November 22, 2005

Green Day bites—the Bullet, that is—on live disc set

While listening and watching Bullet in a Bible, Green Day’s first live album and DVD, I immediately became aware of the contradictions inherent in Green Day’s position in American pop music. While they are certainly devoted to punk in all its history and glory, they have taken a specific style of punk, repeated with various permutations the same format for the past 16 years: the three-chord repetition that gives metal and prog-rock snobs the fuel for their hatred of the genre.

With American Idiot, however, they grew out of the teenage slacker sphere of influence they had exhausted with their previous albums, and created a dense, sonic landscape with unprecedented levels of biting political satire and theatricality. The result was unparalleled success, even by Green Day’s standards, and certainly by punk’s standards.

One has to question, however, how well a movement grown out of the counter-cultural scene of the East Village’s CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City can adjust to such popular appeal. With Bullet in a Bible, Green Day has challenged the conventional notions of punk once again, as they played to over 65,000 screaming fans at the National Bowl in Milton Keyes, U.K.

Is Green Day the greatest punk band of all time, or the worst? They’re certainly the most successful—not even Nirvana or Pearl Jam can match Green Day in terms of longevity or continued success. And Green Day is probably the only punk band that, besides the Clash with London Calling, can pull off an album as epic as the rock-opera American Idiot while still maintaining the minimalist, cut-the-crap attitude that defines classic punk rock. If you look at all the definitions of punk rock, Green Day fits all of them: a brash attitude towards youth and politics; loud, fast anthems; and an undying respect for their influences.

The accusations of Green Day being generic sell-outs are problematic at best. They espouse the rockist attitude that popularity is inherently bad, independent of the merits of the music. It’s an attitude that engenders the pretension and elitism that rock-and-roll was designed to counter in the first place. Rockism has not only held back gifted artists from realizing their full potential, but has also tortured and even led to the death of some of rock’s greatest artists. (Why do you think loyalists try to deny that Kurt Cobain killed himself?) Yes, Green Day may have stuck with the three-chord format for all their songs, but it never seems to occur to critics that those three chords can actually produce a melodic song. This is more than one can say for most songs consistently produced by underground rock.

That being said, when listening to both the abridged CD and watching the lengthier DVD version of Bullet in a Bible, fundamental problems of Green Day’s musical nature become apparent that are easier to disguise in a studio setting.

Punk has always struggled to adjust itself to the live show, a format that naturally suits the extended solos and showcases of lengthy musical interludes that punk has to tried to dismantle since its inception. Even the Ramones and the Clash struggled with this, and Green Day is not immune to it either. It’s easy to see why Green Day hasn’t previously released a live album, as the balance and energy that is concentrated into their albums is lost amid the 65,000 fans screaming for “Longview” to be juxtaposed with “St. Jimmy,” which is by no means the most natural transition.

The fans, who are interviewed on the DVD and have embarrassingly inane chatter, prove to be more of the 13-year-old fangirl type who have never heard of the Buzzcocks—a much richer and influential punk-pop band whom Green Day has ripped off their entire career. To counter the problems of the enormous venue, Billy Joe Armstrong has to resort to showman tactics that work in a stadium rock setting but are disastrous for serious musicianship. Between cursing out rednecks and wearing a king’s crown and robe, Armstrong’s antics result in a metaphorical, not to mention literal, masturbation to the audience.

Green Day isn’t certainly the most musically innovative or scintillating punk band, but they are perhaps more successful at achieving punk’s goals than any other punk band. No matter how generic the music is, what other band can claim to have caused thousands of fans to scream lyrics of social protest in unison?

Green Day’s greatest accomplishment is making the punk rock movement— long perceived to be a strange, scary underground movement known only for nihilism and anarchy—universally accessible, and in doing so they’ve helped punk realize its potential 30 years after it began. Bullet in a Bible, while not perfect by any means, helps demystify punk’s popularity, and serves as an excellent realization of the true effect of American Idiot—and Green Day in general.