American Idiot: The Album That Defined Your Generation
On a Tuesday morning in 2001, I woke up to the sound of my mom crying. I made my way down the stairs wondering what had happened. To me it was just going to be another day at school, another dreadful day in 8th grade where everything would be more or less awful as can be. And then I heard the television on in our downstairs living room and full of curiosity I went and looked to see. Suddenly everything changed.
I saw in front of me a building on fire, smoke pummeling out of its shattered windows and fire ravishing its grey concrete walls. I knew that building. It was the World Trade Center. Only a few weeks ago I had been standing underneath it with my brothers in awe, amazed at its towering heights. From the first time I saw the Twin Towers, they personified power to me. I remember walking in the city for the last time before leaving and looking out to see those two buildings standing out like giants in the crowded skyline of the world’s greatest city. I was in love with the idea of them because, even to an 8th grade boy, they were a sign of power and dominance.
And then I saw them come crashing down on a Tuesday morning in September.
I saw these pinnacles of power in my child’s eye come falling down like an avalanche of destruction upon a city that seemed so invincible to me. I witnessed small silhouettes falling from the heights and soon discovered that those were in fact people jumping in a moment of desperation because they could no longer bear the inferno surrounding them. I was marked. I remember going to school that day in shock at what had happened. Who had done this? They were saying it was terrorists, men in airplanes who wanted to destroy our country. I was scared - scared in a way that only an 8th grader could be scared by witnessing something like that. My friends and I whispered and wondered about who it was and whether they would succeed in destroying us. We felt vulnerable and insecure but of course we had to be indestructible. So we moved on.
But things didn’t stop there. Talk began about a possible war. Every night we would gather around the TV, watching the news to see would come of such a tragedy. I still remember that night when the news came on with the title card “When Diplomacy Fails” and hearing President Bush declare war on Iraq. They were going to war. We were going to war. Kids today have known about conflict and the war on terror since they were old enough to hear about these things, but we didn’t know about war. We were born just when the first Gulf War began and before we hit six years old, it was long gone. We didn’t know war, but now we were in one. Every day I would go home hoping that I would be able to see footage of the soldiers making their way across the sandy desert in their rumbling tanks and dusty humvees. I was fascinated by it, intrigued by it, and deep down - marked by it.
This was the world in which my generation found themselves living when adolescence hit - a world marked by war on one side and rage against war on the other. All you ever heard was the newest death count and the outrage of a war that we did not belong in. We entered high school feeling lost, vulnerable and maybe just a bit forgotten in the terrible tide of war and rage. Everything was questioned; everything was in doubt.
And then came seven words belted out like a war cry across the radio waves that would change things forever. Seven words that would not simply define my generation, but that would introduce to the world a hurricane of thoughts and musically crafted ideas that would wash over the philosophical and psychological landscape of our times and come to be the defining mentality for the youth of the post 9/11 ages to come:
“Don’t want to be an American idiot!”
As a teenage boy growing up in a climate of dissent and animosity, there was no rallying cry more attractive than the opening lines to Green Day’s rock opera, American Idiot. It was rage incarnate in a line of music that could be screamed out from a car window or mimed silently in one’s room. Who cared what words were said after that. It was a call to be different, not to conform. It was a rebellion, and it felt powerful. It was a song that broke open the flood gates of outrage and discontent. We were in high school and this is exactly what we needed.
Television dreams of tomorrow, we’re not the ones who are meant to follow.
The opening number of American Idiot is a song that sets the stage: America has lost its way and the establishment is to blame. Authority is to blame.
After hearing that supercharged introduction to something new, the second song would really convince us that something big was going down.
I’m the son of rage and love, the Jesus of Suburbia.
