Of all the negative effects the Bush administration has had on the world (and unless you’ve had your head buried in the sand, then you know that there are many), the most unlikely bit of collateral damage has to be the return of the rock opera. Dissent has always been a fundamental tenet of punk rock, so it comes as no surprise that the forefathers of popular punk would take a stab at the not-quite-popular-enough sport of Bush-bashing. But an all-out punk musical? With American Idiot, their first studio album in four years, Green Day have resurrected the rock opera medium, and not only have they succeeded, they’ve managed to create a musical-political document that should remain relevant for years to come (possibly even longer if Bush actually gets elected this time).
The story begins on Presidents Day and follows two main characters, Jesus of Suburbia and St. Jimmy, who may or may not be the same person but who both stand on the same side of the political fence, with varying degrees of rage. Ultimately the narrative, which feels flimsy at times and ends with too many loose ends (perhaps the inevitable film or stage production will fill in the blanks), seems less important than Billy Joe Armstrong’s own story. “Maybe I am the faggot, America/I’m not part of a redneck agenda,” he sings on the title track. Billy Joe knows he (Jesus) is pretty much alone in his crusade (“Where have all the riots gone?” he begs in “Letterbomb”), but that doesn’t stop him from attacking both sides with equal vehemence on “Holiday,” one of American Idiot’s most potent tracks: “Another protester has crossed the line/To find the money’s on the other side,” and then, my personal favorite, “Zieg heil to the President Gasman!”
In the tradition of The Who and Pink Floyd, American Idiot is a pompous, overwrought, and, quite simply, glorious concept album. While it may be long on narrative and character skteches (Jesus’s muse is a girl named Whatsername, “the mother of all bombs”), it’s certainly not short on hooks. The guitars are stacked, the drums are big, and the message is crystal clear. There are hints of the more adult-skewed pop-punk of Green Day’s last album, 2000’s underappreciated Warning, on the power ballad “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams” and “Wake Me Up Before September,” a lament for Billy Joe’s late father, but American Idiot finds the band exploring new ground, drawing not only on classic Clash riffs but, yes, Broadway musicals for a few multi-part, key-shifting epics. In their attempt to reinvigorate themselves as a band (creatively and commercially), Green Day have managed to accomplish what record companies have failed to do with so many useless tacked-on DVDs and net portals to “exclusive” material: they’ve produced an album you’ll want to own, Kazaa be damned.
The cheeky press notes for the album, set sometime in the future, boldly declares that American Idiot is “the album that started a whole cult of people clutching their hand grenade hearts” and that it’s “neck and neck with Sgt. Pepper as the greatest album of all time.” That remains to be seen, but for a band who burst onto the scene 10 years ago with a record called Dookie, the boys of Green Day, now in their 30s, sure have come a long way. They are, in fact, the real Nirvana, their influence more widely felt than any other American band from the ’90s (sorry, Kurt). Ironically, it seems the slackers of yesterday—the ones who were bored of masturbation, smoking their inspiration, and disenfranchised by the politics of Reagan and Bush Sr.—are now the ones rallying for political change, and hopefully their influence will reach a little bit farther than Sum 41 and Good Charlotte come this November.