Before 2004, few people would classify Green Day’s music as particularly sophisticated, intellectual, or thematically mature. Sure, “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” with its poignancy, fragility, and beautiful orchestration, quickly became the introspective acoustic ballad of a generation, and fun singles like “When I Come Around” and “Basket Case” were amongst the catchiest mainstream songs of their era. However, for the most part, the ’90s saw Green Day dominating the airwaves as little more than a premier punk rock group. The band emblemized a contemporary take on the rowdy counterculture retaliation of ’70s icons like the Clash. While it did an excellent job of it (don’t get me wrong), no one ever expected the trio to branch out of its preset genre limitations stylistically, conceptually, or technically.
But then came American Idiot, and everything changed. Part social commentary and part fictional narrative, the record came out of nowhere and blew everyone away with its biting political subversion, exploration of teenage angst, love, and uncertainty, and perhaps most importantly, brilliant structures, transitions, and overall cohesion. On the surface, it offered listeners a touchingly earnest and emotionally universal Bildungsroman about adolescent romance and rebellion that, combined with its multifaceted arrangements, earned it justified comparisons to the Who’s 1973 masterpiece, Quadrophenia. On a deeper level, though, it served as a scorching attack on the hypocrisy and evils of the Bush Administration (as well as the increasingly credulous and submissive nature of the American public). Combined, these achievements resulted in a wonderfully infectious, explosive, and profound work of art.
Although the album showcased astounding growth for the trio in every way, its greatest achievement was (and still is) exemplifying the truest purpose of art: to represent the struggles of the human condition and/or reflect on the injustices and illogicality of the age in which it exists. Upon its release, it received almost universal praise, with IGN arguably offering the most weighty conclusion (along with a perfect score):
“You will emerge from your experience with American Idiot physically tired, emotionally drained, and, quite possibly, changed forever. It is less an album than an experience that demands to be lived. It is a part of my life now, as well as the most satisfying hour of music I’ve ever heard. Nothing else even comes close. In short, American Idiot is flawless.”
Yeah, that’s about right. Ten years later, American Idiot remains not only Green Day’s finest work (by a mile), but also one of the best albums of its decade, and it deserves to be explored one song at a time.
Before we launch into that, though, it’s worth noting how, like so many other great albums, American Idiot was created out of the ashes of a previously failed project. In 2003, following the release of their sixth album, Warning, and a couple of compilations, Green Day recorded roughly 20 songs for its upcoming studio effort, Cigarettes and Valentines. Unfortunately (or not), the master tracks were stolen, and after some introspection, the band decided that the material it had lost wasn’t truly worth trying to recreate. Instead, the band decided to focus on a new project, and the rest is history.
1. “American Idiot”
Rather than jump right in with its story, American Idiot begins with its title track, an invigorating, catchy, and straightforward punk rock single that has almost nothing to do with the plot that follows. In a way, it acts as a bridge between the aesthetic of its predecessors and the sonic evolution that would follow. It starts with a razor-sharp chord progression that’s modest yet engrossing—naturally, bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tré Cool providing a great rhythmic complement too. Musically, the track doesn’t stray too far from this foundation, although some impressive syncopation and a killer guitar solo help it kick ass. No, what makes “American Idiot” so powerful and affecting are its lyrics and vocals.
As usual, singer/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong bursts into the song with his characteristic tone and delivery, issuing his decrees with vigor and charming attitude. Cool’s isolated percussion leads the charge as Armstrong attacks the troubles of President George W. Bush’s reign, as well as the complacent and judgmental nature of Americans writ large. Every phrase, from its antagonistic opening—”Don’t wanna be an American idiot / Don’t want a nation under the new media / And can you hear the sound of hysteria / The subliminal mindfuck America”—to eventual jabs like “Well maybe I’m the faggot America / I’m not a part of a redneck agenda / Now everybody do the propaganda / And sing along to the age of paranoia”, suggests with pinpoint accuracy how hateful, impressionable, and just plain scared U.S. citizens were following the events of September 11th, 2001. People believed whatever the government and media suggested (such as the colorful “threat levels” that frightened us into limitless suspicion). As a result, they subscribed to a fear of the “Other” (as Freud would say).
Of course, the real question is, have we changed all that much since, or are we even more racist/sexist/homophobic and blindly patriotic since “American Idiot” first aimed to shatter our national security blanket? Regardless of the answer, it’s easy to see how impactful and necessary American Idiot was for its time, right from the start. The title track presented listeners with a blunt critique of the world around them, as well as a call of change, action, and self-reflection. At the same time, it stood as an exceptionally lively, dynamic, and appealing slice of punk anarchy.
As we’ll see, the album only gets better from here.
2. “Jesus of Suburbia”
Green Day’s American Idiot has often been compared to the Who’s 1973 conceptual opus, Quadrophenia, and it’s not difficult to understand why. After all, both records’ narratives center on rebellious teenage males whose punky individualism puts them at odds with social conventions, familial expectations, peer pressures, and romantic expectations. In other words, the protagonists of both records are sick of the bullshit that surrounds them, and they even develop alternate egos to help deal with the banality and overwhelming uncertainties of everyday life. Furthermore, both records contain rambunctious multifaceted suites in which each stylistic change represents a new emotion or perspective. Although the entirety of American Idiot contains examples of these connections, the second track, “Jesus of Suburbia”, does it the best. Broken into five distinct movements, the piece is a tour de force of catchy melodies, invigorating momentum, emotional timbres and progressions, and most importantly, wonderful transitions.
Structurally, the song actually resembles another Who song, “A Quick One, While He’s Away”, more than it does anything on Quadrophenia (the two songs are even the same length). Still, there’s no denying the thematic connections. For example, the first part of “Jesus of Suburbia”, like “The Real Me” on Quadrophenia, finds the central character declaring his independence and disconnection from the world around him. In both instances, we find a “Me vs. Them” mentality amidst a sense of grand rejection.
