On a Friday night this April, I stood in front of my closet, puzzled. I had to dress for the rare “culture event”; for an evening, I was a patron of the performing arts at Cincinnati’s Aronoff Theater. If you live in any midsize city, you probably have a place like Aronoff: the town’s one, centrally located, kinda-posh, modern theater that hosts Broadway Across America/touring companies (inevitably every year will include The Lion King, Wicked, or Phantom of the Opera). It isn’t quite ritzy enough to merit a suit, but I needed to display my haute couture. I settled on an open neck, black, patterned button down and earth-tone pants. At the last second, I moved my s aside for my pair of beat-up Chuck Taylors.
I was seeing the Broadway adaptation of American Idiot, let’s loosen up a bit.
The show was pretty good, but my and my friends’ takeaway was holy fuck was American Idiot a great album. It’s made its way back into my personal rotation since seeing the show (the cast recording, featuring Green Day as the instrumental house band, is stellar as well), and it’s aged remarkably. The title track, “St. Jimmy” and “Letter Bomb” still sound incendiary, and no amount of overplay has dulled “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” or “Wake Me Up When September Ends”. The story concept has fallen by the wayside to history–even the stage show beefs up the album with a b-side and choice cuts from next record 21st Century Breakdown–but the operatic scale and stadium-sized ambition still follow through ten years later.
If American Idiot‘s age feels weird for me and you, I can only imagine how this has to feel to Green Day themselves, who were a decade into their career as an A-level alternative group when the album was released. Their landmark record Dookie came out in 1994, and shot them into the stratosphere as bratty, immature pop-punk slackers who wrote songs about jacking off and being stoned, but they were really catchy songs about jacking off and being stoned. Their next three albums incrementally tightened the songwriting and the sound, but gradually sold less and less as they grew out of Dookie. After the master recordings of 2003’s Cigarettes and Valentines were stolen, the band scrapped the project and started on what would become American Idiot, which didn’t just sound revitalized, but completely jump-started Green Day’s career, standing and influence, and introduced them to a whole new audience (I’ll come back to this). The album went to number one, did six time platinum in sales, and spawned between three and five massive crossover singles. Their previous album, Warning, barely made a dent anywhere outside a modern rock single. Conventional wisdom says this kind of comeback just shouldn’t be possible; this would be like The Killers spending 2014 fucking everywhere.
And make no mistake, American Idiot was fucking eveywhere in 2004 and 2005. For eighteen months, no mainstream chart was safe from “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”, nor was there any quarter for music TV programming from Billie Joe Armstrong’s black button up, slack red tie, and eyeliner. At some point, you or one of your friends said screw it, and bought a copy (I even rebelled and bought the explicit version) to discover that behind those singles were cuts like “Give Me Novocaine”, the suite of “Homecoming”, and the punk onslaught of “St. Jimmy”. Part of what makes American Idiot great is a mix of the band’s focus and their veteran status: they’ve tinkered with their sound enough to know how to make nine minute five song suites like “Jesus of Suburbia” work, as well as how to make punk rock workouts “Letter Bomb”, “She’s a Rebel”, and “St. Jimmy” as explosive as the handgrenade on the album’s cover. Green Day’s reliance on powerchords and rudimentary chord progressions has been used against them before, but they get more mileage than most by chucking just enough variety into their progressions. That’s not to mention bassist Mike Dirnt’s simple but tasteful basslines, or the fact that Tre Cool is the album’s secret weapon. Moreso than Armstrong or supporting guitarist Jason White’s chugging powerchords, Cool’s surprisingly active drum beats are what keep the album’s momentum running forward. It’s just an album of good punk rock.
American Idiot also owes a lot of its success to near pitch-perfect timing. It came out just as America’s patriotism hangover from 9/11 and the Iraq War kicked in; more than a year had passed after Bush’s now infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech, and we were still there. America’s reputation diminished at home and abroad as discontent for Bush grew and grew. If there was a time for a band to get Nickelodeon slime’d in front of a washed out American flag in a music video, this was going to be it. What’s actually fascinating is how much the album doesn’t sound tied to 2004 politics. The overtly political moments (“American Idiot”, “Holiday”) rail at “The age of paranoia” and “The president gas-man”, but you don’t need to relate those to The Patriot Act or Bush for them to feel their impact. You will also notice that these lyrics come pretty early on. Instead, the album’s focus is on the love, loss, and lives of disfranchised youth, themes that have continued past the anti-Bush outcry and served well in the Obama era of singed optimism and growing cynicism. The only thing really dating American Idiot to 2004 is its liberal use of the word f*g.
So American Idiot is an excellent album with an anniversary meant to make us all feel a little more distant from who we were 10 years ago, why write about it now? I’ll admit part of it is personal bias: I fucking love this album. It and my now outsized Green Day t-shirt are two things from 2004 I still own. It’s one of a select few albums where I will be thrown off momentarily if I hear one song from it, and do not hear the next song on the cd next. Ok, but I also love Arcade Fire’s Funeral, another album with a widely celebrated tenth birthday last week.
The more I thought about American Idiot, the more I realized that what makes it unique is that it’s exactly the type of album we are dangerously short on: it’s a gateway record. Alright, sure, it’s easy to laugh at 30-somethings wearing eyeliner making accessible punk records on a major label, but you know what? That shit worked. A kid hears “Holiday” enough on the radio, buys American Idiot, and then realizes Green Day’s actually got a stacked greatest hits comp and a few classics they can dig into. Kid starts looking at Green Day’s influences, and it turns out, copies of Let It Be, London Calling, and Rocket to Russia go for pretty cheap if you stop going to Best Buy. Jump forward a few years, maybe that kid’s in a punk band, or writes for a zine or a blog or something. They’re involved. I’m not saying it’s impossible to find another way in, but if music genres want to sustain themselves and grow, someone’s got to go out and meet people where they are.
Any idiot could tell you that.