Fifteen years ago, America was under a Bush government and still recovering from the aftermath of the planes hitting the Twin Towers. Television still reigned supreme as the preferred form of media, and thus birthed an album highlighting the political climate of the time - Green Day’s American Idiot. The music is timeless, and the lyrics and themes of the album have become even more relevant. To celebrate Billie Joe Armstrong waking up from his annual September slumber, we're examining the narrative that underpins American Idiot and celebrating the record in all of its angsty, middle class glory.
In 2003, Green Day began recording a new album. After the commercial success of albums like Dookie, Nimrod and Warning, which established the band not just as pop-punk heroes ('Longview', 'Hitching A Ride', 'Warning') but as some of the finest balladeers in recent memory ('Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life) springs to mind), it's fair to say the pressure was on. The band recorded 20 demos for a record tentatively titled as Cigarettes & Valentines, but the demos were allegedly stolen from the studio close to the end of production and lost forever.
Instead of trying to re-record the material they already had, the band decided to start again from scratch. Inspired by classic records such as The Who's Tommy, Billie Joe and co. were hooked on the idea of not just writing an album, but creating a rock opera. It's a good thing they did scrap those demos, because what they churned out in the aftermath ended up becoming the iconic concept album that is American Idiot.
The album’s two main themes are Rage and Love, which is initially depicted on the album’s artwork - a hand holding a grenade shaped as a heart. The songs on the album tell an intertwined story of a teenager coming of age, his love interest and the current state of media and politics in America.
The title track of the album 'American Idiot' is a catchy, fast paced track with lyrics implying a country dumbed down by media saturation, and mass media presenting ideal visions of our futures that are impossible to obtain. American Idiot was recently in the news after Green Day’s performance at the iHeartRadio event in Las Vegas, where Billie Joe Armstrong switched up the original lyrics “I’m not a part of the redneck agenda” instead singing “I’m not a part of the MAGA agenda”, in reference, of course, to Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan. Relevant.
The next track tells the story of a teenager, a coming-of-age story happening in his own suburban hell. He dubs himself ‘Jesus of Suburbia”, a living embodiment of a media saturated America, and so begins the tale of the Jesus of Suburbia, the character we will follow throughout the album. The song itself is an epic, nine-minute rock ballad ending with the Jesus of Suburbia leaving his hometown, the “city of the damned”, and beginning his new life.
Next, 'Holiday' captures his first few days of being out of home. Leaving the suburbs, Jesus feels like he’s on a holiday and the fast and upbeat sound of the song reflects the happiness that he’s feeling after escaping the suburbs. The lyrics in 'Holiday' also criticise Bush’s America and the war in Iraq.
'Boulevard of Broken Dreams', one of the many huge singles from American Idiot, has a much slower and sombre melody, representing the depression Jesus of Suburbia is feeling, walking alone through the streets of the city he’d run to. 'Boulevard of Broken Dreams' is followed by another slow, sad tune in 'We Are The Waiting' which is abruptly cut short by the upbeat 'St. Jimmy' - our first proper taste of the rage element of the album’s themes, and the second ‘character’ in the album. St. Jimmy is the rebellious, angry manifestation of the rage pent up in the Jesus of Suburbia, causing him to take on the identity of St. Jimmy. St Jimmy is the typical anti-establishment punk, urging the Jesus of Suburbia to rebel and convinces him to turn to drugs in 'Give Me Novacaine'.
After 'Give Me Novacaine', we get our taste of the love element of the album when Jesus of Suburbia meets a girl - Whatsername. 'She’s A Rebel' goes back into the fast, upbeat pace where Jesus finds love in a girl who’s unlike anyone he’s met before. The love is so intense and so strong he explains it as her “holding my heart like a hand grenade” - a metaphor we should all be familiar with by now.
The love is short lived, as 'Extraordinary Girl' depicts another description of the girl he loves, which again is cut short by 'Letterbomb' - the letter Whatsername sends the Jesus of Suburbia to ruthlessly break up with him:
“You’re not the Jesus of Suburbia
The St. Jimmy is a figment of
Your father’s rage and your mother’s love
Yeah you’re the idiot of America”
All memes aside about waking up Billie Joe Armstrong on October 1, 'Wake Me Up When September Ends' is a slow, sad rock ballad inspired by the death of Armstrong’s father on September 1, 1982. He was aged just ten years old when his father passed away. Other interpretations of the song have also been linked to the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers, while the music video acts as a protest against America's involvement in the Iraq War - particularly lingering on the loss of young love as soliders fought and died in a foregin land while their loved ones waited at home.
The climax of the album comes with the epic, five-part saga that is 'Homecoming'. The first part of the song is Jesus coming to terms with the fact that St. Jimmy is a part of him he needs to let go. St. Jimmy lost the love he had with Whatsername and he’s grown out of the rage and aggression that is - or was - St. Jimmy.
The first part of the song is the death of St. Jimmy, Jesus letting go of the rage inside himself and begin moving on with his life. 'Homecoming' then continues into the story of the Jesus of Suburbia’s return to the suburbs, “filling out paperwork now, at the facility on East 12th Street”, settling down into his job and ‘normal’ life. The next part of the song, 'Nobody Likes You', is actually sung by Green Day bassist MIke Dirnt, and delves into the letter Whatsername wrote Jesus all those years ago, which continues to haunt his subconsciousness.
The song continues into 'Rock and Roll Girlfriend', performed by drummer Tre Cool, which describes a letter from someone he used to know in the punk scene, who’s still living that lifestyle. At the end, he tells Jesus to stop complaining. By the end of 'Homecoming', Jesus of Suburbia realises he needs to let himself take control of his own life and become his own person before the curtain falls - an important sentiment to explore on the album's penultimate epic before concluding on 'Whatsername.' This track reflects on the woman who once meant so much to him when he was younger, and now he doesn’t even remember her name.
American Idiot is a timeless album (it's even recently been adapted for Broadway) and the story told through the lyrics are relatable to almost everyone - whether it be the listener’s own coming of age story, unhappiness with the current state of the media or politics, or their own epic love story. If you ever wondered how your parents listen to the same albums from when they were young and not get sick of them, think of this album, because a record like this will most likely stay relevant forever.
Missing Green Day? They're set to release a new album Father Of All... soon - read more about it here.