Rage, love, and massive success
On September 20, 2004, American Idiot came into this world chock-full of angst and guyliner.
Originally titled Cigarettes and Valentines, Green Day, along with Rob Cavallo, recorded the album in split sessions at Studio 880 in Oakland and Ocean Way Recording in Hollywood. While predominantly a “punk rock opera” centered around the burnout anti-hero Jesus of Suburbia, the album also delved into American politics with “Holiday” and, of course, “American Idiot,” which criticized the Bush administration, as well as the War in Iraq.
Regardless of your opinion on American politics, there is no denying that American Idiot was an international Hella Mega success. The album has sold over 16 million copies worldwide, all the while meteorically rising to the number one spot in 19 different countries. Green Day also snagged a pair of Grammys and were nominated for five more between 2005 and 2006.
American Idiot boasted four massively successful radio hits, that arguably were not even the best songs on the album (we’ll dive into that later). It also featured a pair of five-part, nine-minute epics that would make Freddie Mercury smile in his grave. The album was massively influential with the “look” of spiked jet black hair, black dress shirt, and red tie (it’s not a phase, mom!) as well as spawning a two-time Tony award-winning Broadway musical.
Most importantly, this is the album that revitalized Green Day’s career. After a commercial dud with Warning in 2000, the band was beginning to hit a decline in trajectory. Though Warning did receive decent reviews and fan appreciation, sales were disappointing to the band. Personally, I think Green Day would have been just fine, being as they are the creators of Dookie as well as a song that will be played at every high school graduation and prom from now until the end of civilization.
But that was not the mindset in 2004. Had American Idiot bombed, who knows where Green Day would be right now. One thing is for certain, American Idiot catapulted Green Day into rock ‘n’ roll superstardom. The album was able to weave between mainstream rock and pop radio, making all of us fans of the band, at least for a moment in time.
And for that, we salute you, Green Day. Happy 15th birthday. Let’s dig into the album.
1. “American Idiot”
There is a misconception that American Idiot, as a whole, is a politically-charged record. At its core, it is a storytelling concept album. The song “American Idiot,” however, is a bit different. Frontman Billie Joe Armstrong told Kerrang! the idea sparked from listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “That’s How I Like It” on a drive home. “It was like, ‘I’m proud to be a redneck’ and I was like, ‘Oh my God, why would you be proud of something like that?’ This is exactly what I’m against,” Armstrong said. Armstrong also claims the song is centered around mass media boiling up paranoia and spewing hysteria amongst the public.
Verse 1 kicks off the song with Tré Cool’s thumping bass drum and Armstrong’s distorted vocals. It was also fun to scream “mind-fuck America” over the radio edit.
Don’t wanna be an American Idiot
Don’t want a nation under the new mania
And can you hear the sound of hysteria?
The subliminal mind-fuck America
The solo at 1:50. By all means, this is not a mind-blowing solo. It does, however, mark the start of an important moment in the music video…the slime. When Armstrong’s solo kicks in, the band gets doused in gallons of green slime, like a Chernobyl disaster at the Nickelodeon Kid’s Choice Awards.
Right off the bat Green Day cranks out a fast-paced, pop punky, politically-infused banger. This was the best choice to start the album. “American Idiot” still has an excellent shelf life, as its themes reign true to this day. Also helps that there is an “American Dipshit” currently running the country.
2. “Jesus of Suburbia”
I. Jesus of Suburbia
II. City of the Damned
III. I Don’t Care
IV. Dearly Beloved
V. Tales of Another Broken Home
Coming in at 9:08, Jesus of Suburbia has five sections and is the fifth single off American Idiot, which was trimmed down to 6:26 for radio edit. It also introduces the album’s central character, the low-life anti-hero, Ritalin poppin’, “son of rage and love,” Jesus of Suburbia.
Jesus of Suburbia (part 1)
Get my television fix
Sitting on my crucifix
The living room on my private womb
While the moms and Brads are away
The term “Brads” is referring to stereotypical stepdads. More specifically, Armstrong claims it refers to kids of this generation referring to their parents on a first name basis, showing their disdain. We are living in a society full of Kyles, Rands, Nances, and Karens. It’s time we bring back Brads.
