For the better part of 15 years Green Day was merely one of the two or three best punk bands in the world. Unless you’re one of those hard-core types who missed the joke – that punk was a pop movement from the outset – and in that case let’s just call them one of the best alternative bands in the world.
Regardless, beginning in the early to mid-’90s they released a string of CDs that managed to sell very well while at the same time impressing the critics – perhaps because if you listened carefully you could detect things like a deeply-felt debt to The Kinks and The Who and an obvious disinterest in arguments over whether they were, you know, really a punk band. In one show at the old Mammoth in Denver, Billie Joe mocked their detractors with this: “We are not a punk band. We’re a melodic California pop band.” Then they ripped the lid off the joint. Any questions?
There was always more going on beneath the surface than you got from contemporaries like Bad Religion and Rancid. Greg Graffin and Brett Gurewitz had plenty to say, and they didn’t feel a need to be terribly subtle about it. Why should they? After all, punk is defined by an unwavering surface stance, an in-your-face defiance of convention and authority (or, at least there’s an in-your-face pose) that juts out its chin and says “make me shut up.” So perhaps the critics were right. When 75% of what’s going on lies beneath the surface, maybe it’s not punk after all.
But then 2004 rolled around, and America found its democracy being rolled by the most cynical and destructive administration in anyone’s memory. And unlike the 1960s, there didn’t seem to be any artists standing up to provide marching music for a social revolution. On the contrary, all the radio stations were owned by Clear Channel and they were hosting pro-war rallies. Any artist who did have the temerity to voice an unpatriotic opinion (“dissent is treason,” you know) quickly learned that there were consequences. Just ask The Dixie Chicks.
So the soundtrack for Decision ’04 was slated to feature a lot of rock & rollers who’d chosen career over controversy. But then something very … punkish … happened. On September 21 Green Day released American Idiot, an overtly political rock opera that became an instant, 5-star classic as soon as the first chord was struck. St. Jimmy’s life was a howl of protest played out on a stage of spiritual and social blight, a suburban landscape so empty of meaning that even a festering ass-boil like George Bush began to make sense in a “what difference could it possibly make” kind of way. “American Idiot” was us, the legion of everymen who made it all possible and life along the “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” was precisely as its architects intended. In an era when most of our musicians had decided to shut up and sing, Billie Joe Armstrong realized that somebody had better be Bob Dylan, and now.
The greatest punk record since London Calling? Maybe. Maybe better, assuming it was really punk.
Stop, Drop & Roll
How in the hell do you follow that act? Only a handful of bands have ever produced anything as epic as American Idiot, and damned near none of them managed to hit the same high note twice in a row. How to avoid a letdown? Wisely, Green Day decided to put on fake noses and dark glasses and masquerade as The Foxboro Hot Tubs until the heat died down.
Then, last year, they assaulted the summit again, this time with 21st Century Breakdown. Critics found things to carp about, for sure. For instance, this CD set out to be taken seriously, and that kind of ambition often leads the artist to overreach – overproduction, loss of perspective, abandonment of humor, more pianos and orchestras than the essential character of the band will sustain, that kind of thing. And Green Day was accused of all of this.
The thing is, even if you thought the trappings were a little much, the core of what made Green Day great remained: superior songcraft; a finely tuned sense for how to balance muscle and reflection; and when all was said and done, a good deal more restraint than they were given credit for.
In truth, 21CB didn’t overreach at all where the narrative was concerned. It merely gave voice to the reality of the audience’s lived experience – a trend that establishes itself on the first track in a studied interplay between the frustrations of the X and Millennial generations. Billie Joe’s lyrics pointedly avoid manipulation by refusing to assign more gravity to a situation that the facts warrant. While sprawling, grand and anthemic in places, in the true tradition of the rock opera form, 21st Century Breakdown is utterly free of hype and hyperbole. It speaks to the significance of modern life as it is rather than trying to gild the mundane. Orchestras and pianos and zillions of dollars of studio technology notwithstanding, the album is, from the first note to the last, intently honest.
You Are Here
A friend recently said that 21st Century Breakdown was American Idiot, part 2. I suppose that’s an argument with some merit – taken together, the two discs represent a cohesive examination of American society during a turbulent and troubling time. Each piece is at once sweepingly political and intensely personal, and in each suite of songs vast swaths of our population can readily find the large, black X that marks a place and a defining moment they will never forget, no matter how hard they try. A century from now a historian (if there are still such things as historians in a hundred years) might play them back-to-back and perhaps not realize at first that they weren’t the same album.
Even so, it’s hard to imagine that American Idiot, part 2 is a criticism. 21CB is hardly derivative – on the contrary, it expands the scope of the commentary significantly. Put mathematically, it’s the difference between 1+1=1 and 1+1=100. If anything, the fact that Green Day was able to produce a sequel that amplified the myth is an argument for its greatness, not against it.
The Band of the Decade
For these reasons, 21st Century Breakdown is the Scholars & Rogues/Lullaby Pit CD of the Year for 2009.
Additionally, let’s consider American Idiot, our CD of the Year for 2004; 2005’s exceptional live CD, Bullet in a Bible; and Warning, one of our top CDs of 2000 – a release that, looking back, perhaps should have signaled that something bigger was on the way. No band posted such a consistent record of excellence across the decade of the ’00s, and more importantly, no other band came close to defining the decade musically. As suggested above, American Idiot is the single, landmark moment that people will be turning to for decades to come when they think about the music that was to the ’00s what Dylan and The Beatles were to the ’60s, what Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd were to the ’70s, what U2 was to the ’80s or what Nirvana was to the ’90s. It will be impossible to do a movie about this moment in American history without including Ámerican Idiot” or “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” in the soundtrack.
Normally we might wait a couple years to let our view lengthen a bit before making this kind of pronouncement, but in this case it’s clear enough that Green Day is the Band of the Decade. May the artist who eventually earns this honor for the ‘0teens have less dire material to work with.