It begins thunderously with a dense start/stop rhythmic progression, over which Billie Joe Armstrong speaks for the hero, Jesus of Suburbia (a title that inherently implies martyrdom and cultist leadership). In fact, his first words—”I’m the son of rage and love / The Jesus of Suburbia / From the bible of ‘none of the above’ / On a steady diet of soda pop and Ritalin / No one ever died for my sins in hell / As far as I can tell / At least the ones I got away with”—suggest a rejection of theology and acknowledgment of outcast guidance. These admittances, coupled with eventual allusions to alcohol, drugs, parental abandonment, debt, and existence “in the land of make-believe that don’t believe in me”, introduce listeners to a character meant to represent the outlooks and situations of countless real-life suburban youths.
The song then segues (via delicate acoustic guitar and vocal harmonies) into its next segment, “City of the Damned”, during which Jesus of Suburbia continues to lament the lies and realizations that trouble him so much. For example, he speaks of reading “the graffiti in the bathroom stall / Like the lonely scriptures in a shopping mall”, as well as for representing the “City of the Dead / At the end of another lost highway / Signs misleading to nowhere / City of the Dead / Lost children with dirty faces today / No one really seems to care.” These verses and chorus are sorrowful and fragile, with effective chants that evoke a call to action, while its arrangement is a bit slower and more melodic.
From there, the music becomes more biting and quick, with fierce tones and percussive thrashing complementing Jesus’ angry transformation in “I Don’t Care”. Interestingly, the POV seems to shift to the followers of Jesus, who share his disenfranchisement with society as they scream, “Everyone is so full of shit / Born and raised by hypocrites” and “We are the kids of war and peace / From Anaheim to the Middle East / We are the stories and disciples of / The Jesus of Suburbia!” It’s a hypnotic slice of revolt that also serves as an exceptionally dynamic juxtaposition to the next part.
“Dearly Beloved” has a markedly different approach, including a swing beat and more nuanced production (the harmonies and bells are an especially nice touch). Armstrong once again sings as Jesus, who addresses the public like a speaker at a funeral and explains his mental state. He asks, “Are we demented? / Or am I disturbed? / The space that’s in-between insane and insecure / Oh therapy, can you please fill the void? / Am I retarded? / Or am I just overjoyed?” Clearly this is Green Day’s commentary on the way American teenagers are dealing with their inner conflicts. These details, combined with the usage of Ritalin that was mentioned earlier in the song, also allude to how authority figures were handling the behavior of their sons and daughters. Medicate and diagnose, but never really listen.
The final movement, “Tales of Another Broken Home”, is a gripping beast that provides the perfect sense of closure. Its first half is another punk rock explosion, with Armstrong signaling that Jesus is leaving everything behind to find his place in life. In other words, he refuses to stay silent and complacent; it’s time to act. He asserts, “To live and not to breathe / Is to die in tragedy / To run, to run away / To find what to believe / And I leave behind / This hurricane of fucking lies / I lost my faith to this / This town that don’t exist.”
Afterward, the piece momentarily becomes a piano ballad in which Jesus explains his viewpoint: “I don’t feel any shame / I won’t apologize / When there ain’t nowhere you can go / Running away from pain when you’ve been victimized / Tales from another broken home.” With that last word, though, the trio brings back the aggression, and listeners are left with a final battle cry –”You’re leaving! Oh, you’re leaving home!”—that is very exciting.
Aside from being an exceptionally intricate, intelligent, gripping, and ambitious track that demonstrated how much Green Day had grown as musicians and composers by 2004, “Jesus of Suburbia” did a fantastic job of setting up the story, characters, and social commentary that makes American Idiot such a masterpiece. Its energy, melodies, transitions, and poignant lyrics expressed expertly the overarching mission of the punk movement, all the while speaking volumes about the state of youth culture at the time. Unsurprisingly, its meanings and music are as relevant as ever.
Having properly set up both the social commentary and narrative construct of American Idiot with the album’s first two pieces (“American Idiot” and “Jesus of Suburbia”), Green Day chose the most logical option for the next track: fuse the two agendas into one wholly kickass amalgam. Indeed, “Holiday” is among the most overtly political songs on the record, which is probably why it was such a big hit back in 2004. Likewise, it followed up on the defiant departure of the album’s protagonist, showcasing the next chapter in his journey. A decade later, “Holiday” is still just as catchy, invigorating, and collectively powerful, igniting a rebellious fire in the soul of everyone who hears it, as well as sparking discussions about its meanings.
When we last heard from the main character (on March 3rd, according to the linear notes of the album), he was “running away from pain” and his “broken home”, so it makes sense that we now find him on holiday (vacation), traveling to wherever his destiny awaits. Specifically, it’s now April 1st, and he’s on the streets, reflecting on “the sound of falling rain / Coming down like an Armageddon flame” and declaring his independence. Other statements, such as “I beg to dream and differ / From the hall of lies / This is the dawning of the rest of our loves / This is our lives on holiday”, demonstrate this newfound enthusiasm for freedom, as well as a formal rejection of the corrupt government. Also, the fact that he uses “our” instead of “my” indicates that he’s inviting others to join him (and they do, eventually).
Interestingly, though, most of the lyrics to “Holiday” point the microscope outwardly, continuing the critical lens that “American Idiot” introduced. For example, the “Armageddon flame” signifies that he (and thus, Green Day singer Billie Joe Armstrong) is also commenting on the “War on Terror” that President Geroge W. Bush started. Essentially, Jesus is predicting that the end of the world will come from this international conflict. For example, “The ones who died without a name” likely relate to both literal casualties (soldiers and civilians alike) and, in a more figurative sense, anyone who’s fallen victim in the hysteria of political conflict. Later on, we’re told that “another protestor has crossed the line / To find the money’s on the other side”, a sentiment that illustrates how people will fight for the “right side” until they realize that perhaps everyone is in on the exploitation.