The transition from “I Don’t Care” into “Dearly Beloved” at 5:15. We go from a protypical “fuck you” punk anthem, into a softer ballad in “Dearly Beloved,” led by Mike Dirnt’s toe-tapping bassline. We also get a glimpse at the sensitive side of our main character.
This song is a masterpiece. Every transition is flawless. Green Day typically plays this at the tailend of a set, often to end the first encore. It is a beautiful sight watching 20,000-plus belt out a nine-minute anthem.
“Jesus of Suburbia” is also commonly referred to as the “punk rock Bohemian Rhapsody.” If this is true, then that would make “Welcome to Black Parade” the “emo Bohemian Rhapsody.” That would then make “Come Sail Away” the “late-70s progressive rock Bohemian Rhapsody,” and, of course, “Aqualung” the “Bohemian Rhapsody of songs about homeless pedophiles.”
This is the other political song on American Idiot, as evident in the first three seconds in the video above. Essentially, “Holiday” is an anti-war protest song and the band’s “fuck you” to the Bush adminstration for returning the United States back into conflict with the Middle East. While clearly an outspoken anthem against the U.S. government, “Holiday” is also a rallying cry for fellow Americans to not sit around and watch, but rather to do something about it.
Hear the dogs howling out of key
To a hymn called “Faith and Misery” (Hey!)
During live performances, as well as the music video, Armstrong motions the Catholic “sign of the cross” at this section. This, followed by one of many rebellious, “Heys!”
It is difficult leaving out the Bridge, but to me the greatest moment in “Holiday” comes in Verse 2 at 1:19. My favorite theme in rock ‘n’ roll is sticking it to the man. Taxman, Bossman, you name it. When Armstrong asks for another “Amen” and the crowd chants it back? Come on. That is sticking it to the man 101. Also, this moment is fucking incredible live. Hearing a stadium of fans chant “Amen!” back is a glorious experience.
This song slaps live. There is loud, and I mean LOUD, chanting. All throughout the song, too. Frequently, before the Bridge, Dirnt will take the bassline for a walk while Armstrong goes on some political rant. This is followed by an arena chanting “Hey! Hey! Hey!” with fists in the air. I have attended many concerts in my life, but have never felt a crowd so electric as I did during “Holiday.” St. Paul, 2016, you are a fond memory.
4. “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”
“Boulevard of Broken Dreams” is where our story truly continues. After the high of “Jesus of Suburbia,” our protagonist is now empty and alone, after leaving home. Released as the second single off American Idiot, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” peaked at number two on the Billboard Hot 100, making it Green Day’s most successful song in the U.S. “Boulevard” was edged out by 50 Cent’s “Candy Shop,” making it all the more tragic.
I walk alone, I walk alone…
Walking and being alone provides most of the lyrics in this track. Verse 2 features the best of them, however.
Read between the lines
What’s fucked up, and everything’s all right
Check my vital signs
To know I’m still alive, and I walk alone
Much like “American Idiot” it was fun to drop an F-bomb over the radio edit. Man, was I an edgy 14-year old.
The instrumental outro at 3:35. The song takes a turn and heads into a downward spiral, much like Jesus of Suburbia. This moment fits the mood of the story.
This is an iconic song, with a memorable music video to boot. “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” made several appearances in mainstream pop culture, including a Wonderwall mashup in the early days of YouTube, along with a magical duet from Dwight Schrute and Andy Bernard.
5. “Are We the Waiting”
After reeling off four straight radio singles, we finally arrive at our first track that is not a “hit.” While “Are We the Waiting” did not receive any radio play, this ballad is well-respected amongst Green Day fans. Lyrically, Jesus finally moves out of Suburbia into the City, a place he’s dreamt of for years, but only to find that he does not belong. This leaves him feeling confused, frustrated, and alone.
This dirty town was burning down in my dreams
Lost and found, city bound in my dreams
Before the isolation and despair, Jesus is dreaming of a better life in the City. He ponders if one day he’ll bust out of this one-horse town, as if his life were a Bruce Springsteen song.
