For Green Day, George W. Bush’s administration wasn’t much fun, but it did inspire a career revival most acts would (metaphorically) kill for. 2000’s Warning was the punk band’s most disappointing effort (both critically and commercially) since breaking through with Dookie, and the trio needed some time to reclaim the magic. When the recordings for a follow-up called Cigarettes and Valentines was stolen, guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tré Cool decided to regroup and record something completely different — a rock opera in the vein of the Who‘s Tommy and Jesus Christ Superstar.
It was crazy enough to work. Four years since Warning, fans were finally thirsting for new Green Day again, and lead single “American Idiot” was strong enough to be hailed as a winning return-to-form. Follow-up single “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” kicked in after the album’s Sept. 20 release date and connected the veteran band with a whole new legion of emotionally-vulnerable kids. By 2005, American Idiot truly caught fire and wound up being that year’s fourth-biggest seller overall, with 3.4 million units sold, according to Nielsen Soundscan. All in all, it’s sold 6.2 million copies to date, second only to Dookie in Green Day’s catalog.
American Idiot arrived during the days of Michael Moore‘s Fahrenheit 911, when many were starting lose their post-9/11 patriotic fervor and protesting the Iraq war was becoming a mainstream movement. Now, 10 years and one Broadway musical later, many are similarly disillusioned over the failed promise of the presidential regime that followed. But a close listen to the album reveals that it’s even more about overcoming one’s personal demons, accepting reality and moving on. A decade later, Billboard revisits American Idiot and hopes we’ve all grown 10 years wiser.
“American Idiot”: After the (relative) flop Warning, Green Day came back four years later with a brand new-song that sounded a great deal like “classic” Green Day — in other words, the Dookie days. “American Idiot” was the first single and first song shared in the new album cycle and on its own, it didn’t exactly scream “rock opera.” But among the familiar power chords, Billie Joe’s lyrics aren’t at all Dookie. His not-so-subtle jabs at conservatism in post-9/11 America go onto frame the narrative to come.
“American Idiot” topped Alternative Songs for six weeks.
“Jesus of Suburbia”: And so the rock opera begins. We’re introduced to the Jesus of Suburbia, an ordinary dude from Anytown, USA, whose parents don’t get along and who resorts to drugs and alcohol to drift through life. How does this link to the Fox News and George W. Bush vitriol of track one? We’re not so sure yet, but the four movements in the track’s nine minutes are so walloping, there’s hardly time to wonder. The first three suites are maddeningly hooky; the final one, “Tales of Another Broken Home,” starts off like a eulogy before kicking into gear with cries of “You’re leaving home,” as the journey begins.
“Holiday”: With Jesus out on the road, Green Day looks big picture again for the album’s thunderous third single. “Holiday” takes aim at the Bush administration again, imploring potential protesters to not simply retreat to their Camp Davids. After the chorus teases its potential the first two times, Billie Joe holds out the final note of “Holiday!” the last time around for one of American Idiot‘s mightiest moments.
“Boulevard of Broken Dreams”: “American Idiot” brought back the old Green Day fans; “Boulevard” converted a whole new crop of sad high schoolers. Free of political specifics and the St. Jimmy narrative, this was a MySpace-era anthem the kids could truly reflect themselves in. It was the biggest hit on American Idiot and confirmed the resurgence of Green Day. It stayed atop Alternative Songs for 16 weeks.
“Are We the Waiting”: After all the bombast and big choruses, Green Day knows when to quell the mood. Sparse, resonant drumbeats and echo-y guitars are left to take up this cavernous song, which finds our protagonist reaching the city and finding it’s a lot lonelier than he expected.
“St. Jimmy”: Sharp and sudden after “Waiting’s” second chorus, “St. Jimmy” jolts us back to the title track’s straight-ahead punk riffs. But after the second chorus, we’re reminded this is a serious rock opera, as time slows and St. Jimmy introduces himself like a new lead actor taking the stage. For the record, St. Jimmy is the more rebellious alter ego of Jesus of Suburbia, a likely figment of his lonely, performance-enhanced imagination.
“Give Me Novacaine”: Musically, “Novacaine” holds some subtle greatness on an album that’s often great but hardly ever subtle. The acoustic strumming in the intro offsets the grandeur of “St. Jimmy,” and those steel-guitar slides after the chorus echo the woozy bliss of the subject matter. But Poor Jesus… he’s on the brink of suicide halfway through the album and in need of another savior.
“She’s a Rebel”: The guitars surge again and Jesus is saved by a rebel girl, who is American Idiot‘s first hint of female presence (unless we go deep with the Bush administration and count Condoleezza Rice). Just as Billie Joe likely based Jesus of Suburbia on himself, this girl — called Whatsername — was inspired by a number of women he’d been with in his life (“from Chicago to Toronto”). In the song, her charisma is enough to shock him back to life and commence American Idiot‘s second side.
“Extraordinary Girl”: Thirty seconds of bongos and ominous, very un-Green Day instrumentals announce that producer Rob Cavallo is still on hand, and very good at what he does. Once the rocker kicks in, we’re given another taste of Jesus/Jimmy’s relationship with his new flame, who has some issues of her own.
“Letterbomb”: Green Day scores some coolness points here — that’s Kathleen Hanna making a cameo in the opening, singing the words of the letterbomb that Whatsername sent to our main character. Here, he realizes he’s become a fraud, built up on drug-inspired mania. It’s a revelation as far as the narrative goes, but musically, “Letterbomb” is more standard-issue Green Day; in fact, it sounds very much like the Insomniac cut “86.”
“Wake Me Up When September Ends”: On the radio, this single followed in the footsteps of “Boulevard,” as another sentimental midtempo rocker for the emo kids to sink their teeth into. In the ultra-specific narrative of the album, it’s more of an outlier power ballad that shares DNA with “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” but is much more heavy-handed. For Billie Joe, though, it’s understandably no laughing matter; the song was inspired by his father’s early September death in 1982.
“Homecoming”: The album’s second four-part suite opens with Jesus of Suburbia in a depressive rut after Whatsername left him. He’s taken a dead-end office job and it really stings when he hears about a friend’s “rock and roll life” (via the fourth movement, written and sung by drummer Tré Cool). Finally, the tone turns triumphant as he accepts his lot in life and marches back home, but Whatsername’s stinging words (“nobody likes you”) still ring in his head and end the song.
“Whatsername”: On the closing track, American Idiot reveals itself as a story of accepting life’s random, unfair madness and moving on. Green Day cribs the calming “Every Breath You Take” verses, and Jesus of Suburbia wonders how Whatsername has been in this contemplative slow-burner. What happened to all the grand-scale, political turmoil that opened it? Perhaps our main character has learned to accept it for what it is — along with his lost love and boring life — and take the high road.