In the song’s most aggressive moment, the music forgoes most of its straightforward rock construction, allowing isolated percussion to stampede behind a punky “representative from California” as he “has the floor”. From there, he (along with backing chanters) utters bold proclamations, such as “Zieg Heil to the President Gasman / Bombs away is your punishment / Pulverize the Eiffel Towers / Who criticize your government”. Clearly, this is meant to connect the Iraq war to Nazism, as well as suggest destroying anyone who’s critical of the US. He goes on to profess, “Kill all the fags that don’t agree / Trials by fire / Setting fire / Is not a way that’s meant for me”, a statement that mocks both America’s enduring homophobia and its juvenile tendency to label anyone who disagrees with blind patriotism as a “fag” (which, in this context, means idiot, weakling, etc).
Although it’s not especially impressive musically (although it’s still very good, don’t get me wrong), “Holiday” still manages to stand out strongly due to its successful dichotomy, as it simultaneously moves the story along and further encapsulates the dense national critique that pervades underneath the surface of American Idiot. Our “hero” stands tall and free, refusing to buy into the deception and dishonor of both his hometown and country writ large. At this moment, he is content in his boldness and self-reliance, but that will change drastically once he begins traveling down the “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”.
4. “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”
When we last left Jesus [of Suburbia] (on April 1st), he was embarking on a journey to find his figurative fortune whilst declaring his freedom from both the condemnatory nature of his town and the tyrannical pretense of his country. In other words, he was enjoying his “Holiday” from the lies and limitations of the world around him. However, much like the dramatic realization that strikes the impulsive lovers at the end of The Graduate, the party ends as soon as reality hits (on April 2nd), and Jesus is suddenly confronted with loneliness and hopelessness as he faces the future alone. He has no company or guidance as he ventures down the “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”, and it’s quite the bitter pill to swallow.
In terms of its musical edifice, the song is fairly straightforward. It fades in from its predecessor with electric guitar feedback and a silky smooth phasing effect that alludes to the central acoustic guitar chord progression. Behind it, Dirnt and Cool provide powerful but modest rhythmic accompaniment, echoing the six string passion Armstrong puts forth without ever seeming flashy. Finally, the concluding dissonance symbolizes Jesus’ heightened discontent perfectly. This arrangement, combined with the song’s catchy melodies and affective backing harmonies (during the chorus), made the song a massive hit back in 2004. It’s a perfect example of how a simple structure and great songwriting can produce the best possible artistic statement.
Of course, like every song on American Idiot, the true depth and timelessness comes from the lyrics and vocals of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”. Like the music that complements them, Armstrong’s voice and words are blunt and relatively unpoetic (at least by conventional standards); however, their directness, honesty, and universality make them unforgettable. Jesus spends the entire track lamenting his situation, and nowhere is this more apparent than in his first outcry: “I walk a lonely read / The only one that I have ever known / Don’t know where it goes / But it’s home to me and I walk alone.” Here we see that despite the devastation and fear that he feels, Jesus accepts his current predicament. As is typically the case, the life of a leader/martyr fighting for social change is often met with cognitive dissonance and necessary isolation. He elaborates on this notion by mentioning that the rest of the city sleeps while he walks.
Interestingly, the second verse serves as subtle foreshadowing. Jesus says, “I’m walking down the line / That divides me somewhere in my mind / On the borderline of the edge / And where I walk alone / Read between the lines / Of what’s fucked up and everything’s alright,” which suggests the possibility of a new persona taking over. Taken to its literal extreme, Armstrong may be telling us that Jesus suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder, which is categorized by an unpredictability in relationships, emotions, and self-image. This moment also signifies another connection to the Who’s Quadrophenia.
As for the chorus, it’s arguably the best part of the song. Memorable, profound, and, like the verses, linguistically modest, it pinpoints what Jesus (and, by association, the legions of disenfranchised teenagers he represents) senses. He bellows, “My shadow’s the only one that walks beside me / My shallow heart’s the only thing that’s beating / Sometimes I wish someone up there will find me / ‘Til then, I walk alone.” On the surface, he’s likely speaking of the desire for a romantic connection, but he could just as easily be searching for anyone to give him comfort and purpose. Again, the way the backing vocals echo “find me” makes it even more urgent and sorrowful.
“Boulevard of Broken Dreams” was always the standout track of American Idiot in terms of commercial appeal and accessibility, and it’s easy to see why. Its simple structure and words are instantly gripping in a superficial sense, yet its sentiments speak to much deeper and more tragic circumstances. At this point, Jesus has committed himself to following through with his ideals, even if that means also committing to a solitary life. Fortunately, he won’t have to suffer alone for long, as others are “waiting” to follow him.
5. “Are We the Waiting”
Thus far in American Idiot, Jesus of Suburbia has left his hometown, abandoned everything he thought he knew and set out alone to find the truth. However, as we saw in “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”, this newfound purpose and solidarity have left him isolated, lonely, and scared, all the while questioning if he’s really on the right path. With the next two songs in the sequence—”Are We the Waiting” and “St. Jimmy”—we see him band together with others who are also going through the same search for introspection and morality, as well create a whole new personality with which he can lead them.
