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Fri Oct 1 23:39:41 CDT 2004
Green Day looks smart with 'Idiot'
The band of bratty punks produces a powerful, defiant rock opera
By Renee Graham, Globe Staff | September 29, 2004
When word began to leak out that Green Day was planning a politically
charged rock opera for its latest album, "American Idiot," reactions ranged
from sarcastic guffaws to abject horror. This, after all, was the same band
of punk brats who, a decade ago, cranked out mosh-pit ditties about
soul-numbing laziness and dismissive hookers and whose crowning close-up
moment was a mud-flinging free-for-all at Woodstock '94.
The notion of a Green Day rock opera smacked of unearned pretentiousness and
utter desperation from a band that hadn't released an album since 2000's
commercially anemic but underrated "Warning." It also reeked of encroaching
adulthood from these boys-to-men who suddenly seemed determined to leave
childish things -- and what remained of their fans -- behind.
Yet Green Day has always been more than its signature three-chord barrage,
and its members -- lead singer-guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong, bassist Mike
Dirnt, and drummer Tre Cool -- have often invested unexpected intelligence,
even poetry, into their tales of slacker ennui.
Like the reflective acoustic ballad "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)" in
1997, "American Idiot" still manages to be defiantly punk by following no
regimen or conventions other than the band's own ethos. Through 13 songs,
including two nine-minute mini-operas, "Jesus of Suburbia" and "Homecoming,"
it's the sprawling story of an America staggering from terrorism and war and
plagued by paranoia and disillusionment. Its main characters, Jesus of
Suburbia and St. Jimmy, representing the punch-drunk masses, are raised on
"a steady diet of soda pop and Ritalin," as well as lies and hypocrisy.
Since its release last week, "American Idiot" has often been compared to the
Who's landmark 1969 rock-opera, "Tommy," and while such assessments are a
little too facile, there are parallels to be found between Green Day's
Armstrong and Pete Townshend, the Who's legendary guitarist and primary
During a clip in the seminal 1979 film "The Kids Are Alright," Townshend is
shown telling his bandmates, "We have to decide if we're going to remain a
circus act -- in other words, doing what everybody knows we can do and what
we know we can do until the band eventually turns into a cabaret act, which
is inevitable." Townshend understood that rock could be art and make a
socio-political statement -- while still shaking the rafters. It's not hard
to imagine Armstrong, in a similar fashion, prodding his own band to be all
it can be.
In this season of all things political, George W. Bush looms like a
Thanksgiving Day parade balloon above this album's stinging core, but signs
of Green Day's political heart were apparent before Dubya moved from Texas
to Washington, D.C. On the 2000 song "Minority," Armstrong sang "Down with
the moral majority." And in 1994, at the height of its popularity, the group
invited Pansy Division, an openly gay punk band, to open some of its shows.
At the time, Armstrong explained to The Village Voice, "As far as I'm
concerned, I think that a band like Pansy Division saves people's lives. A
lot of kids go through life just not knowin' what the hell they are, or what
their sexuality is all about, and they just kind of go confused. But if
someone has sort of the same ideas and feelings they do -- and a sense of
humor thrown on top of it -- then it really helps."
Of course, "American Idiot" would be a drag if Green Day had undercut its
musical acumen for Big Ideas. The title cut and first single is a bracing
punk blast, weighing in at less than three minutes. In his usual snarl,
Armstrong rips a "redneck agenda," "the information age of hysteria," and
delivers one of the album's most pointed, funny lines, "Now everybody do the
In fact, this album swims in musicality, revealing gifts the band's other
albums only hinted at. Even with its shifting songscapes -- the rockabilly
of "Dearly Beloved," the power pop of "Wake Me Up When September Ends," and
the full-on "St. Jimmy" -- this album isn't scattered. It has a thrilling
cinematic power (appropriately, Green Day is considering a film version of
the album), achieving moments of outright brilliance. If the band's early
rage could seem generic, Green Day has sharpened its anger and umbrage into
this little masterpiece of punk agitprop.
After 16 years as a band, and 10 years in the mainstream, Green Day has
focused its political voice in full, and with this album can proudly
proclaim itself (to crib a line from "St. Jimmy") "a needle in the vein of
the establishment." Always capable of making a good rock record, the band
has also fashioned the year's first important rock record. And who would
have expected that from the guys whose best-selling album is called
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