying punk for the mainstream.
It’s the mainstream, many listeners for the very first time in their sheltered, suburban lives, understanding the very basics of punk.
We are the unified Idiot America.