The former song is a downtempo ballad at heart. It consists mostly of anthemic percussion over simple guitar arpeggios. Billie Joe Armstrong’s verse melody isn’t as sorrowful as it was on the last track, but it’s in the same vein. Lyrically, he continues to lament the hopelessness he feels now that he’s become alienated from the world yet still hasn’t found what he’s looking for. Sentiments like “Are we, we are / Are we, we are the waiting unknown / This dirty town was burning down in my dreams / Lost and found, city-bound in my dreams” and “Forget-me-nots / And second thoughts life in isolation / Heads or tails / And fairy tales in my mind” pinpoint this mental state. In addition, it suggests further social commentary, as many Americans felt lost and confused in the wake of September 11th, 2001 and the ensuing war with the Middle East. Interestingly, the chorus finds Armstrong backed with other voices, who repeatedly sing the title as he interjects “and screaming!” This addition implies that he’s found others to join his plight; in essence, he’s become their leader.
6. “St. Jimmy”
Considering this, it’s not surprising that “Are We the Waiting” takes place on Easter Sunday, as the song also represents the protagonist’s rebirth. Contemplating who and what he wants to be, he realizes that everything he’s been thus far was pointless, so he sees this moment as a chance to start over anew. He sings, “The rage and love / The story of my life / The Jesus of Suburbia is a lie,” making the religious connotations quite palpable. He’s fed up with being who he is, so he decides to try a new persona as his following grows. Enter: St. Jimmy.
The previous song actually gets interrupted by “St. Jimmy”; its outro is still going when a punky frenzy cuts it off, allowing St. Jimmy to take over. Both symbolically and musically, then, this new façade takes over before Jesus even knows what’s happening. Expectedly (given its theme), it’s a faster, angrier, and all-around more rebellious track, with clashing rhythms, biting guitar chords, and boisterous vocals. In a way, it’s as anarchistic yet catchy as anything else on American Idiot. St. Jimmy is the cool new kid that someone may become when he or she moves to a new school or neighborhood; his disciples have only just met him, so why shouldn’t he reinvent himself for the occasion?
His legendary stature is suggested from the very start, with observers noting, “St. Jimmy’s coming down across the alleyway / Upon the boulevard like a zip gun on parade / Light of a silhouette / He’s insubordinate / Coming at you on the count of 1, 2, 3, 4”. He then introduces himself with fiery proclamations: “My name is Jimmy and you better not wear it out / Suicide commando that your momma talked about / King of the 40 thieves and I’m here to represent / The needle in the vein of the establishment / I’m the patron saint of the denial / With an angel face and a taste for suicidal”.
He goes on to call himself “the product of war and fear that we’ve been victimized” and “the resident leader of the lost and found”, both of which further explains how different he is from Jesus, as well as why he’s the man to make change and shake things up. To make a comparison, if Jesus is like the narrator (superego) of Fight Club, St. Jimmy is like the Tyler Durden (id) of American Idiot. He storms into the scene without warning, demanding everyone’s attention and loyalty without question.
These two tracks represent a turning point in the narrative of American Idiot, as the man we thought was our hero finds himself unworthy of the position. So he transforms himself into a more disruptive and selfish being so he can deal with what the future holds. It’s the sort of makeover that many people try out in, say, high school or college to impress anyone who will come along for the ride, and as we’ll eventually see, this winds up having both positive and negative connotations and results.
7. “Give Me Novacaine”
Despite all of its political overtones, American Idiot is, above all else, an emotional and personal tale of teenage angst and uncertainty. Sure, there’s plenty of social commentary about the psychological and governmental state of America post-9/11. Still, the heart of the record is the saga of a punk rebel who struggles with identity, romance, and acceptance. Each of these attributes is brought to the surface with endearing aggression on the LP’s seventh and eighth tracks, “Give Me Novacaine” and “She’s a Rebel”. Lost, confused, and yet born again and anew, the protagonist must now come to terms with both his new persona and a new object of affection.
At its core, “Give Me Novacaine” is another ballad. Its verses feature delicate acoustic guitar chord progressions, melodic slide guitar, a straightforward drum beat, and of course, Billie Joe Armstrong’s voice at its most fragile and yearning. When the chorus hits, though, every element gets injected with adrenaline — the guitars are crunchy and invasive, the percussion is frantic, and the vocals are in-your-face domineering. This is one of the most dynamic tracks on the album, as the contrast between light and heavy instrumentation is significant and powerful. It represents the thematic dissonance well.
At this point in the narrative, Jesus of Suburbia has manifested a new personality, St. Jimmy. Brash, boisterous, and very brave, St. Jimmy is the extroverted, fearless leader that Jesus never was. In a way, “Give Me Novacaine” represents the final act of the transformation, as Jesus effectively commits suicide so that St. Jimmy can take over. Lyrics like “Take away the sensation inside / Bittersweet migraine in my head” and “I get the funny feeling, and that’s already / Jimmy says it’s better than here … Tell me, Jimmy, I won’t feel a thing” indicate this longing. St. Jimmy is Jesus’ savior (as I said in the previous installment, it’s very similar to how Tyler Durden “saved” the narrator in Fight Club).
Fascinatingly, as much as Jesus is definitely looking to St. Jimmy for help and answers, he’s also speaking to an unknown romantic interest (who is introduced in the next song). He says, “Give a long kiss goodnight / And everything will be alright / Tell me that I won’t feel a thing” and “Out of body and out of mind / Kiss the demons out of my dreams”. It’s thought-provoking that the band chose to suggest a new character before officially introducing her. Still, this song takes place on June 13th (over a month after “St. Jimmy”), so we can assume that a lot has happened in the interim that Green Day chose to imply rather than explain.
8. “She’s a Rebel”
Fortunately, “She’s a Rebel” is very much the yang to the ying of “St. Jimmy”, as it’s very similar in both structure and purpose. In fact, it interrupts the previous song, just as “St. Jimmy” did to “Are We the Waiting”. Another anthemic punk rock gem, its verse sections burst with hostility, as the guitar riffs are crunchy and thick, the rhythms are hypnotic, and the vocals are layered and authoritative. There’s also a start/stop rhythmic pattern that keeps listeners enticed and on edge. On the other hand, the chorus is as charming as anything else on American Idiot, as Armstrong sings an optimistic melody, backed by subtle harmonies. It’s not as multifaceted as its predecessor, but it’s still a kickass moment.
