September 19, 2014


'American Idiot' Turns 10: In Defense of Green Day's Iconic Album

Jeff Kravitz / Getty Images
Jeff Kravitz / Getty Images

On September 21, 2004, Green Day transported their fans into a fictional world that was very much inspired by reality. Billie Joe Armstrong sang along to the age of paranoia, and we became acquainted with the Jesus of Suburbia, St. Jimmy, Whatsername, the town that don't exist and much more. 

American Idiot signified a massive step forward in Green Day's career, providing them with long-lasting relevance and revitalizing them after years of relatively disappointing album sales. A cohesive masterpiece of political-punk-rock-and-roll songwriting, the album spawned five international superhits plus Bullet In A Bible, a live CD/DVD of the band's show at the U.K.'s Milton Keynes National Bowl in front of 130,000 people. Green Day became the heavyweight champion of the world–or, rather, the world's biggest rock band–in the years of touring that followed the album's release. 

So it may come across as strange to insinuate that American Idiot needs defending in any way. But what 15 million global purchasers of the album may not realize is that a large faction of long-time Green Day fans (and punk fans in general) have spent the last decade writing it off. That's the cost of having an album like 1994's Dookie, which nearly single-handedly put pop-punk on the map, and which die-hard fans cherish and even casual punk listeners recognize as a seminal release in the annals of pop-punk's rise to glory. People who have put down American Idiot did so because it was perceived as a move to a type of mainstream rock that wasn't appealing to fans of the band's punk origins. But those people should realize that American Idiot is by far Green Day's best and most important work.

Dookie is an all-time favorite album for certain folks who grew up listening to pop-punk in the '90s; in that sense, it has nearly unlimited lasting power. It identifies and embodies the California snot-nosed skater attitude. But it ultimately remains suspended there. Its lasting power is fully a product of nostalgic charm and the celebration of juvenility–and that's a great thing. Dookie occupies an essential niche. 

KMazur / Getty Images
KMazur / Getty Images

Meanwhile, like any good story, American Idiot is a tale that resides in a specific time and place. The album tracks the story of a young man who, disgruntled with the state of the world, moves to the big city and develops a nasty alter-ego of sorts. He ultimately overcomes that harmful side of himself, but upon returning home, the protagonist realizes that while he's managed to change himself a lot, the world around him hasn't changed at all. 

That's a quick rundown–but it's a story with enough depth and character development to be adapted to the Broadway stage, where it delivered 422 performances. (And Armstrong himself at times played the lead role.)

Theoretically, American Idiot came pre-installed with something of an expiration date. The album was a searing rebuke of the Bush administration and a general reaction to the events of September 11, 2001. Eventually, one would assume that the album's message would fade away: George Bush wouldn't always be the President of the United States; the country wouldn't always be at war; its citizens wouldn't always be full of unshakable rage following 9/11; over time, wounds would heal and American Idiot would become outdated. 

The evidence that 'American Idiot' is not a good, but a great story, is plain: It's still meaningful today.

But the album's themes have proven to be ever-lasting: The evidence that American Idiot is not a good, but a great story, is that it took a specific time and delivered something timeless. Whether you heard the album as an adult or as a middle-schooler, it resounded with you because Green Day delivered a poignant narrative within their protest. It was as easily gobbled up by a teenager (who, at the time, couldn't have fully understood the significance of world events) as it was by anyone who listened to the album because they agreed with its political message.

Set in a generic suburbia, the storyline touches upon rage and love, the emotional results of absent parents, the journey of leaving home to find oneself, the allure of anti-heroes and alter-egos and the resilience required to confront inner demons–all of which will resonate with young people forever.

And while its critics said that Idiot was self-serving and whining–a typical punk cry to stand up to big media, big government and the omnipresent, untouchable "Man"–it was, in fact, rooted in struggles that people face every day. The album is as much about inner turmoil as it is about global politics. 

Chris Polk / Getty Images
Chris Polk / Getty Images

The lack of reconciliation at the end of American Idiot acutely reflects the distress that many passionate young adults still face today. There is unprecedented access to information on places like the Ukraine, the Middle East or Ferguson, Missouri, and consequently an unprecedented amount of opinion-sharing. And these young adults may think they have ideals that could change the world. Ultimately, they struggle to affect change in their own immediate, personal surroundings. Once they work through the process of simply getting their own sh*t together, they find that the world they originally set out to change has remained exactly the same dark place it was before.

That may all sound dramatic, but at the end of Idiot, our protagonist is armed with little more than his own moral victory to combat all the disgusting things around him that he hated–and that, ultimately, he cannot change (let alone fix). The sort of connection and resonance that American Idiot creates doesn't easily fade away–and with the incessantly revolving door of economic, societal and moral issues the world faces on a day-to-day basis, it's something that isn't likely to become irrelevant anytime soon. 

Dookie may have captured the spirit of a generation for a few years, but American Idiot speaks to a struggle that's timeless. It gave a generation something to latch onto for however long they needed it, and it will do the same for future generations. American Idiot will, and very much should, remain Green Day's most significant work.