Hard to pin down just one single moment in this beautiful anthem. The emphatic, slow-natured pounding of Cool’s drums infuses a different emotion into the track, especially with headphones on.
Much like “Holiday,” this song is a lot of fun in concert. It was made for chanting. I’m not fond of the newer American Idiot releases combining songs together (more on that later), but this one is the perfect compliment to “St. Jimmy.”
Speaking of which…
6. “St. Jimmy”
“Are We the Waiting” is abruptly cut off, yet transitions seamlessly into “St. Jimmy,” which is like “American Idiot” overdosing on adderall. St. Jimmy (the character) becomes Jesus’ punk, schizophrenic alter ego, which is evident in the song’s lyrical content and quick pace.
Any time you can name drop Edgar Allan Poe, you have to do it.
Cigarettes and ramen and a little bag of dope
I am the son of a bitch and Edgar Allan Poe
“Quoth the raven nevermore…bitch.” – St. Jimmy
By far, the greatest moment is the Bridge. In a song comprised “fuck you” moments, this one is the pinnacle. St. Jimmy has arrived, and he’s one “son of a gun.”
The transition between “Are We the Waiting” into “St. Jimmy” perfectly embodies the operatic flow of American Idiot. Fast, slow, fast. Rinse. Repeat.
7. “Give Me Novacaine”
After coming down from the high of St. Jimmy (both the character and song), Jesus yearns for his alter ego once again. Moreso, he wants to take his sorrows and insecurities away via some ol’ fashioned painkillin’ drugs.
I get the funny feeling, that’s alright
Jimmy says it’s better than here
I’ll tell you why
Fifteen years listening to this record and I always thought Armstrong said “better than air.” Suppose both would work?
The final chorus is a nice ending to the track. Just gimme the damn Novacaine already.
“Give Me Novacaine” is a fine track, but it starts the mini-stretch to the most subpar section of the record.
8. “She’s a Rebel”
“She’s a Rebel” introduces St. Jimmy’s love interest Whatsername, who reappears in future tracks. The album cover was based on a line from “She’s a Rebel.” The artwork features a hand, holding onto a heart, as if it were a hand grenade.
She’s the symbol of resistance
And she’s holding on my heart like a hand grenade
You know, like on the cover!
Nothing philosophical to say, other than that, I fucking love the way Armstrong says “Chicago” and “Toronto” to kick off this song.
There are no duds on this album. “She’s a Rebel” is a fun tune. I jam to it from time to time. But, let’s be honest, this is the poor man’s “St. Jimmy.”
9. “Extraordinary Girl”
The song begins with Cool dropping tribal beats on the Tabla. This transitions into Jesus’ troublesome relationship with Whatsername. “Extraordinary Girl” is what Jesus thinks of Whatsername, despite that their love is doomed to fail. Whatsername is a legitimate rebel, while Jesus just pretends to be. Whatsername is battling society, while Jesus is battling himself.
Armstrong does wonderful work painting the scene of this spiraling relationship.
He steals the image in her kiss
From her heart’s apocalypse
From the one called Whatsername
I’m not particularly fond of this track, but the chorus slaps. Although, it could have used more Tabla.
This is the weakest track on the album. By all means, it is not an awful track. It just happens to be the weakest link on a phenomenal record. What really grinds my gears, is on the original record, every song is separated. Now, many are combined, which makes sense for storytelling purposes. However, the “Extraordinary Girl/Letterbomb” combination is frustrating. The worst song on the album should not be mixed with the best song. Similar to how pineapple doesn’t belong on pizza.
“Letterbomb” begins with the chilling, childish taunting of, “Nobody likes you/ Everyone left you/ They’re all out without you/ Having fun.” In the punk rock opera, this is presumably Whatsername. In real life, it is Kathleen Hanna, lead singer of Bikini Kill.
The second section of Verse 1 is a huge spark plug to the rest of the song.
What’s in love is now in debt
On your birth certificate
To strike the fucking match to light this fuse!