As for its sentiments, this song is clearly written from the perspective of St. Jimmy as he first notices (and becomes infatuated with) this new teenager from the wrong side of the tracks. He eventually tells us that she’s called “Whatshername” (which symbolizes the universality of their connection, as just about every heterosexual teenage male has had his own Whatshername at some point, be she a delinquent, an artist, a geek, etc.) Much like the description Jesus had for St. Jimmy, St. Jimmy tells us that “She’s a rebel / She’s a Saint / She’s the salt of the earth and she’s dangerous”.
Interestingly, this song is also the inspiration for the album’s iconic cover, as he adds, “She’s the symbol of resistance / And she’s holding on my heart like a hand grenade”. There’s no doubt that St. Jimmy views her as both the love of his life and the missing piece of his rebellious mission. In this moment, he confesses that she’s essentially his soul mate: “Is she trouble? / Like I’m trouble? / Make it a double twist of fate / Or a melody that / She sings the revolution / The dawning of our lives / She brings this liberation / That I just can’t define”.
This dedication makes sense, though, when one considers how vulnerable, naïve, and desperate for validation and love St. Jimmy is. He’s essentially found a new woman for himself (as a new man), and he’s eager to solidify the partnership and start the revolution. Of course, love and lofty, grandiose ambitions rarely come to satisfactory fruition, so things won’t go as well as he thinks. She may be an extraordinary girl, but she’s also a ticking letter bomb waiting to go off.
9. “Extraordinary Girl”
Up until this point in American Idiot, St. Jimmy (the alias of Jesus of Suburbia) has been wondering around the streets of America alone, unsure of just about everything in his life. He’s felt a calling to incite change and rebellion, not only for himself, but for the country as a whole; unfortunately, without anyone else to help him, the task is easier said than done. But, with the arrival of Whatshername, a snarky teenage girl who seems to be his match both romantically and anarchically, St. Jimmy has found a new purpose in life. Together, they can complement each other while also challenging the conformity and complacency of the country—or so they thought. As we see in the ninth and tenth tracks of the album—”Extraordinary Girl” and “Letterbomb”—this relationship soon crumbles. It’s a riotous and bitter pill to swallow.
For the most part, “Extraordinary Girl” follows your standard punk rock template; however, its unique opening allows it to stand out from the rest of the songs. Both its initial timbres and rhythms evoke Indian tradition, like a sinister tribal ritual that suggests the underlying rejection and deceit that’s to come. In fact, it’s such a distinctive section on American Idiot that it almost feels out of place, as it really doesn’t connect to the rest of the song, nor to anything else on the record. Yet, it’s this stylistic peculiarity that makes the song so cool. After this moment is gone, the trio resorts back to its archetypical formula of crunchy guitar riffs and pugnacious percussion (which continues to work well, of course).
Lyrically, the track details the difficulties within their relationship following the initial joys present in “She’s a Rebel”. As always, loving someone isn’t always utopic; if often includes heartache, conflict, and resentment. Armstrong sings a straightforward melody as he confesses that “. . . she can’t seem to get away,” while St. Jimmy “. . . lacks the courage in his mind / Like a child left behind / Like a pet left in the rain.” From this, we get the idea that they’re distant from each other, and the keystone reveal puts it most bluntly: “She’s all alone again / Wiping the tears from her eyes / Some days he feels like dying / She gets so sick of crying.” Near the end of the song, the deterioration is cemented when Armstrong tell us that “Some days it’s not worth trying.” Listeners can imagine the two lovers sulking with their backs toward each other.
Interestingly, we’re also told that she “. . . [has] an image she wants to sell / To anyone willing to buy,” which implies that she’s fraudulent and manipulative. Perhaps St. Jimmy is just the latest boy for her to string along, and now that she sees how hesitant and controllable he actually is, she’s lost interest. She needs someone who can really match her destructive nature and carefree persona, and he isn’t it, no matter if he calls himself St. Jimmy, Jesus of Suburbia, or anything else.
(Also, some critics believe that “she” could stand for American culture and widespread political agenda, with the line “She sees the mirror of herself / An image she wants to sell / To anyone willing to buy” representing the country’s need to influence the entire world. Others believe that “she” symbolizes the sexism in America, with the same expression alluding to our nation’s fascination with beauty and female gender expectations. Take them or leave them, these are intriguing interpretations.)
With “Letterbomb”, we hear her final denouncement to St. Jimmy as she departs and he self-destructs. It’s an angrier, catchier, and much more emotionally draining piece than “Extraordinary Girl”; really, it’s one of the most poignant, disturbing, and important moments on American Idiot, for it marks the beginning of the end for St. Jimmy.
It begins with Whatshername (or perhaps St. Jimmy’s psyche) taunting him with a phrase that will reappear near the end of the album: “Nobody likes you / Everyone left you / They’re all out without you / Having fun.” Subsequently, Armstrong plucks notes fiercely as the Dirnt and Cool construct a sophisticated rhythmic stadium around him. Next, all three of them let loose, which immediately draws listeners inward. What’s most interesting about the song from a musical standpoint is how they add subtle effects and timbres to the initial template as it progresses, keeping it fresh, vibrant, and devastating from beginning to end.
