How Green Day's American Idiot represented the disconcerting, frightening, and fractured spirit of 2004

We Were American Idiots

September 20, 2014 / by / 17 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.

In 8th grade, a group of friends and I made a home video called “PAAA: The People Against America Association.” It was a sarcastic tale of a terrorist organization, headed by Osama Bin Laden, Adolf Hitler, and Legolas (because of course), virulently expressing their hatred for the United States. Soon thereafter in the video we’re introduced to our miles gloriosus, George W. Bush, who enters with a shotgun and proceeds to kill each member of the PAAA from the perspective of a first-person shooter. The soundtrack was none other than Green Day’s American Idiot.

Looking back, our video was patently offensive and gratuitous, even in its joking spirit. Thankfully, we’ve all since matured, gone to college, and made some surprisingly positive contributions to society, but it’s hard not to watch this video and see in it a disconcerting time in American culture.

After 9/11, the country was fairly unified for the first time in, well, God knows how long. We stood together under the banner of solidarity, solemnly mourning the staggering loss we had just suffered and ready to take action against its perpetrators. Hell, nearly every single member of Congress voted in favor of military action in Afghanistan. When was the last time a major bill like that passed with even 2/3 vote, let alone with just one naysayer out of 535?

In 2004, this short-lived historical moment ended as the realities of the geopolitical landscape came crashing down on us. The inhumanities of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib surfaced to public attention. Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire. The Darfur Conflict, an incredibly tragic and complex genocide, was reduced to a chic celebrity cause that made no effort to educate the American people on the actual situation itself. And President Bush — regardless of his intentions, an unmistakeable icon of a misguided American nation — remained in office.

Our great nation, still hearing the dulcet echoes of patriotic songs of unity and triumph, was forced into an unpleasant, jolting reality check: things are just as twisted and disheartening now as they ever have been. And for buying into the national rhetoric of righteous action, we felt like Idiots.

American Idiot spares no brusqueness in its lyrics. The unflinching use of words and phrases like “redneck,” “faggot,” and “subliminal mind fuck” reflects an unapologetic attitude toward our nation. It’s the vitriol of a disenfranchised voice of misplaced faith and hope, a contrite statement of cynicism. It pains me to say it, but Green Day was a mouthpiece of the American zeitgeist in this historical moment.

So where are we now, 10 years later? From what I can gather, we appear resolved to never again be duped into American Idiocy. We examine every idea forwards and backwards, inside out and outside in, to evaluate its holistic quality. We don’t take our news with a grain of salt, we take it with an empty room and a metal chair, determined to intimidate and interrogate and incapacitate it until it admits something, regardless of whether we get the truth from it. We’ve perfected the art of controversy because we want to control the controversy rather than exist as its subject. But is it good? Is it healthy for us to be so cripplingly skeptic of media and culture that we can’t even donate to charity without being called out for questionable ethics?

Perhaps it’s too soon to tell. But one thing can be made certain: It will be a long, long time before we put enough trust in our government and media that a song like American Idiot will embody our national attitude.