How are we supposed to treat American Idiot ten years later?
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.
Ten years has gone so fast. And it’s still unclear: Is American Idiot a good album?
That question is difficult to answer, largely because the music present on the record is inextricable from the time period in which it was created and consumed. Which I suppose is true of just about any art, but as the other articles celebrating Green Day demonstrate, it’s impossible to listen to or talk about American Idiot without viewing the album through the lens of where we were at in 2004, both personally and as a broader national culture.
In the early 2000s, a lot of people felt like Christ figures and a lot of people felt like anti-heroes and either way pretty much everybody was unhappy, which just happen to serve as the three central themes (suburban Jesus, nameless rebel, raaarrr dissatisfaction) of American Idiot.
So many things were presented as diametric opposites without regard for the subtleties inherent in each (and sometimes even a lack of distinction between either): war vs. peace, Republican vs. Democrat, enemy vs. ally, liberal vs. patriot, freedom fry vs. french fry, etc. American Idiot to me sounds like an attempt at unifying all these disparate elements into one general sound of “opposition,” but without realizing how disjointed everything within it actually sounds. The album is essentially just a collection of suites barely tethered together into one “rock opera” by schizophrenic through-lines of power chords and nasal-congestion singing. It’s a concept album that doesn’t make sense as a concept once you dig in below the surface, like a lot of other things dominating America’s cultural dialogue at the time (looking at you, John Kerry ’04 presidential campaign).
I think that there are a lot of good reasons why Green Day’s career has been so maligned for the past decade, and that a lot of those valid critiques are present on American Idiot. The songs devolve into plodding power chords at times, the vocals slip into bleating whines, and multiple listens reveals that the album has about as much intellectual, musical, or emotional depth as Roger Goodell fronting a KISS cover band. But after all, isn’t part of growing up realizing that the people you held in such high regard as a kid aren’t as unassailable as you once thought?
But if you judge the relative merits of a record according to what that album set out to accomplish, then American Idiot was a massive artistic success as well as a commercial triumph. The tracks still shine with pure pop-punk gold when played through Walkmen, desktop speakers, those iPods that clicked as you scrolled through, and anything else with which middle schoolers listened to music in 2004. Because that’s what Green Day specifically crafted and optimized their music for. Some tracks are great for singing along to in groups (“Boulevard of Broken Dreams”), some to pretend that you’re singing along to in a group of like-minded disaffected adolescents (“American Idiot”), and some to brood along to while thinking about a war whose complexity and tragedy you cannot even comprehend (“Wake Me Up When September Ends“). Shit, even Pitchfork had nothing but good things to say about it.
American Idiot was supposed to a) sell a lot of copies, b) get people interested in Green Day, and c) maybe sorta lend a voice to the myriad of dissatisfactions felt by anybody living through a time of war and a time of acne. It did all three, and I still don’t change the channel when “Holiday” pops up on the radio. So by those metrics, Green Day made a good album.
From the gripping visuals of its album art to its vague references to “suburbia,” American Idiot adhered to a unified aesthetic whose surface level was compelling enough to be interesting on a surface level but broad and bland enough to be picked up by literally anybody who had visited a mall in the prior 6 months. Is that a good artistic accomplishment? Tough call.
Fortunately there were enough bad decisions made in 2004 that whatever you think about American Idiot it won’t look as bad in comparison.