Throw the name of Jesus in and ears prick up and pay attention. He was to be the main character of this operatic story: a boy named Jesus who was born in the suburbs and he was the son of rage and love. This line sets the theme for the whole album. It will be a constant battle between these two rawest and most basic human emotions. And this is exactly what we knew: love and rage. They towered over our years of adolescence like looming shadows that threatened and embraced us at the same time. Now they were to play a predominant role in what seemed to be the most thrilling musical experience of our short lives. We were used to three minute pop confections on the local Top 40 station. Quick, easy and simple to understand. But Green Day was about to put before us a nine-minute song that would explore different melodies and ideas. It was groundbreaking for us. Jesus of Suburbia sings out:
And there's nothing wrong with me
This is how I'm supposed to be
In a land of make believe
That don't believe in me
Exactly. That was the mindset of the early 2000’s teenage boy. We were not the problem. We were the ones being true to ourselves. The problem was the establishment, the country that was full of fakes and charlatans. And now we had a voice of our own to sing out loud in the streets:
City of the damned
Lost children with dirty faces today
No one really seems to care
I don't care if you don't care
The song goes on to profess an apathy and a disregard for what others think of us. After all, we were living in the “City of the Damned”, inhabited by children who were lost and who had no one to help wash away the dirt from their war-torn faces. If no one cared about us - big deal - we didn’t care anyway.
The song ends with these lines sung in a calming, yet strangely sad voice from lead singer, Billy Armstrong:
I don't feel any shame
I won’t apologize
When there ain't nowhere you can go
The character, Jesus, feels no shame for what he has done. He has cast away all faith in this land of make-believe that is full of lies and hypocrisy, a land that says it loves but seeks only destruction. Isolation begins to set in; now no longer the isolation of standing out as a free-thinker among the lies and facade, but a true loneliness. We would not apologize for what we had done because there was no one left to apologize to. We were running away from a pain of disinterest and betrayal without any shelter in sight.
Running away from pain
When you've been victimized
Tales from another broken…
The final lines are viscously saddening. This boy has been made into a victim and tells the listener that this is just a tale from another broken…he doesn’t finish the line. We know he should say ‘home’ but he doesn’t dare speak it. He roars into the final line:
It is only in the midst of layered voices that you can hear an utterance of ‘home’ being sung in the background.
Jesus of Suburbia was a song about departure from the establishment but also from religion and family, a running away from the lies and deceit of the American society that had left us with only rage and love - hypocritical love at that. The next track, Holiday, was an all-out attack upon the government and the system that ruled our country.
Hear the sound of the falling rain
Coming down like an Armageddon flame
The shame, the ones who died without a name
Hear the dogs howling out of key
To a hymn called “Faith and Misery”
And bleed, the company lost the war today
The stage is set. Rain falls on a dark day and each drop is like a flame that burns the land like a condemning, fiery tempest. Bodies of unnamed men lie dead in a forgotten land and upon the field of war bleeding dogs howl a song. The song they sing is of faith and misery. Has faith brought this misery? Or do faith and misery stand in opposition to one another? Maybe the ones being led into war had faith in those they followed but their belief was rewarded with only misery and death. What was clear immediately was the idea that this was not a war of beliefs. This was not a “crusade” as President Bush called it. This was a war, not fought by a nation to uphold justice and truth, but a war fought by a company - the United States of America - that sought nothing but profit. We did not learn this from history books or from teachers in the classroom. We learned it from a voice in the speakers accompanied by magnificent power chords and frustrated pounds on the drums. This was our new classroom, the classroom of the disillusioned.
Then once again the boy screams out his defiance and separation from this war-mongering and monstrous injustice:
I beg to dream and differ from the hollow lies
This is the dawning of the rest of our lives
We are freed from this oppression of ideas and authority. The holiday has begun. This is reflective in the music which scorched along with Mike Dirnt’s chugging guitar. It was a rollicking good time. A song built for the summer drive and the adrenaline rush of youthful expression, which seduced you with its melody and preached to you with its imagery of ruinous government and tyrannical imperialism in lines like:
A gag, a plastic bag on a monument
Sieg Heil to the president gasman!
Bombs away is your punishment
Pulverize the Eiffel Tower
Who criticize your government
They had choked all the life and blood out of the foundations that made this country great. Its monuments were left, asphyxiated like old and deceased gods, while on foreign lands we set out to destroy every land and nation that uttered even the slightest word against our system of beliefs.
It ends once more with a cry of independence and non-conformity:
Trials by fire, setting fire
Is not a way that’s meant for me
Just ‘cause, just ‘cause
Because we’re outlaws yeah!
This is reckless abandonment embodied in a punk song. Every chord empowered us. Every sound proved potent before the watered-down, easy listening songs we were used to. We didn’t even know all the words being sung in this hollering and raucous anthem but we knew what it felt like. It felt like power. It felt like dominance - the things we all desperately wanted.
