EML’s Favorite Albums – GREEN DAY: “American Idiot”

American Idiot is my favorite album by punk rock band Green Day, who also happen to be one of my all-time favorite bands. Their seventh studio album, it was released 16 years ago almost to the day, on September 21, 2004. Since 1990, the three primary members of Green Day have included Billie Joe Armstrong on lead guitar and vocals, Mike Dirnt on bass and backing vocals, and Tré Cool on drums.

American Idiot was a comeback album of sorts for them. Thanks to the massive success of their 1994 breakout album Dookie, as well as follow-up albums Insomniac and Nimrod, Green Day became one of the most popular rock bands of the 1990s. Unfortunately, despite garnering mostly positive reviews, their 2000 album Warning was a commercial disappointment. By 2003 they were experiencing internal strife, as well as beginning to feel like “elder statesmen” of the pop punk scene, even though they were then only in their early 30s.

They’d spent much of 2002 writing and recording songs for their next album to be titled Cigarettes and Valentines, but the demo master tapes were stolen from the studio (they were eventually recovered). After consulting with their longtime producer Rob Cavallo, the guys decided to scrap the old material and start fresh on a new project, with the goal of writing their best material yet. They also decided to use louder and heavier guitars for the record. For a story in a June 2005 issue of Guitar Legends, Armstrong told Alan DePerna: “We were like, ‘Let’s just go balls-out on the guitar sound—plug in the Les Pauls and Marshalls and let it rip’.”  

Each band member began crafting their own 30-second songs in a kind of competition. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Armstrong recalled, “It started getting more serious as we tried to outdo one another. We kept connecting these little half-minute bits until we had something.” These bits would become the nine-minute long suite “Homecoming” consisting of five connected songs. They went on to write another nine-minute long suite, “Jesus of Suburbia”, also featuring five connected songs. 

Armstrong then wrote the title and opening track “American Idiot” in response to the American public’s patriotic support of the Bush Administration’s war against Iraq. He was not only infuriated by the war itself, but also angered at how the mass media orchestrated support for the war by sowing paranoia and idiocy among the public through their news broadcasts. His anger carried over to the aggressive riffs and explosive percussion they employed on the track. That song, combined with the two suites they’d written, led to a change in the direction of the album, with the guys viewing the songs more as chapters or movements in a larger work. They decided to make it a concept album, also titled American Idiot, addressing sociopolitical issues of the day, and in a format they would call a “punk rock opera.” The title track was the first by Green Day to chart on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at a paltry #61, however, it would spend six weeks at #1 on the Alternative chart.

For the creation of the album, Green Day drew inspiration from other notable rock operas such as the Who’s “Tommy” and “Quadrophenia” and David Bowie’s “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and Spiders from Mars”, as well as the Broadway musicals West Side Story, The Rocky Horror Show, Grease, and Jesus Christ Superstar.

American Idiot explores the disillusionment and dissent of a generation that came of age in a period shaped by traumatic events like 9/11 and the Iraq War, and essentially follows the story of Jesus of Suburbia, a lower-middle-class suburban American teen, raised on “a steady diet of soda pop and Ritalin.” He hates his town, his family and everyone around him: “Everyone is so full of shit! Born and raised by Hypocrites.” He eventually escapes to the big city. His story is laid out in the nine-minute long “Jesus of Suburbia”, a hard-driving punk-infused suite consisting of five songs: “Jesus of Suburbia”, “City of the Damned”, “I Don’t Care”, “Dearly Beloved” and “Tales of Another Broken Home.”

Following the “Jesus of Suburbia” suite is “Holiday”, a protest anthem inspired by the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq. To a powerful driving beat, Armstrong emphatically rails against the neo-conservatives who pushed for war and their strategy of pitting one group against another. According to Armstrong, the chorus’s refrain – “This is our lives on holiday”— was intended to reflect the average American’s ambivalence of the issues of the day, and is spoken from the point of view of Jesus of Suburbia, who’s now high from endless partying in the big city.

The song immediately segues into “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”, a fantastic and bleak song described by Armstrong as the “subsequent morning after hangover”. He wrote it to describe the feelings of loneliness he sometimes felt during his time living in New York. The incredible musical arrangement with scratchy, tremolo-laden guitar set to a constant, mesmerizing beat, and accompanied by Armstrong’s almost mournful vocals, create a strong sense of isolation and disillusionment. One of my all-time favorite songs, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” ranks #3 on my Top 100 Songs of the 2000s list. It peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, making it Green Day’s most successful song in the U.S. It also topped the Alternative chart, spending an astonishing 16 weeks at #1, and the Adult Top 40 chart, where it spent 11 weeks at #1. The song was awarded a Grammy for 2005 Record of the Year, and was the ninth-highest-selling single of the decade, with worldwide sales exceeding 5 million.

