Picture it: Sicily, 1921. No wait. Concord University, 2004. I was 18-years-old and a wide-eyed, naive freshman. I was sitting in my girlfriend's dorm room watching MTVu, the MTV channel just for colleges. They were showing music videos.
A new video comes on. "Hmmmm... Green Day has a new song," I think to myself. In minutes, my life has changed forever. I just didn't realize it yet.
The title track from "American Idiot" really resonated with me. With his recent forays as a painter, author, and attempts to become a media darling, it's very easy to forget how horrible George W. Bush's America really was. I was fed up with it and I now had an anthem with which to express my dissatisfaction.
My mom and I went to the FYE at the mall. I ran to the display of Green Day albums and grabbed my copy. My mom got a Guns N' Roses greatest hits album. We listened to that one on the way home. I don't care much for their bigger hits, but "Patience" and "Mr. Brownstone" are good GNR tracks.
Back in the day, people talk about getting their favorite cassette tape and wearing it out from playing it so much. Ten years later, my CD is in very good shape because I took care of it. But, the "wearing it out" hyperbole works here. That CD became my companion. I listened to it in my alarm clock/CD player combo. I found out you could put a CD into a DVD player and it would work, so I listened to it on my roommate's TV. If you saw me walking around campus in 2004 with headphones on, you saw me listening to American Idiot on my portable CD player.
It was loud. It was angry. It was sad. It was complicated. It was me. I felt such a connection to the words and sounds coming into my ears.
It inspired me creatively. When I needed that extra spark, I put my headphones in, cranked it up, and my fingers got to doing their work.
Green Day had that rare creative and commercial success. The singles were all over the radio and it was selling a lot of albums. But the critics also loved it. A few years ago, Rolling Stone magazine named it the 23rd greatest album of the "aughts," 2000-2009.
It took me a little while to really get into the story. American Idiot is what we call a "rock opera." It tells the story about a cast of characters throughout the course of the album. Green Day is not the first, nor the last. Arguably, The Who did it best with "Tommy" (the "deaf, dumb, and blind kid" who can play pinball in one of their most popular songs) and "Quadrophenia."
There are three central characters in American Idiot: The Jesus of Suburbia, St. Jimmy, and Whatsername. The Jesus of Suburbia is your average kid growing up in George Bush's America, on a diet of "soda pop & Ritalin." St. Jimmy is the bad kid, "Here to represent the needle in the vein of the establishment." Every good story needs that female element. Whatsername inspired the album art ("she's holding on my heart like a hand grenade").
Throughout the course of the album, they get disillusioned with life, meet up, try to change the world, it ends horribly, sadness ensues, then the album ends on a poignant note of reflection.
Let's take a track-by-track look and watch the story unfold.
American Idiot ... The album opens with the introduction. It sets up the kind of world that we're living in and the people involved. "Can you hear the sounds of hysteria? The subliminal mind-fuck, America."
Jesus Of Suburbia ... Introduces us to the main character. "There's nothing wrong with me, this is how I'm supposed to be, in a land of make-believe." This song is composed of five parts: Jesus of Suburbia, City of the Damned, I Don't Care, Dearly Beloved, and Tales of Another Broken Home. It sets him up as a naive child from a broken home, raised by "Moms and Brads." He realizes that everyone around him are hypocrites and that nothing good can come from living in this town. He finally realizes that it's a land of make-believe "And it don't believe in me."
Holiday ... He finally left town! He's having fun, "This is our lives on holiday!" he exclaims. It's a very politically-charged song, which fits the character's outlook on life. He's tired of the status quo and not being able to trust your political leaders. "Another protester has crossed the line, to find the money's on the other side."
Boulevard of Broken Dreams ... The holiday is over. Life is harder than you realized and you're all alone looking for something, be it love or companionship or something deeper. Biggest hit off of the album; pop radio was all over this. It's a simple song with a simple message and it really resonated with a mainstream audience.
Are We The Waiting ... He wants more. He needs to change the world but he doesn't know what to do. He needs something, but he hasn't found it yet. He needs someone?
St. Jimmy ... "My name is Jimmy, and you better not wear it out!" He is a charismatic character that The Jesus of Suburbia latches onto. "Patron saint of the denial, with an angel face and a taste for suicidal." He lives life hard and fast.
Give Me Novacaine ... He's getting brainwashed. He's delving into drugs. The Jesus of Suburbia is getting into this new lifestyle with St. Jimmy. "Drain the pressure from the swelling, this sensation's overwhelming." He looks for guidance: "Tell me, Jimmy, I won't feel a thing. So give me novacaine."
She's A Rebel ... We are introduced to Whatsername. "She's a rebel. She's a saint. She's the salt of the earth and she's dangerous."
Extraordinary Girl ... The relationship has started, and it's not going well. Life isn't going the way either of them had planned. "Some days he feels like dying, she gets so sick of crying."
Letterbomb ... The Jesus of Suburbia finds a letter written to him by Whatsername. She hates where they live, she hates what they're doing with their lives, she hates what they have become and who they look up to: "You're not The Jesus of Suburbia, the St. Jimmy is a figment of your father's rage and your mother's love, made me the Idiot America." He ends it by talking about what he read: "She said I can't take this place, I'm leaving it behind. Well, she said I can't take this town, I'm leaving you tonight."
Wake Me Up When September Ends ... This has taken on several different meanings over the years. Billie Joe Armstrong, lead singer for Green Day, got inspiration for this song after his father passed away. It was a horrible month for him. Continuing the storyline of the album, The Jesus of Suburbia is in a deep depression after Whatsername leaves him. The music video was a long-form piece of work that told the story about a happy couple, with the man looking to make a difference in their lives. He joins the Army and his girlfriend is not happy at all. The video interjects scenes of him scared for his life in Iraq and her alone, crying. It was controversial because it was so relevant. That was real life for a lot of people during that time.
Homecoming ... An ending to the story. Nothing is the same and they don't know what to do. This song is broken up into 5 different parts: The Death of St. Jimmy, East 12th Street, Nobody Likes You, Rock and Roll Girlfriend, and We're Coming Home Again. It's a Homecoming atmosphere with them, as they meet up again, but it's not a festive moment for long. "St. Jimmy comes without any shame. He says 'We're fucked up and we're not the same. And mom and dad are the ones you can blame.'" Spoiler alert: St. Jimmy dies. The Jesus of Suburbia struggles with it. "Does anybody care if nobody cares?"
Whatsername ... Sort of an epilogue to the American Idiot album. Time has passed and The Jesus of Suburbia is thinking about the past. "I remember the face, but I can't recall the name. Now I wonder how Whatsername has been." He says he burnt all of the photographs of them together and has moved on with life. He ends things on a happy note looking at a lost relationship: "Forgetting you, but not the time."
Ten years later, it still holds up well. Green Day tried the rock opera concept a second time with "21st Century Breakdown" in 2009, which did not receive nearly the commercial or critical success as "American Idiot." The second rock opera looks at life in a post-Bush world and examines the themes of religion, politics, and relationship issues. I think it will probably become more well-regarded as time passes. It's a solid followup.
Everybody has that pivotal album in their life that helped define them. An album that helped them sort out the issues in their heads. Words and themes resonate with a young person and it helps them find out who they are. American Idiot did that with me. It is my favorite album and will always hold a special place in my heart and mind.