Then came the song which rocked the world.
Immediately following the frenzied pace of Holiday came the mid-tempo, tremolo-affected guitar with its stuttering chords that grew further apart with each utterance. And then one powerful strum on the strings came, opening the doors for the great song of our generation’s decade, Boulevard of Broken Dreams.
The boy, separated from all that he once held dear, walks along the ruined street of crumbled dreams. These dreams of the future that he had built in the age of his innocence have been ripped down by the lies and deceit and he knows now that he is truly alone in every way. The brilliance of this song is remarkable. It powers along in its own ballad-like way, triumphant yet near heartbreaking sadness.
My shadow's the only one that walks beside me
My shallow heart's the only thing that's beating
Sometimes I wish someone out there will find me
Till then I walk alone
The boy is beginning to understand the profundity of loneliness and even in his hard-core rebellion he wishes at times that he was not alone. Maybe someone will find me. It’s an intimate insight into the typical teenage, self-induced seclusion, into the moment when we walk away in rage or jealousy, wanting to be alone yet all the while hoping someone will come along and walk beside us.
The strange paradox of this song, and of so many other popular songs now, is that we find ourselves singing their melodies in sunbathed moments yet their lyrics are meant only for the shadowlands of pain and melancholy. The melody is undeniably catchy and yet the lyrics are so full of anguish. And still we sang. Why? Because somewhere deep down it was true. It’s as if the very center of a man knows when he is alone and he identifies with something as spiritual as music even though he does not consciously approve. We were alone, and this was our song. Apathy ruled our lives, so much so that our existence was sometimes a question in itself:
Check my vital signs to know I'm still alive
And I walk alone.
And I walk alone.
After that final refrain, the guitar rips into a high voltage riff that hits each chord like a boy’s heavy steps, weighed down more and more by his realizations until finally it swells into the pulsating and increasingly emphatic drum beats. If one lets the music take him, he feels as if he is there with the boy, pounding his head against the wall and shaking his fists up to the sky in a desperate assault of frustration. It was triumphant and tragic all at the same time and we embraced every note like a fresh shot of the clearest air. It brought adrenaline and joy all the while playing testimony to a deep and moving truth. We were alone, a generation deprived of truth and direction, a generation simply waiting.
Starry nights city lights
Coming down over me
Skyscrapers and stargazers
In my head
Are we we are, Are we we are
The waiting unknown?
This dirty town was burning down in my dreams
Lost and found city bound in my dreams
We have been to the heights of rebellion and indignation, along the lonely paths of isolation and now we find ourselves in the valley of the unknown. The final song in this first and most important movement is one of excruciating sadness at the abandonment the world feels. The rush and the thrill are over. There remains just one boy sitting on the ground in an abandoned street, looking up to the heavens where one should find God and the very antithesis to loneliness, but all he can do is ask:
Are we even known? Does anyone even know I am here?
It’s tragic. The drums begin like an irregular heartbeat recalling to us the foreshadowing from Jesus of Suburbia. He feels his heart; he knows he has one. And all he wants now is someone to share it with. But maybe there is no one. The question is sung masterfully as it hits its peak with the word ‘waiting’ and then cascades and fades off in desperation with the word ‘unknown’. And after each question, the choir of the world joins in with him to scream out the great and tragic question in a hymn-like melody:
Are we we are?
Are we we are the waiting?
The boy has lost hope. The whole world has lost hope. This whole city of his, this world, this country that he held so dear was wrapped up so intimately in his dreams, or rather in his ideal imagining of it, that when that dream came crashing down - everything fell apart. And now he is left with no direction and with no hope that there is anyone out there guarding and guiding him along his path.
Heads or tails and fairytales in my mind
Are we we are, Are we we are the waiting unknown?