The second character introduced in the story is St. Jimmy, a badass “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.” The third is Whatsername, introduced as a nemesis of St. Jimmy in the song “She’s a Rebel”: “She’s a rebel, she’s a saint / She’s the symbol of resistance and she’s holding on my heart like a hand grenade.” St. Jimmy and Whatsername represent the album’s underlying theme of “rage versus love”, with St. Jimmy turning out to be the rebellious and self-destructive facet of Jesus of Suburbia’s personality, explained to him by Whatsername in the song “Letterbomb”: “The St. Jimmy is a figment of your father’s rage and your mother’s love.” In choosing a more righteous path forward, Jesus of Suburbia eventually causes the figurative suicide of St. Jimmy. The album’s final song “Whatsername” touches on the passage of time, and that Jesus of Suburbia has lost his connection with Whatsername as well. He remembers her fondly but can’t recall her name.

The most poignant track on the album is “Wake Me Up When September Ends”, a beautiful and moving song written by Armstrong to convey his feelings of loss for his father, who died of cancer when Armstrong was 10 years old. The song seems like an outlier, in that it doesn’t directly relate to the rest of the album’s tracks or narrative, although the video made for the song addresses the loss of soldiers deployed in the Iraq War, so there’s that tie-in. The song also came to be used as a memorial to the victims of the 9/11 attacks, and in an independently made video, the song was used by a blogger to symbolize the aftermath of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. The guitar work is especially good on this track.

American Idiot is Green Day’s most successful album, selling more than 16,000,000 copies worldwide, and charting in 27 countries, reaching #1 in 19 of them. It spawned five successful singles: “American Idiot”, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”, “Holiday”, “Wake Me Up When September Ends” and “Jesus of Suburbia”. Its success inspired a Broadway musical and it has appeared on several lists of the best albums of the year and the decade. In 2012, Rolling Stone ranked it #225 on their 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list, and Kerrang named it the best rock album of the 2000s, and 13th best of all time. I would place it among my 20 favorite albums of all time.

Given the ongoing fear-mongering by the media, increasingly intense political divisiveness, and chronic stupidity of the American public, American Idiot remains quite relevant in 2020.

Top Ten Best Protest Songs

Given the current political upheaval in the U.S., much of Europe and elsewhere in the world, I’ve been thinking about protest songs and the impact they’ve had on spurring conversation and action. There are so many great ones that it was difficult to choose only ten, but I’ve whittled them down to what I think are the ten best protest songs. Many were inspired by either the Vietnam War or racism.

1.  WHAT’S GOING ON – Marvin Gaye (1971)
One of the most beautiful and compelling songs of protest ever recorded, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” is a masterpiece. Recorded in 1971 as one of many tracks for his brilliant album of the same name, the song was originally inspired by a police brutality incident during an anti-war protest in Berkeley, California’s People’s Park, witnessed by Renaldo “Obie” Benson, a member of the Motown group The Four Tops. Gaye had likewise been inspired by events such as the 1965 Watts riots and Vietnam War, which made him question how he could keep writing and singing love songs when the world seemed to be exploding around him. The song was composed by Benson, Al Cleveland and Gaye, and produced by Gaye after Motown exec Berry Gordy was set against recording such a song (and album). Rolling Stone named “What’s Going On” the fourth-greatest song of all time. Sadly, most of the issues Gaye sang about are still thorny in 2017.

2. MASTERS OF WAR – Bob Dylan (1962)
The week Bob Dylan arrived in New York City, Dwight Eisenhower, in his final address as President, warned of the dangers of the “military-industrial complex.” His words were largely ignored, and just two years later the world was on the verge of nuclear war, while the arms industry was making a fortune and spreading money all over Washington. The situation enraged Dylan, and he funneled this anger into writing “Masters of War.” The lyrics are searing: “I hope you die and your death will come soon. / I’ll follow your casket in the pale afternoon and I’ll watch while you’re lowered to your death bed and I’ll stand over your grave ’til I’m sure that you’re dead.” The song has been covered by scores of musicians, including the Staples Singers, Ed Sheeran and Pearl Jam in this chilling version.

3.  WAR – Edwin Starr (1970)
The defiant anti-Vietnam War anthem “War” was written by legendary Motown songwriters Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong (who penned numerous hits for the Temptations, Four Tops, and Undisputed Truth, among others). It was initially recorded by the Temptations for inclusion on their album Psychedelic Shack but, fearful of alienating their fan base, both the Temptations and Motown executives decided against releasing their version as a single. Motown contract singer Edwin Starr volunteered to record the song, and man did he deliver, his fierce vocals spitting and screaming the scathing lyrics. The music is downright brutal, with raging guitars, savage percussion and screaming brass that match the ferocity of Starr’s vocals. It went all the way to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and was later covered by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Bruce Springsteen and, more recently, Black Stone Cherry.

