On Green Day: An Essay

Ever since the Grammys, when Green Day performed "21 Guns" with the cast of the new rock opera version of "American Idiot," I've seen a lot of people snidely pointing out that Green Day can't be punk anymore if they're going to be on Broadway. I'm amused by this. I thought we went through the whole "Green Day Isn't Really Punk" backlash in 1994.

At the beginning of that year, my only exposure to punk had been back in 1986, when, on a family trip to Minneapolis, we went downtown to an area where, I was told, there would be punks. I had no idea what that meant, being barely 6, but when I saw a guy with a leather jacket and spiked green hair, I knew right away. "There's one!" I shouted. My parents freaked out while the guy smirked; they thought he might be offended and beat us up or make us take drugs. In reality, I probably made his day.

When Green Day's major lable debut, "Dookie," became a hit, I was in eighth grade. That album knocked me out - even now I think it's an extremely well-written album of happy, bouncy, songs about how depressing and frustrating adolescence is. The opening song, "Burnout," plays like a manifesto; if you can think of a better opening line for a punk album than "I de-clare I don't care no more," I'd like to hear it. Suburban angst had never been done better.

Now that they were on a major label, the probably couldn't be counted as "punk" in any terms other than musical style, but I didn't know that yet. Plus, when Billie Joe got hit with mud during the band's gig at Woodstock, he just shoved it in his mouth, then spent half his set throwing mud back at people. The bassist lost a couple teeth after being tackled by security at the end of the set. That seemed pretty punk rock to me.

The album said all the things I was thinking but wouldn't have dreamed of saying out loud. And, of course, the rest of my class was thinking, and not dreaming of saying, all the same things. The album brought a genre people had forgotten back to the mainstream (where it had never really been before, exactly) (remember how every jackass critic was complaining that they sounded British?), made many people in my class decide to look into other punk bands.

Punk is a surprisingly reactionary form - deviate from the formula or the archetypes set forth in the late 1970s even a little, and the "true" punks will unleash no end of vitriol. These guys don't play around, and they don't keep an open mind. When Epitaph, a punk label, put out Tom Waits' "Mule Variations" in 1999, the punks who posted on the label's page were livid. I remember one guy saying "anyone who likes this deserves to get pooped on by a moose." The other posters concurred. Never mind that in terms of sheer attitude, Waits was probably more of a punk than any of them ever were. For the record, I can't think of a single thing that it less punk than posting messages on a record label's web site.

In reality, you stop REALLY being a punk, in the pure sense, the minute you strap on an acoustic guitar, play a fourth chord in a song, or can afford to buy name-brand Dr. Pepper.

But, as with pretty much any group, you stop being a punk when people other punks don't like start liking you.

But I digress.

Anyway, once my friends started getting into punk, the first thing they learned was that any band they had already heard of probably wasn't really punk - especially Green Day. As the band's popularity grew (since EVERYONE else was ALSO secretly dealing with the same teenage issues), and they became everyone's little sister's favorite band, it was hard to keep thinking of them as "cool," let alone as punks. It's not like they actively tried to get all the 7th grade preps to like them, but it was hard not to feel betrayed.

In late 1995 my brother and I went to see them at a dumpy little venue (no bigger than a club, really) called The International Ballroom in Atlanta. The Riverdales opened. The show was a lot of fun, and well attended by "true" punks, though they came mainly to sneer. I remember that Billie Joe Armstrong noticed one "sneerer" from the stage and made fun of him. "That guy's a professional wrestler!" he chuckled. "He's gonna come beat me up. But you know what, guy? There's 3000 of us, and there's only one of you!"

There was more than one of him. I remember that on the way out, some kid who couldn't have been more than 10 or 11, but already a punk purist, was sneering that "that would have sucked if they hadn't at least played that Operation Ivy song."

Billie Joe was the target of a lot of rage from people who had once been his friends and supporters, for no other reason than his music had become popular on a major label (the same thing would soon happen to Rancid, even though they stayed with the smaller Epitaph). The follow-up to "Dookie," "Insomniac" was just about as uncommercial as he could possibly make it.

