Monday, June 21, 2010

Five Hundred Twenty-Five Thousand Six Hundred Minutes of Green Day

My parents visited me in New York this weekend, and like all good midwestern families we did what all corn-fed prairie folk do when they're in the big city: we saw a Broadway show. While my first choice was to see the revival of A Little Night Music, my dad opted to buy tickets for American Idiot (and it was Father's Day so we let him pick), the stage musical based on the Green Day rock opera.

Now, there's two things that define me that pretty much everyone should know, both have to do with my high school years. First of all, I did musical theater from the ages of fourteen to eighteen; and second, I was a pop punk kid. When people ask what kind of music one listens to, generally people respond with something vague and overreaching like "rock" or "everything, you know?". I answer "pop punk and showtunes". So it was pretty interesting to say the least that I would ever see a Green Day album would find itself on the Great White Way.

I was prepared to hate the American Idiot musical. As much as I listened to the hell out of that CD (I was in high school during the chaotic period of the iPod's ascendancy) I had since come to believe that Green Day's 2004 effort, considered by many critics to be their crowning achievement, had not aged particularly well. Back in 2004 we were all pissed about the Bush presidency; I have the Kerry/Edwards '04 buttons (plural!) to prove it (John Edwards: remember that guy?), and American Idiot seemed to capture the political-cultural zeitgesit in a way that my generation hadn't really been around to see before in popular music. Four years later, Barack Obama gets elected president and I feel much better about the direction of my country and therefore the world and therefore my life. Now it's 2010, and despite whatever frustrations I may have with the political landscape of the United States, I'm generally old and wise enough (at the age of twenty-three: ha!) not to be existentially enraged at the word because of them.

To quote the Apostle Paul: "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away American Idiot."
As much as I may have become soured on American Idiot over the years, I still listen to a lot of Green Day. Dookie remains one of my favorite albums of all time, and I am still fairly confident in my opinion that any fourteen-year-old boy who doesn't have a copy is better off dead. So when the news broke that American Idiot was going to be adapted to the stage, I was skeptical.

Clearly, this wasn't going to do: adapting an album from a time and place so recently passed would look stupid. American Idiot's smug and angsty anger could never play well on stage; I look back on the American Idiot years as misguided, almost wasted ones. Why would I want to revisit them?

American Idiot's rage and vitriol is directed at vague and indiscriminate sources. Is it a diatribe against the Bush White House and War In Iraq? Kinda. Is it about how parents just don't understand and suburbia is Hell on Earth? Sure. Is it about a lost generation without direction? Absolutely, in a way.

The album and musical tell the story of Johnny aka Jesus of Suburbia as he escapes the clutches of his parents (with their approval and financial backing, natch) and goes on an odyssey of punk rock and self-discovery. Along the way he does a lot of drugs, falls in love, and rebels against the establishment (but, because this is pop punk, it's in a really snotty, unspecific, "fuck you, Dad!" way). While he does this, one of his friends gets his girlfriend pregnant and another joins the Army and gets shipped out to Iraq, borrowing a plot device (not to mention the "fantasizing about the nurse after he's been wounded in combat" musical sequence) from another jukebox musical, Across the Universe.

Seeing American Idiot on stage brought me right back to 2004. I remembered those old forgotten feelings of righteous anger and socially acceptable rebellion again. I knew my enemy (a couple of songs from 21st Century Breakdown are thrown in the mix here, like the one just alluded to as well as "21 Guns", which I swear was played in at least three scenes of Transformers 2. Also, that's totally the Full House theme in the guitar solo) again and his name was George Walker Bush (I think...maybe it was my parents, or my teachers, or God; this is actually from a monologue from the show now that I think about it). Seeing a bunch of actors singing and dancing the partial soundtrack of my senior year as if it were Rent (and I love Rent) made me realize that American Idiot might have been the defining album of my era. When my kids ask me what the mid-2000's sounded like, I think I'm going to hand them a Green Day CD. Nobody better sums up how we all, or at least how I imagined we all, felt back then.

Maybe the American Idiot musical isn't essential, maybe it is partially a shameless attempt to bring a younger audience into Broadway, but it just might have helped me realize that Green Day's album was the most important of the turn of the twenty-first century.