For the most part, the selection consists of Whatshername’s final judgment in the form of a letter to St. Jimmy. She speaks of becoming dissatisfied with the rebel movement. She asks, “Where have all the bastards gone?” and “Where have all the riots gone? As the city’s motto gets pulverized.” Later, she attacks St. Jimmy directly, remarking, “The town bishop’s an extortionist / And he doesn’t even know that you exist / Standing still when it’s do or die / You’d better run for your fucking life.” Clearly, she’s unhappy with how fearful and cautious he really is, since he hasn’t done enough to show her how destructive he can be.
It’s during the chorus that she puts it all in perspective: “It’s not over till you’re underground / It’s not over before it’s too late / This city’s burning / ‘It’s not my burden.'” Here she’s mocking him for not being true to his word, telling him that he needed to take responsibility and fight until either he or the mission was finished. Undoubtedly, the most interesting part of her letter comes when she denounces both of his personas: “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.”
Melodically, Armstrong makes her final goodbye heartbreaking and slow, dragging out the decree so St. Jimmy (and listeners) can feel the sorrow word by word. St. Jimmy sings, “She said ‘I can’t take this place / I’m leaving it behind’ / She said ‘I can’t take this town / I’m leaving you tonight.'” Afterward, Green Day extends the track with several seconds of silence, forcing listeners to contemplate the end of the couple’s relationship (and perhaps reflect on how it felt when they were dumped in their own lives). It’s brilliant.
American Idiot is now unfolding in the middle of August, which suits the end of their relationship perfectly since the cliché dictates that summer romances end as September approaches. Indeed, this betrayal surrounds our protagonist in hopelessness, as he’s right back where he started, only this time he must face the added pain of another rejection. As is often the case, depression leads to solitude and extended slumber since the sufferer can’t deal with the real world anymore. For him, there’s no reason to continue onward, so he doesn’t want to wake up for a long, long time.
Or at least until September ends.
11. “Wake Me Up When September Ends”
As I’ve already discussed thus far in this series, Green Day’s 2004 masterpiece American Idiot is incredibly multifaceted. Part punk rock concept album (in the vein of the Who’s Quadrophenia) and part social commentary on post-9/11 America, the album offers both an endearing yet tragic coming-of-age tale and a formal expression of the fear and sadness felt within the country at the turn of the century. While the full-length has already featured plenty of wonderful examples of these sentiments, its 11th track, “Wake Me Up When September Ends”, is easily the most poignant, striking, and universal one up until now. A heartbreaking eulogy to the losses of its central character, vocalist, and even the nation in which it takes place, the song is devastatingly somber, hypnotic, and beautiful. In fact, in terms of pure songwriting, it make be the best composition the trio has ever written.
Structurally, the song is another acoustic guitar ballad at heart. It begins with a humble but heartbreaking arpeggio that, combined with Billie Joe Armstrong’s delicate verse melody and singing, is utterly gripping. In fact, it’s significantly similar stylistically to “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life”)”, although this one is even more sorrowful and dynamic. Listeners can’t help but by entranced by its fragility, honesty, and (eventual) sonic power. Speaking of that last attribute, the piece thoughtfully evolves from the aforementioned bleak solo performance to a full-on freak-out as militarist rhythms, along with some glittery timbres, such as bells and electric guitar, pack quite an emotional punch. It’s as if every element in the production is aching to express the same angst. Perhaps most effectively, the track continues for a few seconds once the song is over, filling the silence with reverberated guitar notes that embody the sad aftermath with stirring accuracy.
As for the meaning of the song, there are several purposes happening at once. In the context of Jesus’ story, it’s in this moment that he realizes fully that life in the City of the Damned hasn’t fulfilled his expectations at all. He left home to find himself and change the world, but that hasn’t happened; not only has he left his family and friends behind, but he’s also lost someone new (Whatshername) in the process. Feeling abandoned, rejected, and hopeless, Jesus feels very similar to how he did at the start of the journey, when he walked along a slightly different introspective boulevard. Among the most telling lyrics for this interpretation are, “Here comes the rain again / Falling from the stars / Drenched in my pain again / Becoming who we are”, which serve to showcase his changed perspective on the world since he first set out on his ride in “Holiday” (“Hear the sound of the falling rain / Coming down like an Armageddon flame”). Also, the song’s opening lines—”Summer has come to pass / The innocent can never last”— as well as “Ring out the bells again / Like we did when spring began”, speak to the idea that his both his summer optimism and romance has gone away.
Of course, another layer of the song concerns the tragedies that befell countless citizens after the World Trade Center attacks. After all, it’s the eleventh selection on American Idiot, which is likely deliberate and symbolic. In this context, the title of the piece, as well as admittances like “As my memory rests / But never forgets what I lost” and the aforementioned “Summer has come to pass / The innocent can never last” speak to the wishes and regrets of, well, everyone in America at that time (to varying degrees, of course). In fact, the music video for “Wake Me Up When September Ends” (directed by Samuel Bayer, who shot most of the music videos for the record), revolves around a heterosexual couple (Evan Rachel Wood and Jamie Bell) who are torn apart because of the war in Iraq. The man enlists in the army to prove his love for the woman; unfortunately, she interprets this as him breaking his promise to never leave her. Of course, the end results are not happy, to say the least. In this way, the video made affectively clear that this agenda is inherent in the song.
Finally, there is a third approach to looking at “Wake Me Up When September Ends”—as an autobiographical reflection by Armstrong on the death of his father, who passed away in September of 1982. Although the entire tone and lyrical landscape of the track contributes to this idea, the line “Like my father’s come to pass / Twenty years has gone so far” really brings it home. Therefore, this piece could represent Armstrong placing himself within the narrative, suggesting that he can empathize with those who’ve lost fathers (or anyone else, really) in the terrorist attacks, as well as with the sense of isolation Jesus of Suburbia feels as he wonders through life.
