Green Day has released its eighth album, a so-called punk rock opera entitled American Idiot. American Idiot sounds like, and almost certainly is, the soundtrack to a movie that is yet to be filmed. The album’s thirteen tracks follow a disaffected suburban youth whose brief, smoldering foray into radicalism soon sputters out, resigning him to his fate as a forlorn and compromised American Idiot. And it is entirely appropriate that Green Day tells this story, an unintentionally apt national allegory, because that band more than any other (at least visibly so) defined for the long-past 90s the unartful lyric of the restlessly deferred. Green Day retains this sensibility on American Idiot, resulting in an album (opera!?) that is “political” for marketing purposes only, lacking a coherent message, political or otherwise. This album does not tackle the Bush administration or any particular issue in any but the most oblique ways. But this is exactly the point.
Upon hearing the opening chords of the album’s first track, “American Idiot”, one is immediately jolted back into an almost hard-wired familiarity with the conventions of Green Day’s music. Green Day has not released an album of new material in almost four years, and many listeners have probably ventured elsewhere. Yet those whose daily digital staple of rock consists largely of Franz Ferdinand, The Postal Service, and the like, will find that this album, when it works (which is infrequently), plays on a fossilized but surprisingly available musical module that most will have forgotten that they ever knew. “Oh yeah, THAT stuff!” Welcome back to your tweens.
American Idiot, however, suffers from a sense of lukewarm deja vu that touches every track on the album. Music is allowed to be derivative, to play openly at blurring the line between mimesis and influence. The tracks on American Idiot, however, seem to take their cue from conventional constructions that have been worked and reworked enough times that they come off little more than trite. “Oh yeah, THAT stuff!” becomes, “oh. yeah. this stuff…” Too often on this album, we are confronted with the kind of music usually produced by second-tier snooze-rock acts and played in multiplexes before the previews begin, a brand of unstriking and deeply depressing muzak that reminds listeners that even if they’re at that multiplex on a date with a really neat and special someone, they’re still both a couple of corporatized zombies. Songs such as “Are We the Waiting” and “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” exemplify this type of music, whose flagship song was Sixpence None The Richer’s “Kiss Me”, admittedly a cute song.
A good number of the remaining tracks resemble, or in fact are, songs perfectly tooled to simultaneously promote the X-Games, Doritos, Mountain Dew, Gap Kids, extreme sports video games, and tween-targeted adventure comedies that may or may not go straight to video. Listen to “She’s A Rebel” or “St. Jimmy” over and over again in order to visualize any and all of these possibilities. The reason that a song like “She’s A Rebel” (supposedly about a suburbian’s encounter with a revolution-embodying anima figure that alerts him to the possibility of liberating activism) can lend itself so cordially to co-option is that the lyrics of that song and most others may weakly ape the language of dissent or revolt but are in fact composite nonsense lacking any statement other than a restatement of itself as disaffection-flavored music. The music is safely neutered, shelve-able, saleable.
The only great track on American Idiot is the second, “Jesus of Suburbia”, a five-part song that rages against what it considers the soul-death and meaninglessness endemic to the suburbified national condition. In his 2001 novel, The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen used the word “exurbs” to describe the vast sprawls of population that live too far from a city to claim any shared life with it, suburban or otherwise, and yet in their semi-dense sprawl are not small towns or farming communities but simply ugly and anonymous swathes of self-perpetuating development: office parks, malls and mega-strip malls, subdevelopments and on and on. If most of America does not already live in the exurbs, then soon they will.
It is to the condition of the youth who find themselves living among this poisoned plenty that “Jesus of Suburbia”, and the entire album, are directed. Here the problem of trite lyrics and tunes is least severe, pared to the point where it reveals itself as its own solution. This album suffocates itself with banality in the ultimate self-immolating protest, a Christlike gesture on the part of a suburban Jesus. If the exurbs are the dim horizon of American history, Green Day says, we’ll Ghost Dance down in our pox-infected state- see how lousy it all feels on our album, American Idiot, and REPENT! In the first part of “Jesus of Suburbia”, the diphthong slides into a low, dark throbs that is Green Day’s best and most soulful stylistic gesture. This gesture is quickly interrupted by an almost “That Thing You Do” sensibility. Feeling is thwarted by empty fluff. Across the song’s five parts, all beautiful models of the classic Green Day style, there is an interface between Hebrew body and Roman nail. The body is hopelessly bound but passion is written on the doleful face. And that is because, Green Day tells us, the high hill of Golgotha overlooks this exurban landscape.
This album is also inspired, it seems, by the contemporary understanding of martyrdom with which militant Islam has made us familiar – martyrdom as an articulator of outwardly-directed violence. “Letterbomb”, for example, is run through with jihadist fatalism: “It’s not over till you’re underground/ It’s not hope until it’s too late/ It’s cities burnin’/ It’s not my burden/ It’s not hope until it’s too late.” The arc of “American Idiot” ends with the Cars-esque “Whatsername”, in which the radical anima has gone, leaving the defeated hero to reach after her in his memory, only to find his distance from her, her utter absence from him. This album, however, does not ultimately urge resignation on its listeners. Instead, it highlights the troubling question posed to the youth of this country – if the state of affairs in which we are enmeshed (to the point where it is impossible to stand against it but only within it) is such that we do not reject only its policies, but in fact reject the entire system on which material realties are based, then which way do we go? Certainly not terrorism – human liberation is the liberation of all human lives. A happy family in the most desolate exurb is preferable to a grieving family anywhere. Instead, we must take up the challenge handed down to us battered and weary by our parents’ generation to reclaim our humanity through spirit, action, and creativity.