Punk Revisited: Green Day lays bold new ground with American Idiot

By Ethan Stanislawski

As hard as it may be to imagine, when Green Day released Dookie, their first major-label album, the Class of 2008 was in the second grade. After 10 years, it is now safe to consider Green Day an establishment in the pop music world, a fate that is hard to reconcile with the anti-establishment attitude on which punk enthusiasts thrive. Green Day have been called sell-outs by the underground scene for years, and that status seems to increase with every album they release. With their last album, the disappointing Warning, Green Day were beginning to lose their mainstream fans as well. However, with their newest concoction, American Idiot, Green Day have looked beyond the underground world and have produced a mammoth accomplishment: bringing back classic Green Day sounds on a surprisingly eclectic, rock-opera backdrop.

In no way, however, will hardcore punks—or what’s left of them—be happy with American Idiot. In balancing punk and pop, Idiot, like all Green Day albums, is more pop-heavy than most punks would prefer. Yet that has not prevented Green Day from making a damn good album, full of fast rhythms, blazing riffs, and masterful drumwork by Tré Cool. The first track, “American Idiot,” is vintage Green Day—it immediately begins at a fast pace, then switches tempo and heaviness more seamlessly than any of Green Day’s imitators could dream of achieving. The attack on the “American Idiot” is rather perfunctory, but cleverly worded and effective for a band not known for Johnny Rotten-level satire.

Green Day’s usual generic lyrics end there though, as “American Idiot” immediately gives way to “Jesus of Suburbia,” a five-part song that introduces themes, characters, and actions that stay consistent throughout the album. While a nine-minute track on a punk album may seem a little daunting, the five parts of the track are very distinct mini-songs, each adding to the story. Such a literary element comes as a huge surprise to experienced Green Day listeners, as does the increased lyrical finesse (“The living room in my private womb/While the mom’s and Brad’s are away/To fall in love and fall in deist” is a personal favorite). Billy Joe introduces metaphoric characters such as “Jesus of Suburbia” and “St. Jimmy” who are developed throughout the album and meet their fate in the second five-part track, “Homecoming.” The continuous themes and characters, as well as the ingenious flow from song to song, give American Idiot a rock-opera feel clearly inspired by The Who. This effort, although ostensibly not in Green Day’s capability, is immensely successful, achieved with carefully conducted pace and the awe-inspiring unity of the album.

While the operatic aspect of American Idiot is from The Who, it is not the only element of the album that is not directly from Green Day’s repertoire. The album has elements of The Kinks, Radiohead, Pink Floyd and Queen that go far beyond punk’s boundaries. In fact, the album reaches a level of eclecticism in alternative music unseen since Beck’s Odelay. That doesn’t mean that California punk doesn’t dominate the album, but it does mean that Green Day is taking steps to update the increasingly outdated punk movement into the twenty-first century. An almost vaudeville sensibility is displayed in “Another Broken Home,” the fifth part of “Jesus of Suburbia.” R&B elements can be detected throughout “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.”One of the best tracks of the album, “Letterbomb,” begins with a psychedelic, experimental melody and finishes as fast-paced, metallic rock.

And then, of course, there’s emo. While “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” showed that Green Day has a lighter side, the only problem with American Idiot lies in the fact that it too often relies heavily on more flowery music. While the lighter music is consistent with the album when considered as a rock opera, someone who just wants to hear good punk (or good music in general) is often irritated by how slowly the album progresses at points. Often it is not even worth the pace. “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” for instance, sounds a little too similar to “Good Riddance,” but is not as good since it has no variety. Sometimes, however, the slower-paced songs work extremely well. “Holiday,” for instance, uses its slow pace to craft a beautifully-timed satire. Overall though, there’s little in the album that will cause you to lose your interest, except maybe its length.

In “Letterbomb,” Green Day does something unprecedented in a punk album: they criticize the close-mindedness and negativity of the underground movement. The chorus, “It’s not over ’til you’re underground/It’s not over before its too late/The city’s burning/It’s not my burden/It’s not over before it’s too late,” is a rare and necessary critique of alternative music. Green Day might be saying, “While you were calling anyone who had success a sellout, you lost rock and roll’s place of prominence in popular music.” Coming from a band that has transcended the underground and embraced fame, American Idiot should serve as a wake-up call, and it’s a must-hear wake-up call as well.