For as popular as they have been, has any band struggled to fit in as much as Green Day? They crash the East Bay Punk scene of the late 80s and, even from their early days, are just a little too poppy to be considered punk. On the flip side, they’re not really built to fit the pop mold (songs about masturbation, getting high, sadomasochism, etc.). For the early part of their career, they ended up pleasing no one. They shunned their punk roots by signing with a major record label but didn’t quite crack the mainstream due to their much-frowned-upon antics, drug use and alcoholism.
Then, the skies opened up and we get Dookie. Is it possible that Dookie is the most beloved album of the 1990s? I didn’t say the best, the most remembered or the most acclaimed. The most beloved. It didn’t have the music shifting influence of Nevermind, the sheer artistry of OK Computer or the greatest hits-esque tracklisting of The Black Album, but what album defined the 1990s more than Dookie? Have you ever heard anyone ANYONE ever say that they didn’t like Dookie? It came smack dab in the middle of the decade and was the voice of a generation (almost more so than Nirvana). Think about it. Generation Y wasn’t angry. The album is everything about us- we don’t give a fuck! I’m at the tail end, but come on. We’re so watered down, so much is available to us that really all we want to do is not be bored. Think about Dookie. What’s the biggest problem faced thematically? Boredom. Isn’t that our generation in a nutshell? That’s what Dookie sold perfectly. “I declare I don’t care…” to “Let’s the nuke the bridge we’ve torched two thousand times before” (or even “all by myself” if you’re getting specific). It was the perfect 1990s album at the perfect time.
But then here is where our friends fall out of touch again. America seriously got dumber. In the mid 90s, we were content to be lethargic but we weren’t stupid. Our favorite bands were still Led Zeppelin and The Beatles. We weren’t overrun with video games, the Internet or 250 channel cable packages. By the time Nimrod rolled around, we were in another place altogether. Suddenly we were pro wrestling (entertaining but smut), Jerry Springer, sex on TV, etc. And we still looked to Billie Joe for slapdick songs about being a stupid fucking teenager, and that really wasn’t what he wanted to do. Say what you will about Dookie, but it wasn’t dumb. So here Green Day is left on the outside looking in. They didn’t fit into the new MTV douchebag image of music and got left behind as a result. So who did this open the door for? Blink 182! The Offspring! MXPX! If Green Day wasn’t going to make songs about being a fucking idiot, Blink sure was. I give Billie Joe so much damn credit. It would have been so easy to make Dookie 2 and release an album about masturbation, marijuana and shit in 1999 and make a bajillion dollars, but he didn’t. He did an old school punk album and a foray into pop music.
It had to be incredibly difficult for them to watch Blink 182 get rich, you must admit. I enjoyed Blink 182’s douchebaggery as much as any pre-teen in the early 2000s, but in 2001, how much does it suck to be Billie Joe Armstrong? You and your band, seven years removed from the height of your popularity, have to sing your ambitious songs from Warning as the opening act for the band that sings “It’d be noice, to have a blowjawb!” Not to mention, they took your whole schtick and ran with it.
Then comes American Idiot. I really think it just grew out of them not being able to be a punk band any more. They were clearly trying to resurrect that a little bit with Cigarettes & Valentines (the alleged planned album from 2003 that was canned when the mastertapes were allegedly stolen- probably by Tom Delong) and saw that the ship had sailed. In 2004, much like they did in 1994, they hit an album at the right time that encompassed a decade. The album undeniably served as a catalyst for a ton of upper middle class Reagan Republicans to look in the mirror and question what they believed in. Am I wrong? Did it not noticeably predict a shift in politics? Were many of us not furious when we heard “redneck agenda” for the first time but inexplicably kept going back to it because WE KNEW THAT IT WAS 100% RIGHT?!? The rest of the album was perfect. As much as Dookie celebrated our willful laziness, American Idiot questioned it. Why is war the answer? Why don’t I care about anything? Am I really stuck in this privileged life that is essentially meaningless? Didn’t the whole damn country go through this? Hasn’t Reagan become a villain in the past decade? Hasn’t America as a whole become so much more liberal? Don’t we have a sense of guilt for own apathy? Green Day didn’t invent it, but they definitely captured that spirit. How many bands can you say created the quintessential albums for two separate decades?