Considering how much “Wake Me Up When September Ends” accomplishes in terms of emotion, political/social critique, and overlapping meanings, it’s easy to see why it’s often regarded as deceptively simple yet subtly brilliant. On a personal level, it’s among the bravest and most revealing songs Armstrong has ever written; as an observation on the legacy of 9/11, it’s overwhelmingly truthful and touching; and as the next chapter in the journey of Jesus of Suburbia, it’s works well in implying his mental state and means of action. He’s given up on trying to be someone he’s not (St. Jimmy), as well as on trying to change things that are out of his control. He set out to find a new, prosperous path, but ultimately he only found more heartache and disappoint, so there’s nothing left to do but turn around and prepare for the homecoming.
The narrative of American Idiot began in a grandiose fashion, with the multilayered “Jesus of Suburbia” working as a suite of mini-songs that introduced listeners to the themes, sentiments, and, of course, central character of this stunning punk rock opera. It makes perfect sense, then, for Green Day to conclude this story (well, more or less) with another lengthy epic, and that’s precisely what the record’s 12th track, “Homecoming”, is. Having faced and conquered an existential crisis whilst traversing the City of the Damned, as well as suffered the rejection of both his disciples and his first love (Whatshername), Jesus is ready to return home, face reality, and start anew.
In terms of its timeline, “Homecoming” takes place on October 19th, roughly 40 days after he finally broke down and hoped for a second chance in “Wake Me Up When September Ends”. Since then, it seems as if Jesus has realized the error of his ways, accepted the disappointments he’d been dealt, and decided to see the world with a fresh perspective and sense of purpose. In this way, “Homecoming” acts as an ingeniously complex yet poignant moment of closure for a character and tale to which listeners couldn’t help but become attached.
The first section, “The Death of St. Jimmy”, begins with the archetypical American Idiot burst of rebellion: sharp guitar riffs and angst-ridden vocals (courtesy of singer/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong). Interestingly, the production sounds a bit old-fashioned here, as if we’re hearing it through a vintage radio—or a phone, as the first few lines are spoken by the protagonists mother, who tells him, “My heart is beating from me / I am standing all alone / Please call me only if you are coming home / Waste another year flies by / Waste a night or two / You taught me how to live”. From there, the sonic quality becomes clearer as drummer Tre Cool and bassist Mike Dirnt burst in with frenzied rhythmic accompaniment. Armstrong now narrates the circumstances and mental state of Jesus, telling him, “In the streets of shame / Where you’ve lost your dreams in the rain / There’s no sign of hope / The stems and seeds of the last of the dope”. With subtle backing harmonies making the instant more operatic, he alters the melody a bit to ask several rhetorical questions: “What the hell’s your name? / What’s your pleasure and what’s your pain? / Do you dream too much? / Do you think what you need is a crutch?” It’s in this instance that Jesus reflects fully on who he wants to be.
Of course, as the title suggests, this portion is centered on the demise of Jesus’ alter ego, which is described with biting inferences, using both of the aforementioned melodic patterns: “In the crowd of pain / St. Jimmy comes without any shame / He says, ‘We’re fucked up’ / But we’re not the same / And mom and dad are the ones you can blame / Jimmy died today / He blew his brains out into the bay / In the state of mind / In my own private suicide”. And just like that, our [anti]hero has resumed a sole personality for good.
The second chapter, “East 12th Street”. maintains a similarly hurried trajectory, as Armstrong belts out “Nobody cares” repeatedly over different riffs. Following this, we find Jesus at a police station after either getting arrested or turning himself in for his crimes/sins. He’s “filling out paperwork now / At the facility on East 12th St.”; however, he understands that he’s not happy there either. In fact, he feels tense and regretful, wishing he were still hanging out with his friends in the City (especially Whatshername): “He’s not listening to a word now / He’s in his own world and he’s daydreaming / He’d rather be doing something else now”.
Remarkably, acoustic guitar chords break in suddenly here (evoking the style of Pete Townshend, of course). Armstrong says, “”Somebody get me out of here” several times, which acts as a vocal bridge to a more chaotic surge of emotion and instrumentation, as Jesus is screaming inherently behind Armstrong, who articulates his panic more tactfully: “So far away / I don’t want to stay / Get me out of here right now / I just want to be free / Is there a possibility? / Get me out of here right now / This life-like dream ain’t for me”. With those last few expressions (which are complemented by intricate rhythmic flourishes), Jesus comprehends that he simply can’t fall into this “normal” routine either.
“Nobody Likes You!” segues in with bells and marching percussion, which offers a stimulating stylistic alteration. It finds Jesus continuing to question his choices; specifically, he misses Whatshername. We hear him repeating the taunt she issued at the start of “Letterbomb” in-between his own confession: “I fell asleep while watching Spike TV / After 10 cups of coffee and you’re still not here / Dreaming of a song when something went wrong / But I can’t tell anyone ‘cuz you’re not here / Left me here alone / When I should have stayed home / After 10 cups of coffee, I’m thinking/ Where’d you go?”
The word “go” is then echoed as Cool’s metronomic beat transitions into the fourth entry, which, with an awesome overarching homage to classic rock ‘n’ roll (including horns and a biting guitar solo), describes a letter St. Jimmy receives from one of his former underbelly friends/followers, Tunny, who clearly doesn’t know that the St. Jimmy persona has been, well, murdered. In it, Tunny exclaims how well he’s doing as a rock star. He yells, “I got a rock and roll band / I got a rock and roll life / I got a rock and roll girlfriend / And another ex-wife” and “I got a kid in New York / I got a kid in the Bay / I haven’t drank or smoked nothing in over 22 days / So get off of my case.” Like the ending of the previous part, this last phrase is repeated as the instrumentation shifts (via an exciting new chord progression) into the final phase. Seeing how rebellious Tunny still is (while Jesus is stuck in his mundane but socially acceptable existence), Jesus decides to stop all the bullshit daydreams and uncertainties and do what he knows is right: go home.