I didn't much like "Insomniac" (wasn't that the point?), and couldn't get into the next album after that, the one with "Good Riddance") Time Of Your Life" on it. But I remember that a couple of years later, in college, my roommate and I were driving down the street and the radio was playing a bouncy punk song with an organ or accordion about wanting to be a minority. "Wow, this is a fun song," I said. "Yeah," he agreed. "I wonder who this is?"

We drove along for another minute, enjoying the goofy, cheerfully anti-authority anthem, until my roommate said "oh my god! This is Green Day!"

We were thrilled. Green Day was back, and snottier than ever!

Indeed, there were a couple of other fun songs on "Warning," the record "Minority" was on, but in the minds of the critics and the labels and the record-buying public at large, Green Day was on its last legs. Certainly the album as a whole didn't hit me the way "Dookie" had (though I realized at the time that if I were 13 again, I'd think "Minority" was the greatest song of all time). Looking back on "Warning" and "Nimrod" now, Green Day sounds like a band trying to figure out who they wanted to be when they grew up.

This was the time when bands who were popular when I was in middle school were starting to be referred to as "90s" bands. "My" music was on the fast track to becoming "oldies," and people who went to concerts by my favorite bands got annoyed when the band played new songs. Green Day was about to be a nostalgia act.

When I heard they were making a punk concept album called "American Idiot" that had a long song called "Jesus of Suburbia" on it, I was highly optimistic -- "Minority" had shown that they could make vaguely nihilistic politics fun (which is what punk is all about), and the title "Jesus of Suburbia" suggested that they might be getting back to singing about suburban angst (which is also what punk is all about).

I never expected it would be one of the biggest hits of the year, cementing Green Day's status as one of the biggest bands on the planet on sheer artistic merit (the label wouldn't have put any weight behind Green Day at that point unless the album was just a killer). I knew they had it in 'em. I couldn't quite follow the story on "American Idiot," and the politics were a bit over-the-top, but the feeling behind the songs was true. Plus, it rocked.

By this time, it was 10 years since "Dookie" and the great "Green Day's Not Punk" backlash (which actually started again, as long time fans who missed the first backlash were alienated by the band's sudden popularity). They were far too popular - and too accomplished musically - to really be called "punk," though their punk roots, and a certain punk attitude and aesthetic, still shined through the grime (or maybe they WERE the grime). But the actual music on "American Idiot" had more in common with The Who, Springsteen, and The Beatles than with pure punk.

But who cared (aside from the fans who were, once again, alienated by the band's renewed popularity among people they didn't like)? You can't expect a band of 35 year olds to keep acting like 15 year olds who hang around outside of the 7-11 flicking cars off forever.

And, anyway, remember how much of a punk you had to be to be anti-war in 2004?

After five years of touring the world as one of the biggest bands around, they followed up "American Idiot" with "21st Century Breakdown," an album I'm just now starting to digest, but, again, it's more about The Who, Queen and Patti Smith than the Sex Pistols.

But as I listen to their early, pre-Dookie stuff, I can hear all the seeds of all of it. Those songs are much better written, and more complex musically, than your average "pure" punk song. The same is true of the "Dookie" songs - that's a jazz bass line on "Longview," and "Pulling Teeth" and "Sassafrass Roots" could pass for country songs. And that album holds up - I played it yesterday and was shocked, and a bit dismayed, to realize I haven't REALLY outgrown many of the teenage issues they were singing about, even now that I'm pushing 30. "Burnout" sounds better every year.

So, while Green Day is certainly playing punk MUSIC, they may not qualify as punk. I'm pretty sure they aren't washing dishes to scrape up rent money. They're adults, after all. Nearly 40, even. They may not be punks in the pure sense of the word anymore, but what they are is one of the greatest rock bands to come out of the punk world.

And, best of all, when Wal-Mart, the biggest retailer of music in the world, insisted that they release a "clean" version of "21st Century Break Down" to sell in their stores, Green Day told them to go to hell.

If that isn't punk, what is?

(backdated post; actual post date is 2/9/10)


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