On one hand, you’re thinking ‘Yeah! Let’s fucking do this! Revolution!’ On the other hand, this “fuse” could be indicating the end of our main character.
“Letterbomb” is full of killer moments. Hell, the entire song is a masterpiece. But, the Bridge is the greatest moment in this song.
Where will all the martyrs go when the virus cures itself?
And where will we all go when it’s too late?
Powerful Armstrong wail.
This is the best song on the album and a top three Green Day song overall. Don’t @ me. It was never hit, but it should be recognized as one of their greatest songs.
If you disagree, so help me God, I will strike a fucking match and light this fuse.
11.”Wake Me Up When September Ends”
Armstrong wrote this track in tribute to his father, who passed away from esophageal cancer when he was ten. To this day, “Wake Me Up When September Ends” sparks emotion out of Armstrong, which is evident in the KROQ Almost Acoustic performance featured above. This was the fourth hit single off American Idiot, and has held an incredible shelf life. It has fizzled its way into modern popular culture by way of September 11 and recent hurricane tributes, memes, as well as children’s literature, being a chapter title in the best-selling novel Wonder by R.J. Palacio.
Here comes the rain again
Falling from the stars
Drenched in my pain again
Becoming who we are
Between the initial chorus and second verse. Tré’s bass drum kicks in, as does the electric guitar, adding more layers to an already emotional song. I am quite fond of Tré Cool bass drum kicks.
This has become a staple song for beginning guitarists, much like “Good Riddance.” However, something tells me it won’t get as much air time at high school graduations and proms.
I. The Death of St. Jimmy
II. East 12th St.
III. Nobody Likes You
IV. Rock and Roll Girlfriend
V. We’re Coming Home Again
“Homecoming” is the climax of the story. Jesus returns to his hometown, ridding himself of his St. Jimmy alter ego, and trying to return to normalcy. The band each wrote different sections of this song, trying to outduel one another in friendly competition.
This is way too difficult to choose just one set of lyrics from nine minutes of pure bliss. But, the only logical answer comes from the mouth of Mike Dirnt:
[Part 3: Nobody Likes You]
I fell asleep while watching Spike TV
After ten cups of coffee and you’re still not here
Honestly, who hasn’t done this?
Again, this was difficult. Of all the smooth, seamless transitions this album has to offer, my favorite is Armstrong’s choppy guitar riff bridging the gap between Cool’s “Rock and Roll Girlfriend” and “We’re Coming Home Again.”
Here’s a hot take: “Homecoming” is better than “Jesus of Suburbia.” Not by much, but I’d put it ever so slightly ahead of JOS in my power rankings. Regardless, it is daring to do one nine-minute, five-part epic, let alone two. Green Day nailed them both.
The final chapter of American Idiot has Jesus (presumably) living at home, regretting his former lost love, Whatsername. Earlier in the story, we are to believe that Whatsername is actually his girlfriend’s name. In the final song, we can interpret that Jesus legitimately forgot her actual name, now referring to her as Whatsername.
Armstrong tweeted in 2011 that “Whatsername” is, in fact, about a real girl.
In Verse 2, we are briefly introduced to a love interest of Whatsername.
Seems that she disappeared without a trace
Did she ever marry old Whatshisface?
We can only assume his name is Barry.
The Bridge is the perfect way to cap off this spectacular record. It gives this album the epic ending it deserves.
“Whatsername,” at its core, is a sad song. Yet, it’s catchy and moving. Again, there is no better way to end off this iconic album, than with this track.
Jesus couldn’t remember Whatsername, but we’ll remember American Idiot for years to come.
Nate is a graphic designer as well as an avid appreciator of live music, pop culture of most kinds, and cats. Devon Rexes to be exact. He lives in Fargo, ND with his pop culture-loving wife Melissa Vosen Callens and 3 Devon Rexes: Huey Lewis, Joan Jett, and Stevie Nicks. They’re pretty rad. Send your questions, comments, concerns, swag, and music to [email protected]. Follow Nate on Twitter @natecallens and Instagram @fargonate. Cheers!