In this way, “We’re Coming Home Again” serves as the ultimate concession from him, as he consents to (and even feels a bit triumphant about) his return, knowing that he matured and leaned from his excursion. As the saying goes, “There’s no place like home”, and he is ready to face the future as a brand new Jesus (okay, that sounds a bit funny). As he approached his old neighborhood, he feels joyful, watching as the people he grew up with “come marching down the street / Like a desperation murmur of a heartbeat / Coming back from the edge of town”. In addition, he appreciates that life is full of struggles:
“Nobody ever said that life was fair now / Go-carts and guns are treasures they will bear / In the summer heat / The world is spinning around and around / Out of control again / From the 7-11 to the fear of breaking down / So send my love a Letterbomb / And visit me in Hell / We’re the ones going home”.
Fascinatingly, this last sentiment alludes to the idea that Jesus has gotten over Whatshername; after all, she’s from the past, and he’s gearing up to face the future. Musically, it’s quite anthemic and rich, with hypnotic melodies and rhythms enticing listeners to sing along.
The last half of the song evolves into a gripping militaristic decree. The band repeats “Home / We’re coming home again” (with thick harmonies) before and after the following final admittance from Jesus: “I started fuckin’ running / Just as soon as my feet touched ground / We’re back in the Barrio / And to you and me, that’s Jingletown!” With this, we finally know the [nick]name of his hometown. The song concludes with a voice saying, “Nobody likes you / Everyone left you / They’re all out with you / Havin’ fun”. which is a nice way to bring things full circle.
By the end of “Homecoming”, American Idiot has pretty much ended. The plight of its narrator is over, having reached closure by returning to where he started with a fresh, optimistic outlook on life. Considering how tragic elements of Jesus’ adventure were, it’s very endearing to see him contented with, and excited for, life in Jingletown once again. Of course, as is often true in real life, this momentary burst of enthusiasm will give way to more permanent feelings of regret and longing, as well as daydreams about what could’ve been. As we’ll see, the New Year will open an old emotional wound for Jesus, forcing him to reflect on the one unfinished conflict in his life: Whatshername.
American Idiot essentially ended with “Homecoming”, as Jesus of Suburbia’s journey came full circle and found its resolution. He didn’t become the rebellious punk antihero/savior he set out to be, but he was able to find solace in himself and the world in which he lives, accepting that life is meant to be screwed up and scary, yet ultimately full of possibilities too. However, it’s precisely those unfulfilled prospects and vague uncertainties that shape who we are and perpetually haunt us, nagging at the backs of our minds for answers that will never come.
Typically, this lack of closure results from a failed romance. After all, just about everyone has their someone who got away, and we may never fully understand what happened. For Jesus, it’s Whatshername, an anarchistic flame who held onto his heart “like a hand grenade”. Back in August, she sent him a “Letterbomb”, saying, “I can’t take this town, I’m leaving you tonight”, and he spent the rest of the year missing her (despite projecting acceptance and emotional progression on the surface). Appropriately, it’s now New Year’s Day, and despite moving on with life in many other ways, he can’t help but “wonder how Whatshername has been”.
Musically, “Whatshername” is arguably the most straightforward song on the disc. It begins with a steadfast beat and stilted guitar riffs. This combination, matched with Billie Joe Armstrong’s rather monotone and exhausted verse delivery, suggests that Jesus is emotionally numb. Expectedly, things become more electrified and biting when the chorus hits, and the way the guitar lines mimic the vocals is subtle but highly effective. It’s here that Armstrong really piles on the sense of regret and defeat with his voice, making it sound like Jesus is trying to convince himself that he’s moved on even though he knows he hasn’t. Again, It’s not the most intricate or varied arrangement on American Idiot, but it is among the most touching and visceral.
Of course, the lyrics to the song are what really drive home the sentiment. Really, Jesus’ words speak volumes about how one deals with such heartache, so just about every listener can put him or herself into his shoes. He begins by addressing Whatshername in his mind, admitting he “thought I ran into you down on the street / But it turned out to only be a dream”. He then tells us how he’s dealt with the loss: “I made a point to burn all of the photographs / She went away and then I took a different path”. Afterward, he utters a modest yet crushing reflection: “I can remember the face but I can’t recall the name / Now I wonder how Whatshername has been”. It’s in this instant that we learn that his entire story has been a flashback (since he’s always referred to her as Whatshername).
He goes on to remember how she “disappeared without a trace” (or a proper goodbye), as well as wonder if “she ever married old Whatshisface” (thus, he’s jealous that someone else got to be with her in the long run). Following this, the chorus kicks in, which is when he (unsuccessfully) tries to defy his emotional weakness by denouncing her memory: “Remember / Whatever / It seems like forever ago / The regrets / Are useless in my mind / She’s in my head”. Finally, he issues one last decree—”And in the darkest night / If my memory serves me right / I’ll never turn back time / Forgetting you but not the time”—that conveys an abundance of complex feelings. As with anyone we love and lose, we’ll never be able to recapture the time we spent together, but we won’t be able to forget it either. The person may fade away, but what he or she represented never will.
“Whatshername” is a masterful way to end one of the few sonic masterpieces of the last decade, as it leaves both its central character and its listeners with a sense of longing that will never be resolved. It’s often said that the best art reflects what it’s like to be human, and this track (as well as all of American Idiot) certainly does that. Along the same lines, the best art is timeless. So while the LP’s political commentary is certainly of its era, its social commentary and representation of teenage angst, romance, and outcry are inarguably universal. That’s why it hasn’t lost a shred of reputation or power since it came out. American Idiot will continue to be revered and discussed for years to come, as it’s undoubtedly one of rock’s greatest and most essential concept albums.