49. Green Day - American Idiot

Okay, so here's where the Ramones lovers are going to smack me big time. I can just hear it: "#49? Green Day?! The Ramones are 97, but Green Day deserves #49?! At least you had the smarts to put Blink 182 at only #86. Idiot! There wouldn't even be a Green Day without The Ramones!" True as it may be, there wouldn't be a Ramones without some lame garage band in New Jersey that may have influenced them but we've never even heard of. I already made my argument for the Ramones and I stand by it, so I'll move on and make my case for the greatest song on one of the greatest albums of the 00's.

After the slight disappointment that they felt with their 2000 album, Warning, Green Day entered the studio in 2003 to record the follow-up. They recorded almost a full slate of songs when the master tapes from their initial attempt went missing. Their producer, Rob Cavallo, asked them if the missing songs were their best effort. The three band members, lead singer and guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt & drummer Tré Cool had to admit that it wasn't their best effort. So they threw it all out and started from scratch.

The album that they ended up making, American Idiot, is arguably one of the best albums from the last decade. They took their punk rock roots and married it with the concept album influence of classic and progressive rock mixed with the most anti-punk genre, the musical, a la West Side Story. So you get a three minute punk rock anthem that is the title song as well as two nine minute plus opuses, each with five parts. I was half-waiting for some sort of concerto at the halfway point. It's just that they went off on a limb, but instead they're Wile E Coyote, five feet past the end of the limb, legs spinning frantically, not realizing that they're about to fall to their demise. But they didn't fall. They hit the bottom of the ninth grand slam home run to win the seventh game of the world series by selling over 14,000,000 copies worldwide and winning a Grammy. (Does anybody need any more metaphors?)

The album starts out with the title track and #49 on my list, "American Idiot." It's a no-holds-barred punk anthem that clocks in at the prerequisite time of "less than three minutes." It starts off with Billie Joe's blazing guitar played with old-school punk effects, tipping a hat to those Ramones influences, which he then almost immediately transforms into the more thunderous guitar of modern punk music. Billie Joe's joined by blazing drums and bass for the rest of the intro before all of the instruments (save the bass drum) drop off for the song's first lyrics, "Don't want to be an American idiot."

And that line sums up the attitude of so many of today's young Americans. They think that the America they are growing up in is part of the problem and not part of the cure. Our American lifestyle perpetuates a consumerism mentality that ends up with a feeling of entitlement. Obviously that's a grand overstatement, but it also isn't without merit. Billie Joe sings about not wanting to be part of the pervasive attitude of the close-minded, homophobic, racist attitude that still has a strong heartbeat in the American heartland. And the media that Green Day is actually a part of (to a certain degree) gets its share of the blame for the perpetuation of those ideals. You can see it in the lyrics:

Well maybe I'm the faggot America.
I'm not a part of a redneck agenda.
Now everybody do the propaganda.
And sing along in the age of paranoia.

The chorus comes across more as a bridge, with the verses seemingly the actual choruses. So they took the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge format of most pop music and turned it on its ear. The lyrics also turn things on their ear. They're about the fact that the kids are not alright and something needs to change. There's both hopelessness and hope in them:

Welcome to a new kind of tension.
All across the idiot nation.
Everything isn't meant to be okay.
Television dreams of tomorrow.
We're not the ones who're meant to follow.
For that's enough to argue.

The music is as simple and direct as the lyrics. Although they stray into wider musical styles on the album American Idiot, they stick to their punk roots on the song, "American Idiot." Guitar, bass, drums, vocals. That's it. No keyboards, strings, or any superfluous production. Sure it sounds clean and powerful and is produced well, they don't let anything else get in the way. Although the lyrics are very pointed and critical, the melody has a strong pop sensibility to it

The guitar solo is so typical of punk songs. Nothing too fancy, just a chance to tear loose a little bit. After the solo, the song brings back the early punk guitar while Tre gets to flex his muscles a bit and take some of the spotlight musically. Then the song rips back into its powerful guitar and then comes to a close like so many punk songs do. It's as if someone just pulls the power cord and that's it. Song over.

So although Green Day owes a serious debt to the bands that influenced them (The Ramones, The Clash, Sex Pistols, etc.), American Idiot, both album and song, show that they've taken those influences and built on them. What they built was an album that is both a tribute to punk rock and at the same time the progression of punk rock into something more complex and substantial. The message may remain the same, but the transmission has evolved into something much more sophisticated and powerful. That may seem to be the antithesis of the roots of punk rock, it's very punk to rebel against everything, even if it includes railing against long-standing punk rock conventions.

"American Idiot," to a certain degree, is the "Anarchy in the UK" for American punks in the new millennium. Although this album was released before the current dire economic state really took hold in the United States, its theme and lyrics speak to the youth of today. Our country has to come to terms with its problems and stop sweeping them under the rug, because many of today's young people know that they're the ones who are going to be left to clean up the mess. Barak Obama as president is a sign of that acknowledgment of responsibility for the future. Younger Americans voted in much larger numbers than ever before because they realized that being oblivious and apathetic are no longer acceptable states of mind. As so many American musicians in the sixties turned a critical eye to their own country, a new generation of songwriters have taken the baton and tried to shine a light on the changes that need to come. Hopefully the modern group will share some of the successes that their predecessors did.

By the look of American Idiot, it seems like they're well on their way.

(Fun Fact #726: Since I talked about The Ramones and punk rock earlier, I wanted to punctuate just how short punk songs are, every single one of the tracks on the Ramones' debut album are under two and a half minutes long, and six are even under two minutes. All fourteen songs total up to 29 minutes, four seconds. Fourteen songs!)
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