The list of bands that so successfully evolved or reinvented their sound that they could be considered as one of the most important bands to two entirely different generations of music fans is not a long one. It goes: The Rolling Stones, The Who, U2, Green Day. (And OK, maybe Metallica and R.E.M.) 99.9999% of bands cultivate a fanbase, peak creatively and commercially, and then either provide diminishing returns in one or both respects for the rest of their careers, or just break up altogether. A lucky few can score a comeback hit or album a few years down the line, but they’ll know that they’re living on borrowed time, and that once they’ve crested, there’s no getting back to that level ever again. For Green Day to come back with a smash like American Idiot (maybe the last legitimate Blockbuster Rock Album, and one that would’ve certainly gone diamond at the least in any other decade), a whole decade after what was supposed to be their zenith–it’s practically unprecedented.
But here’s the thing–the singles weren’t really that great. The title track had the energy and the topicality (sort of), but it felt like a complete retread musically, and most of the lyrics (“Now everybody, do the propaganda”) were pretty tough to swallow. “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” despite being the band’s biggest hit to date, was almost aggressively mediocre, a hobbling together of cliches both musical and lyrical that felt self-pitying and pretentious. “Holiday” was better, but could still be a little much to take, especially with the almost spoken-word breakdown section (“The representative from California now has the floor…”) “Wake Me Up When September Ends” was actually the best of them, a show-stopping power ballad with one of the best song titles of the decade, which was nonetheless hobbled in its commercial potential by its jaw-droppingly ridiculous music video, and just general Green Day overkill.
So why was it all so successful? Well, it’s hard to believe that such an old, tired truism could actually be true in this day and age, but I think you really do need to hear the songs in their proper context on the album to really appreciate them. Because of my general apathy towards the song’s gigantic hits (and they were utterly unavoidable for a good 18 month period in my Freshman and Sophomore years of college), I didn’t actually listen to American Idiot until just a couple of weeks ago, and I was stunned by how much better all the boring singles, which I’d heard about a hundred times each and figured I’d never want to hear again, sounded as parts of this monolith of a modern rock album. What’s more, the other songs on the album–“Letterbomb,” “Give Me Novocaine,” “Extraordinary Girl”–were all about as good, and arguably better than the megahits. I don’t necessarily buy there being a linear plot, any more than there was in Zen Arcade or Ziggy Stardust, but there’s no question that this was an actual album, and one whose success as an LP undoubtedly helped the success of the singles it spawned–no small feat for an album released in the age of iTunes.
To me, “Jesus of Suburbia” is the key song on the album, and from Green Day Mk. 2 in general. Billie Joe has in general credited the song as setting him on the American Idiot path (“After you write a song like that, it was like, ‘I can’t turn back now.’ You can’t all of a sudden say, ‘I want to write a normal record'”), and as the second track on the album–risky placement for a nine-minute, five-part epic–it certainly let listeners know what they were in for as well. But the song’s grandeur wasn’t just in its length, its musical complexity or its lyrical grandstanding (and admittedly, the whole “Jesus of Suburbia” / “St. Jimmy” character dichotomy attempted by Armstrong came off as a little bit ham-fisted), but in the way the song seemed to slot itself into rock history with all of its musical references. Of course the song’s multi-part nature, with its different sections intersecting continuously, smacked of The Who’s “A Quick One While He’s Away,” but the guitar riff late in the song was also a nod to Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” and the song’s intro was straight out of David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream,” and even healthy chunks of the video smacked of Suicidal Tendencies’ “Institutionalized” and Smashing Pumpkins’ “1979”. This was bold stuff for a band whose last album was stocked with personal acoustic numbers and unassuming Kinks rip-offs.
Of course, it helps that the song was good. The thing that really impresses me about “Jesus,” as well as with the album’s other five-parter “Homecoming,” is the way all the different parts of the sung seem to sort of crash into each other, switching tempos and chords at a moment’s notice, while avoiding seeming jarring and even keeping some semblence of fluency. The effect is like that of a great episodic movie that you can catch on cable 20 times over the space of a few years and still be pleasantly surprised by certain scenes, either because you forgot how good they were, forgot that they were there at all, or just forgot how it was that the movie arrived at them. My personal favorite of the five parts is probably “Dearly Beloved,” with its gentle shuffle, cooing backing vocals and gentle xylophone part, but it wouldn’t be half as good as it is if it didn’t end up colliding head-on with the rattling bass line that opens “Tales of a Broken Home,” the climactic section. All five parts could possibly have been Green Day songs on their own, but what fun would that have been?
Despite being released as a single, and having a big, Samuel Bayer-directed video to go with it, “Suburbia” was just a little too impenetrable for mainstream audiences for it to approach the commercial success of the album’s first four singles. Nonetheless, the song, and the spirit of the album that it encapsulated, showed the rest of modern rock that even at the height of insular pop-punk, emo and nu-metal, it was still OK to be ambitious when the moment called for it–lessons that bands like My Chemical Romance, Fall Out Boy and Linkin Park would certainly take to heart as their sounds got bigger, their song topics got broader and their aspirations got loftier. And while it’s not hard to occasionally miss the band that once had no ambitions beyond spending the day jerking off, getting high and ignoring their parents–well, everyone has to grow up sometime, and at least Green Day showed that they were good enough to merit just as much acclaim, adoration and impossibly high sales numbers for being angry, confused and self-righteous adults as they did as angry, confused and self-righteous kids.