American Idiot created a backlash that Dookie never did. It was so popular, so prevalent, and so overplayed (I mean “Wake Me Up When September Ends” was still dominating the charts in 2006- and then we went right to “Working Class Her”) that, if you weren’t a die hard, you HAD to be sick of them. I can’t remember a band having a run of five years like that. Maybe Katy Perry? But shit, Blink 182’s entire career came and went in five years and that’s just how long they lived off of American Idiot. Suddenly they’re playing the return to the Super Dome, on the cover of every single magazine in the world, starting their own musical (smh) and shamelessly popping up for mass exposure every chance they get. By the time 21st Century Breakdown came around, the last thing the world wanted was Green Day. It seems like they would have best been served by a really rapid follow up album (a la El Camino or Amnesiac) just to put a bookend on the storm. They didn’t, and now, even I look at the aftermath to my favorite album of last decade and feel a little nauseous.
You know the rest by now. 21st Century Breakdown went to the same tropes and themes for an audience who just didn’t want to hear it. They spent eighteen fucking tracks preaching to the converted. I liked “21st Century Breakdown” and “American Eulogy,” but the fired up rhetoric of “Know Your Enemy” and “21 Guns” fell on deaf ears to moderates and liberals who were happy the President was a black guy. Somehow, once again, Green Day found themselves on the outside looking in. You see a pattern?
Is there a better example of their torturous duality than the recent debacle at the iHeartRadio festival? The whole thing is ripe with double entendres. Hasn’t Green Day’s whole message for the past decade been to fight the corporate machine? I mean, seriously, I am pretty sure that’s exactly what “The Static Age” was about. So why then are they playing at a festival dedicated to loving songs on the radio- the ultimate corporate machine? Why are they playing alongside Usher and Rihanna? I know that it has to be a blow to the pristine image of one of rock’s most consistent mainstream acts, but I was oddly happy to see Billie Joe lose his shit. It showed that there is still some semblance of a punk band in there. If The Who are the idols of this aging trio, what could be more fitting than their display? Their set got cut short by twenty minutes so Billie Joe cursed them out and smashed his guitar. That’s a page out of The Who’s book entirely. For a second, I thought Green Day could win some alternative fans back. What’s better than crashing an overhyped pop music festival dedicated to values exposure over quality and leaving it in shambles? Of course, this was all squandered two days later when Green Day placed their tails firmly between their legs and apologized for the whole thing, admitting to a drinking problem, enrolling in rehab, etc. etc. etc. The strangest part of the whole display in Billie Joe’s apparently drunken tirade was the “I’m not fucking Justin Bieber!” comment. I think Armstrong really meant it, which would lead me to believe that he is somehow missing the similarities he is developing with acts like Justin Bieber. Which act seems more likely to have a show on Broadway, to make a guest appearance on The Voice, or to play at something as stupid as the iHeartRadio festival? Unfortunately, all of those accomplishments belong to Green Day.
So what are they now? At some point, a band becomes too big to even take seriously. I feel like that’s where we are it. They’ve been around for twenty three years and I’m starting to view a new Green Day album in the same vain that I would a new Rolling Stones album. They’re clearly done with the punk scene and the political topicality. But then what are they? I’d say they reinvent themselves, but they have never gone with a wholesale makeover. I’m looking forward to Uno! mostly for reasons beyond the music. I’ve heard the new songs and they sound decent enough. They’re definitely veering towards the pop style. But I’m mostly just happy to remember Green Day. To remember being a fourteen year old boy and discovering the first album of MY generation that I truly loved. To remember driving around for hours when I was sixteen just to listen to all of their albums. To remember three of the best nights of my life every time I saw them in concert. To remember the time and the place of my own past that they so successfully documented.
I don’t think we’ll be looking at Green Day’s music years from now and being blown away by it. They are perfect in this place in time. My biggest fear for the album trilogy is that their cultural relevance (which cannot be denied) has passed them by. Regardless of how this turns out, I thank our three mascarra-covered friends for the legacy they have left. For better or worse, they have been the soundtrack to my life.