American Idiot: Fifteen Years Later

The following is a guest post from Alex Matkovic

Green Day concert in 2017. Photo courtesy of Alex Matkovic

Sometimes I forget that the guitar solo from “American Idiot” isn’t our national anthem. September 20th will mark fifteen years since the release of the Grammy-winning rock-opera album, and I don’t think anyone would disagree that we live in a very different world today than we did back then. At the time, American Idiot was a biting commentary on both the politics and social norms of the era told through the eyes of an American youth trying to find his way in a post 9/11 world. This album spoke to the country in a way I haven’t seen any rock album do since. But now – all these years later – does it still hold up? In a world that’s changed so much from what it was fifteen years ago, does it still even make any sense? I’ve been listening to this album a lot recently, and I can confidently say that this album is just as relevant today as it was upon its release – if not even more so.

Alright, so let’s establish a baseline here. I feel like American Idiot has this reputation of being a shallow, mean-spirited middle finger to America. I believe there’s a large population of people who when asked about the album would describe it as a childish tantrum – an unrequited vendetta against the government and a scorn of its citizens. This is entirely untrue. Yes, the album is angry (at times), but shallow and mean-spirited it is not. The album takes the perspective of a suburban young adult who is trying as hard as he can to make a life for himself in a country that’s been forever changed by war and the horrific events of 9/11 committed just a couple years earlier. The story follows him as he leaves home and heads into the city to make a new life for himself. He meets many characters along the way, falls in and out of love, gets mixed up with politics, drugs, and violence, and is eventually left a completely different person from when he started. It’s a story told with so much compassion and understanding, it’s hard not to be moved by it. It was a perfect snapshot of the uncertainty of the time, a portrait of class of people often misrepresented in pop culture. It was bold and unashamed, but also introspective and even gentle when needed. I believe just about anyone could see a part of themselves reflected in the characters of this story, it’s easy to see why so many people were drawn to it so quickly and vigorously.

Green Day concert in 2017. Photo courtesy of Alex Matkovic

Before we go any further we should probably touch on what this album is commenting on politically. Interestingly enough, there’s really only two songs on the album with an outright political message. The first one being the aforementioned titular track: American Idiot. This song takes aim at the country’s apparent obsession with cable news. It talks about how so many people are glued to the T.V., blindly taking every word of what is said for gospel. People refuse to experience the world for themselves and they allow paid talking-heads to dictate what they should and should not believe in. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Lead singer Billie-Joe Armstrong also manages to touch on the country’s fear of immigration and the struggle of the LGBTQ+ plus community in a society so rooted in hate. I would love to say that this song serves as a time capsule, a reminder of the problems of yesteryear… but I can’t. If this song was released today, not a single aspect of it would need to be changed to increase its relevancy. This song is the perfect overture for the adventure that follows. How does one find their place in a world like this? What does it mean to be an American in an America that doesn’t believe in you?

The other overtly political song is the instantly recognizable hit, Holiday. While the song American Idiot was more of a broader criticism of the public’s general lack of agency, this song hyper-focuses in on a much more specific issue. This song specifically calls out the government for trying to maintain control over the population through means of belittlement, isolation, and alienation. Whether it be on grounds of race, class, sexual orientation, or what have you, this song is a blazing criticism of the government’s efforts to turn the public against these groups in order to keep the power in their own hands. This is easily the most brutal song on the album. That being said, I would like to point out what this angry punk rock song is asking for. It’s asking for compassion. It’s asking for love, and it’s asking for understanding. This song isn’t inciting violence, it isn’t name-calling, and it isn’t bullying. It’s making the radial, bold assertion that everyone should be nicer to each other. Terrifying. And again, these sentiments are not foreign to us in 2019. It’s easy to feel isolated with a literal wall being built around you. I think it’s pretty clear by now that at least on political level, American Idiot can be understood just as easily today as it was fifteen years ago. But let’s not forget, this album is a rock-opera detailing the transformative adventures of a young lost soul. Much like real life, the politics isn’t the story. Instead, it sets the stage for these characters, builds a world around them, and sets them on a journey of self-discovery.

Green Day concert in 2017. Photo courtesy of Alex Matkovic

Politics is important, but this album wouldn’t have garnered the love that it has if it was just about politics. At its core, “American Idiot” is a coming of age story. In fact, it’s a coming of age story that I’ve been able to relate to way more than any other I can think of. With the world seemingly in chaos around you, how is one able to figure out they belong? War is shown nonstop in the media, political opponents scream at each other over everything, and you can’t even just ignore it all because after the attack on New York you don’t even feel safe in your own home anymore. So what do you do? Do you act out with violence? Go to war? Do you organize politically and try to incite change that way? Or do you simply resort to drugs in order to numb the pain? The character in this story grapples with all of these questions. As the story progresses he is introduced to characters who each have their own way of dealing with this identity struggle. But the further down this boulevard of broken dreams he travels, the more he loses sight of who he truly is. He learns that tracing other people’s paths will not lead him to his own and that he needs to allow time to figure things out for himself. The story is filled with uncertainty; rage and love, passion and heartbreak, highs and hangovers. I don’t think I’d be alone if I said I can see a lot of myself in this character. When I first started listening to this album I was way too young to understand the depth of emotions this album conveys. But today, this album hits harder than ever. It’s so hard sometimes to know if you’re on the right path in life. People flow in and out of our lives, some change us forever while others fade from our memory. With all this change and all this uncertainty it’s easy to lose your sense of identity. But that doesn’t make you broken, it makes you human.

When I decided to revisit this album for the first time I figured it would seem outdated. A product of its time; fun yet a little silly. I never expected it to hit me as hard as it did. The lyrics are heartfelt, the emotions are honest and raw. By the time this September ends, this album will be fifteen years old. I wish it wasn’t as relevant today as it is, but I’m glad it exists. If you’ve never listened to this album – or haven’t listened to it recently – I suggest you give it a go. Really listen to the lyrics and think about what they mean. I don’t want to have to give this advice again in another fifteen years.

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