Upon returning from the RNC protests in September, I got the same request for firsthand insight from everybody in Southern California: Who were these “anarchists” the media and authorities regarded as a terrorist threat, and what could they possibly believe in that warranted such fears? Of course, explaining that the majority of overeducated, black-clad youth with hardcore patches and motherless-child stares weren’t so much hell-bent for chaos as loudly agitated over their own desires—not knowing what they wanted, crystal clear about what they didn’t—lowered the pop counterculture appeal their appearance on FBI watch lists had momentarily elevated. Yes, they spent their downtime at seminars about post-capitalist life and the fraudulence of American democracy; but this had less to do with drinking a different flavor of Kool-Aid than with escaping what they’d been taught in order to find out what they believed. Which always seems a good step toward finding a solution.
Since many of these runaways are the indirect progeny of Green Day’s decade-long campaign to bring punk’s various freedoms to the ‘burbs, it’s hard not to hear the politically charged American Idiot as their tale—a story of rebels without a clue actually looking for one. Though not too deep a clue, since Billie Joe Armstrong’s imagination outstrips his encyclopedia of symbols and three-chord truisms. No matter, though! Hearing an album that entered the charts at number one rail against a “subliminal mindfuck America,” a “redneck agenda,” and “President Gasman” while pretending that arena punk can actually have a semiotic roar, keeps hope alive better than any nü-wavers playing dress-up agitprop ever could.
As a rock opera, Idiot is a mostly three-penny thrill. There is a pair of five-part suites toward the beginning and end (more “A Quick One While He’s Away” than “Bohemian Rhapsody”) outlining a loose plot about one punk protagonist with a martyr complex (Jesus of Suburbia) and another who’s a self-destructive keeper of the flame (St. Jimmy). In between, there’s a girl (minor cameo by Kathleen Hanna), a possible death, and a narrative arc for the phrase “I don’t care,” which sours from a reliable mantra of raging punk apathy 10 minutes into the album, to a defeated declaration (“Does anybody care if nobody cares?”) 10 minutes from its end. Throughout, the atmosphere reeks of cinematic desperation, a pop nightmare of familiar near-truths turned flashing neon slogans, like a T. Rex song or a retro-apocalyptic Walter Hill flick.
In sketching this festering of fundamentalist American myths, Green Day stretch beyond their (long outdated but publicly ingrained) image as a couch-surfing mutineer cartoon. Already deep pop pockets are stuffed with useful glam detritus—cribbing drama from Ziggy Stardust (“City of the Damned”) and the Paisley Underground (“Extraordinary Girl”), stealing vocal melodies from Cheap Trick and Joan Jett throwaways—while rave-ups are still available for those unwittingly stumbling upon “an opus.” Fans who gagged at “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” won’t take to the power-balladry of “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” but lay the new song’s mixture of rock and roll suicide and aging regret on a clean cultural slate, and its self-evaluating anthemic reach gives it the charm of a melancholy story about growing up.
Safe in the knowledge that one thing much of Green Day’s audience can already do is navigate the BS of any so-called truth, American Idiot avoids attempts at fraudulent eloquence as adamantly as it avoids espousing PSAs. That the rock opera ends with a flashback to an old girlfriend (“Whatsername”), sounding lock-stock-and-singed-memory like a Fountains of Wayne lament, speaks to Idiot being less about the hand grenade on the album cover than about the grenade’s heart shape. The messy and always uneven compromise of everyday life and current events has no winners or losers; it’s just a state of chaos. Or, you know—anarchy.
Green Day play Continental Airlines Arena October 30.