Everything now is chance happenings like the flip of a coin. All the aspirations he had and the glorious stories he heard are fairy tales that are but a ghostly presence in his mind, never to be materialized in reality. He is in crisis. Everything is being called into question. It began with the media and the people around him in American Idiot. Then through the epic Jesus of Suburbia he calls into question the things closer to his heart, his teachers, his religion, his parents and his home. The boy then falls into a rage and delves deep into a life of reckless abandon and empty partying in Holiday until the hangover hits. Then he realizes that his shallow heart is but a lonely wanderer upon an empty street of shattered dreams and ideals, through the balladry of Boulevard of Broken Dreams. It is in the final song, Are We The Waiting, that the full existential crisis hits him and he questions his own life and his own thoughts. And lastly, as the song comes to a close, the boy comes full circle and makes a proclamation that is both shocking and in a sense profound in the most heartbreaking way:
The rage and love, the story of my life
The Jesus of Suburbia is a lie
This rage and love which he has despised in all those around him is not simply the fashioning of the establishment and the world which he hates and distrusts. It is the very story of his life. It is him. It is not simply lies all around him, not simply the authority that towers over him in a constant state of oppression and tyranny - it is him. He is the lie. He is the one who is sick and in need of rescue. He is part of the fall of all that was once dear and true. And in the same breath, it calls into question not only him but also the other Jesus - the Christ. There is no redeemer. There is no knight in shining armor that embodies good and casts away the darkness of evil. It is all a lie including himself, and he has fallen for it all. He has been fooled because he is not some great pinnacle or bastion of truth and righteousness. He belongs in the same place as all the rest. He is one of them. He is an American Idiot.
The albums continues on by blasting into the next song immediately with the introduction of a new character or maybe an alter ego/resurrection of the now crushed Jesus of Suburbia named St. Jimmy. He then meets a girl and falls in love for the next couple tracks and is in a way healed from the pain in the song Give Me Novacaine. Then that love is ripped away from him as he marches off to war in the moving Wake Me Up When September Ends. There is even a seeming reunion with the old ways in the penultimate track, Homecoming, which begins by telling us in glorious musical fashion that St. Jimmy has killed himself:
Mom and Dad are the ones to blame
Jimmy died today
He blew his brains out into the bay
But the song finishes with the constant refrain, sung in a triumphant tone:
Home, we’re coming home again
But when he returns home, he has no remembrance of the boy he was or of anything that he held dear including the girl he fell in love with:
I remember the face, but I can’t recall the name
Now I wonder how whatsername has been
He is but a shell of who he was. The same boy but not the same soul. His eyes see the same things and remember distant memories but his soul remembers nothing deep or penetrating. He has been broken. And without the memories he once had, which clung to the most intimate motions of his heart, which gave him something to fight for - he is back to being completely alone with nothing but his walking shadow and the beating of his shallow heart.
This is our generation. Full of rage. Desperate for love. Yet hopelessly isolated in the loneliness of sin and pride. Was this a healthy album? No. Was it something that should be promoted among our youth and championed in our classrooms? Definitely not. But it is without a doubt, an album that spoke to the world and resonated most especially with the confused and lonely inhabitants of it - my generation. The 9/11 generation.
We were the ones most affected by that tragic day because we were young enough to be confused and old enough to be worried. We were the impressionable youth that watched a country tear itself apart and listened to a government lie, not just about small matters, but about things that would define the next five hundred years. We were the ones who as children witnessed our country attack and destroy a nation simply because of greed and political gain. We were the children who saw the power and might of the greatest nation on earth be forever altered and left to slowly decay on a simple morning in September. We were jaded, apathetic and looking for something to stand for, something to be excited for, something to help us once again feel powerful. That something was American Idiot. It did not ask questions that it could not answer. It brought certainty and resolve. It brought purpose and intent. It gave us anthem after anthem to belt out like a chorus on crusade as we walked the city streets. It was unapologetic in its words and emotionally charged in its music. It was everything for a generation that had been dragged through the most traumatic experience in the history of our people.
But its whirlwind popularity and gut wrenching impact did not stop with my generation. It is an album that continues to work its way into the cultural landscape of today. The children of then are the world shapers now. They run corporations and drive media giants. They hold public office and influence domestic policy and education. They are fathers and mothers who pass on even subconsciously the raised fist of revolution that holds a grenade in the form of a bleeding heart. These songs are not just their songs. They are the songs of every generation that rises up beneath the shadow of their influence.
It is an album to be reckoned with because it is an album whose fiery waters, raging above and below its musical surface, are a searing reflection and a tragic insight into every generation yet to come. For will there ever be a more succinct way of beginning a tale of any man, woman or child than with the words:
I’m the son of rage and love.