An expression of gratitude to a much maligned band and album

Thanks, American Idiot

September 20, 2014 / by / 27 Comments

Happy Green Day! Our National Ave writers celebrate the 10th anniversary of Green Day’s American Idiot by looking back on what the album meant in 2004.

Sometime I can’t believe the early 2000’s actually happened.

It was so full of insane incidents, ranging from the serious (like the New York Times’ unethical, borderline libelous reporting that helped secure public support for the Iraq War) to the silly (remember Freedom Fries?), that I can’t believe we actually made it out. Political scientists theorize that the president’s party when you’re young has a strong positive influence on your adult politics. Growing up in an era of batshit patriotism producing near-McCarthy era levels of peer pressure media censorship…by all rights, we should be a generation of fucked-up, lockstep Republican zombies. There are a lot of possible explanations as to why we’re not, but my favorite involves the 2004 release of American Idiot.

I might not speak for everyone, but hearing American Idiot (and specifically, “American Idiot”) at the tender age of 11 was my first experience of a pop cultural political statement. When I was a little kid, the only music I knew of was Radio Disney and the Beatles. I didn’t know that music could be a living, breathing beast that reacted to the world around it. The vehement way Billy Joe spat some of those lyrics (“everyone’s so full of shit / born and raised by hypocrites!”) was a sound and a feeling I had never heard before in music. It helped me realize that I didn’t want to be part of a redneck agenda, either.

It’s not like spinning American Idiot in the old Walkman a couple times made me go buy The Communist Manifesto or sign on for a Democratic Senate campaign or anything like that. In fact, the best part of American Idiot is that it’s not even close to being a political tract. On songs like “We Are the Waiting” or (my personal favorite track) “Jesus of Suburbia,” the album also beautifully describes the sadness, boredom and meaningless anger instantly recognizable to any child of the suburbs. Not exactly the stuff of Radio Disney hits. Hearing all that stuff in music for the first time subtly flipped a switch in my brain, showed me that there were other ways to think, other ways to talk than the gung-ho cultural conservatism that kept shoving itself down our throats in the early Bush years.

The biggest influences are the ones you don’t notice while they’re happening. I’m sure I never would’ve predicted Green Day as a long-lasting band that made some of the best songs of the 90s, but my 11-year old self didn’t know that. He just lumped American Idiot with the other emo-era stuff that was dominating tween musical spheres at that time, Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance and Panic! At the Disco and all the rest. But unlike the meaningless wannabe Dadaist drivel of Pete Wentz’s worst lyrics, American Idiot’s anger (political, personal and social) had some staying power. Unlike 99% of the music I listened to before I was 16, I can still listen to that album and pump my fist without feeling embarrassed and ashamed for my younger self.

If I was tagged in a music album version of that viral “10 books that influenced me” Facebook status, American Idiot wouldn’t be one of the first 20 that popped into my head. I barely listen to it anymore. But anytime something reminds me of my existence, such as this 10-year anniversary, I can’t help but smile. Thanks for everything, American Idiot. You demonstrated the power of pop culture. You encapsulated everything my 11-year old self was feeling, and most importantly, helped inspire him to grow beyond it.