4.  HOLIDAY – Green Day (2005)
From Green Day’s brilliant album American Idiot, “Holiday” is a true protest anthem, inspired by the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq. Billie Joe Armstrong emphatically rails against the neo-conservatives who pushed for war and their strategy of pitting one group against another. According to Armstrong, the chorus’s refrain – “This is our lives on holiday” – was intended to reflect the average American’s ambivalence on the issues of the day.

5.  OHIO – Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (1970)
In May 1970, students at Kent State University in Ohio were demonstrating against the Vietnam War when the Ohio National Guard attempted to disperse the crowd. Ultimately, four unarmed students were shot to death and nine others injured, resulting in outrage throughout the nation. A few days afterward, Neil Young saw the now Pulitzer-Prize winning photo of 14-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the dead body of college student Jeffrey Miller. Young was so infuriated that he immediately wrote the song “Ohio” and convinced his fellow band members to record the song with him. “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming / We’re finally on our own / This summer I hear the drumming / Four dead in Ohio.” Interesting bit of trivia: future Pretenders lead singer Chrissie Hynde was then a student at Kent State and witnessed the event.

6. STRANGE FRUIT – Billie Holiday (1939)
Perhaps the most haunting protest song of them all, “Strange Fruit” was first written as a poem, then later set to music, by teacher Abel Meeropol in 1937. It protested American racism and the lynching of African Americans, and ‘strange fruit’ is a metaphor for lynching victims hanging from trees. The most iconic recording of the song was by Billie Holiday, but deeply moving versions have also been recorded by Nina Simone, Diana Ross, Jill Scott and Annie Lennox. Simone called it “the ugliest song she had ever heard.”

7.  BLOWIN’ IN THE WIND – Bob Dylan (1962)
Though not originally intended to be a protest song, Bob Dylan’s classic “Blowin’ in the Wind” quickly took on powerful meaning for many people in the ways it spoke to the issues of war, peace and civil rights. Dylan recorded it in 1962 for inclusion on his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, but it was the beautiful cover version by Peter, Paul and Mary in 1963 that made it famous, becoming a #1 hit.

8. AMERICAN IDIOT – Green Day (2005)
Another hard-hitting protest song from Green Day, “American Idiot” was inspired by the American public’s patriotic support of the Bush Administration’s war against Iraq. Band frontman Billie Joe Armstrong believed that mass media orchestrated paranoia and idiocy among the public. Citing cable news coverage of the Iraq War, Armstrong recalled, “They had all these Geraldo-like journalists in the tanks with the soldiers, getting the play-by-play.” He wrote the song after hearing the Lynyrd Skynyrd song “That’s How I Like It” on his car radio. “It was like, ‘I’m proud to be a redneck’ and I was like, ‘Oh my God, why would you be proud of something like that?’ This is exactly what I’m against.”

9.  FIGHT THE POWER – Public Enemy (1989)
“Fight the Power” by hip hop/rap group Public Enemy was written for the Spike Lee film Do the Right Thing. The song is a scathing attack on racism and classism, incorporating various samples and references to African-American culture, including civil rights, black church services and the music of James Brown. The website NME observed that “the brilliance of ‘Fight The Power’ is that it recognizes that cultural imperialism can be just as repressive a force as more obvious forms of state authority. Everyone knows about the Elvis lyric – but only Chuck D could tease out the unsettling racial stereotypes reinforced by Bobby McFerrin’s ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’.”

10.  EVE OF DESTRUCTION – Barry McGuire (1965)
“Eve of Destruction” was written by singer/songwriter P.F. Sloan in 1964, when the Vietnam war was still in its infancy, but the Cuban Missile Crisis was a very recent memory and there was widespread fear of nuclear war. The lyrics also address civil rights injustice. Sloan initially presented the song to the Byrds, who rejected it. It was subsequently recorded by the Turtles, Jan and Dean and the Grass Roots, but the version that became most famous was by Barry McGuire. His recording was a rough demo not intended for release, but it somehow got leaked to a DJ who began playing it, and it quickly became a huge hit, going all the way to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1965.

Honorable Mentions:
Fuck tha Police – N.W.A.
Fortunate Son – Creedence Clearwater Revival
We Shall Overcome – Pete Seeger
Sun City – Artists United Against Apartheid
A Change is Gonna Come – Sam Cooke
The Blacker the Berry – Kendrick Lamar
Killing in the Name – Rage Against the Machine
Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) – Marvin Gaye
Sign O the Times – Prince
I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag – Country Joe & the Fish
The Times They Are A-Changin’ – Bob Dylan
A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall – Bob Dylan
Hurricane – Bob Dylan
War Pigs – Black Sabbath
For What It’s Worth – Buffalo Springfield
Born in the U.S.A. – Bruce Springsteen
Sunday Bloody Sunday – U2
Mississippi Goddam – Nina Simone
Zombie – The Cranberries
Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud – James Brown
Revolution – The Beatles
Divisive – Calling All Astronauts