Monday, May 3, 2010

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob: Week 57 - Green Day

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

It is 1994. I am eight years old, and have just achieved cultural self-awareness. Green Day is omnipresent - their major label debut, Dookie, is a smash hit. I hear the song "Longview" more times than I can count. Sometimes I watch Beavis and Butthead with my parents, because they think I'm still too young to understand the jokes about erections. Beavis and Butthead skewer "Basket Case" and I still distinctly remember this.


It is 1999. I am thirteen years old. Bill Clinton is president, and Green Day is omnipresent. Their slow-paced breakup song "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)" is everywhere, from the radio to the Seinfeld finale. The song becomes the go-to track to end the awkward teenage dances in middle and high school. If I'm lucky, I might get to clumsily dance with a girl to this song by the end of the night.


It is 2005. I am nineteen years old. George W. Bush is president, and the Second Iraq War is in full swing. Green Day is omnipresent. I am home after my first year of college, working a fairly boring job in the basement of a library. There are no windows. To keep from going crazy, the radio is on all day, and so is Green Day's "American Idiot". When the song is not playing on the radio, a commercial for Green Day's American Idiot tour is playing instead.


It is 2009. I am twenty-three years old. Barack Obama is president. I have a college degree and just left my first Real Job. For all intents and purposes, I am a functioning grown-up in the adult world. I am driving down to Florida to start graduate school. Green Day is omnipresent. On the many radio stations I flip through on this thousand mile drive, all of them are playing "21 Guns."


The point is that Green Day has been a constant presence ever since I've been old enough to be aware of music at all. They haven't gone away, but rather seem to pop up every four or five years, like clockwork, with at least one ubiquitous single. I fully expect them to be back in 2013, to be greeted with rolled eyes and comments of, "So they're still around?"

But I've never known any differently. As long as Green Day is still a major presence, I can pretend like I'm eight years old and it's the nineties and I'm watching Beavis and Butthead. I would be lying if I said pure nostalgia wasn't at least part of their appeal.



WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: Aside from those inescapable songs, I had never actually listened to a full Green Day album. They were always just hovering on the periphery of my awareness. It took the recent American Idiot Broadway musical for me to start thinking about them as a candidate for this project.

MY LISTENING: I listened to Dookie (1994) every day this week. I also listened to American Idiot (2005) three times, and Kerplunk (1992) and Insomniac (1995) twice each. Finally, I'm listening to 21st Century Breakdown (2009) on the soon-to-be-defunct as I write this.

WHAT I LIKED: There are really two facets of Green Day I had to confront - the pop-punk slacker Green Day of the nineties, and the stadium-rock Broadway-fodder Green Day of the aughts.

The former Green Day, as I implied, simply makes me nostalgic for the nineties. And Dookie sums up everything this Green Day was trying to achieve so perfectly. It's the epitome of teenagers lying around getting stoned and talking about girls. The music has power, but not too much force, and there's sort of a laid-back, almost half-assed feeling to the whole thing. "Burnout" and "Coming Clean" are the perfect summary of apathetic seventeen year olds who thinks they're too cool for society. The band's youth and inexperience saves them with this album, providing a much-needed sincerity to what would otherwise be rather boring

Other songs from Dookie, like "Basket Case," are more tongue-in-cheek and self-aware, but still strike the vibe of the apathetic teenager quite well. But Green Day doesn't just succeed because of their slacker sympathies. Billie Joe Armstrong is also a decent songwriter. Every track on Dookie is absurdly catchy. There's been a lot of debate about whether or not Green Day is truly "punk" or pop stars in disguise. It's sort of a meaningless argument, but the combination of raw punk power and poppy songwriting are what make the group interesting - songs like "Welcome to Paradise" and "When I Come Around" utilize both the punk and the pop to equal effect. The songs are simple, usually a basic structure built on a single riff of a few chords, but they're remarkably effective in their simplicity.

Green Day in the aughts in a different beast. While they still retain their youthful sincerity, it's now applied to the political landscape. Whereas nineties Green Day wouldn't be out of place playing in your neighbor's garage, the tracks from American Idiot demand performance in a stadium arena. Songs like "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" and "We Are The Waiting" are more in the 80s power ballad tradition than anything. It's still catchy, but the band has changed.

American Idiot, however, is Exhibit B as to Billie Joe Armstrong's songwriting talent. The two suites - "Jesus of Surburbia" and "Homecoming," are practically overflowing with creativity, as the band bounces from riff to riff with seemingly endless imagination. Most of Green Day's songs are simple, but these suites showcase the band's ability to take this simple structure and utilize it in thousands of different ways.


I wish I had listened to Green Day when I was sixteen. I know I spoke in praise above about their lyrical sincerity, but it's something best experienced when you're a teenager, I think. Dookie and the slacker aesthetic is appealing for nostalgia's sake, but the songs certainly have less to say to me now, and there's really not a lot of content for anyone outside of high school (some of the songs are complaining about Mom and Dad, for god's sake). Similarly, American Idiot's rock opera conceit is narratively problematic, and while it's "Choose Love Over War" theme is laudable, it's portrayed in such an eye-rollingly simplistic and needlessly antagonistic way that I was wary of its value as a political statement even at the time of its release.

"American Idiot" might have been a risky career move in 2005, but lines like "I don't want to be part of a redneck agenda" are ideologically vacant, and Billie Joe Armstrong is doing nothing but constructing straw men to tear down. The very sincerity that helps make American Idiot worth listening to also prevents the band from reaching any sort of musical maturity. And songs like "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" equate political activism with wallowing self-pity. The "Fuck you, I'll do what I want" theme of the band's oeuvre works better on Dookie than American Idiot, no question. In some ways, the band has grown up; in others, they're still radically immature.

Finally, you may have noticed my discussion has been limited to Dookie and/or American Idiot. This is not an accident; rather, it's the only two memorable albums Green Day has come out with. Kerplunk reads like proto-Dookie, and Insomniac as a slightly angrier follow-up. And, despite attempts like "Geek Stink Breath," the songs on these two albums are far less catchy. Similarly, after American Idiot, Green Day followed up with 21st Century Breakdown, another rock opera concept album filled with powerful stadium tunes. I laud the band for attempting to reach new territory in the balladesque "21 Guns", but it's hard to read 21st Century Breakdown as anything but an attempt to capitalize on American Idiot's success.

Finally, Billie Joe Armstong's voice can either be obstinately defiant or unbearably nasally and grating, depending on what side of the bed I got up on.

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: I still have Nimrod (1997) and Warning (2000), which got good reviews though they seem to have been mostly overlooked. And then there's the other pop-punk bands of the 90s like Blink-182 and Offspring.


Actually, this is not one of Green Day's better songs. But it is the song that's been stuck in my head all week, so I feel like I need to give credit where credit is due.