A little more than 10 years ago, Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt and Tre Cool faced an unordinary obstacle. The trio, known as Green Day, was at a crossroads. Green Day’s follow-up album to Warning — Cigarettes and Valentines — was stolen from its studio. Faced with a decision to either re-record those 20 songs or to start over, the three opted for the latter, eventually releasing a shorter, 13-song album in September of 2004. They called it American Idiot.
On Saturday, American Idiot turned 10. Having forgotten entirely about those 13 songs at some point in the last decade, I decided to give it a listen for the first time since my teenage years.
I haven’t turned it off since. Not just because of the nostalgia and distant memories that songs such as “Jesus of Suburbia” conjured in my head — but because it’s that damn good.
At its most basic level, American Idiot is still, at times, vintage Green Day — a composition of forceful power chords and Armstrong’s snarling voice. The album begins this way with the politically charged title track, which consists of an assortment of rousing rally cries.
When you’re 12 or 16 or even 22, the lines “don’t want to be an American idiot” and “the subliminal mindfuck America,” might not actually mean much of anything — they still might be a bunch of hollow statements. The conditions Green Day lamented about in “American Idiot” and “Holiday” haven’t withered away. Maybe that’s why I still can’t deny the feeling of rebellion budding through my body when Armstrong shouts, “Just cause, just cause, because we’re outlaws yeah!”
Where the album diverges and breaks into brand-new territory is in its theatrics. It’s a rock opera, telling the story of the Jesus of Suburbia, his journey away to the city, where he meets his alter ego, St. Jimmy and a girl, Whatsername, and then his journey back home. The protagonist changes throughout his odyssey, but the world doesn’t.
After my first listen through this past weekend, I was amazed at how the album still struck a chord with me, and not just because of the continued relevance of the political issues discussed in the album. I think the reason American Idiot still holds up a decade later is because of its relatability.
I’m 22 now. Since the album was released, I’ve graduated from high school, I’ve moved to a different state for college and I’m a few months away from leaving Cal.
For the sixth-grade version of myself, American Idiot helped bridge the gap between top-40 and off-kilter rock. I was 11 when it was released. My idea of rock consisted of Good Charlotte. Songs such as “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and “Holiday” were catchy enough to reel me in, no matter how overplayed they were on the radio, but they were also dynamic enough to generate prying questions. Why was Armstrong so pissed off? What was the Jesus of Suburbia searching for on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams? Why was he leaving home?
Today, I don’t have those same questions. I’d like to think I recognize why the Jesus of Suburbia left home and why Armstrong doesn’t want to be an “American idiot.”
I left my suburb of Seattle to come to Berkeley, coincidentally where Green Day began. Like the Jesus of Suburbia, I left “to find what (I) believe.” I’m not saying I’m my own version of the Jesus of Suburbia. I just think I understand him now, something that would have been impossible for me to even grasp 10 years ago.
At the end of American Idiot, the protagonist looks back at the memory of the girl he met away from home. “Remember, whatever,” Armstrong repeats in “Whatsername.” “It seems like forever ago.”
It was forever ago when my older sister finally burned me a copy of American Idiot, leaving it on my childhood desk. It was forever ago when I listened to “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” on repeat for hours, finally uncovering the meaning of “read between the lines, what’s fucked up and everything’s alright” and thinking that Green Day was bordering on genius.
A decade can seem like forever ago. But I can still remember.
Contact Sean Wagner-McGough at [email protected].