Songs We Take for Granted: Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)”
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on January 11, 2010
I feel like I’ve been hearing Green Day’s “Time of Your Life” (nee “Good Riddance”) a lot lately. Possibly just a coincidence, or possibly that the decade turning has people feeling nostalgic and sentimental, with “Time of Your Life” still yet to be deposed as the go-to “Nostalgic and Sentimental” song of choice in the pop subconscious. It’s given me light cause to actually give some thought to a song that for the decade-plus since it took over the world in 1998, had registered as little more than white noise–a song I never had particularly strong opinions about one way or the other, and since its omnipotence became downright oppressive, tried to pay as little mind as humanly possible. But when you think about it, it’s a song that occupies a very unique and unusual space in modern music, and one that, with hindsight giving the way to something closer to objectivity, actually might have been a pretty good song once upon a time.
Technically speaking, “Time of Your Life” is the most popular song by (arguably) the biggest band of the last 20 years. By such rights, “Time of Your Life” would be a supremely likely choice for the rock and roll pantheon, a song to rank up with “Hey Jude” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “With or Without You” in the eventual realm of the classic rock untouchables. But when it comes to TOYL, there’s a weird kind of disconnect between the song’s logical status among music history’s gatekeepers and the actual reputation it bears. That’s in large part because despite probably being Green Day’s best-recognized song, “Time of Your Life” is far from being the definitive Green Day song. It’s just not one of the songs you tend to think of when thinking about Green Day. Before being inundated with it recently, if you had asked me to name a couple songs by Green Day for someone who didn’t recognize the band name, I would have named five or six other songs–“Basket Case,” “American Idiot,” “Longview,” “When I Come Around,” “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”–before I got to TOYL, despite the fact that the latter would be the only one they were pretty much guaranteed to have heard before.
The reasons for this, of course, are pretty obvious. Green Day made its bones as a punk rock band first and foremost, and with but a couple of exceptions as of late, still spends most the time reveling in three-chord anthemery. “Time of Your Life,” on the other hand, was a gentle kiss-off number, an acoustic ballad not even featuring band members Mike Dirnt or Tre Cool, and one whose only shredding was done in a mid-song violin solo. After the release of “Time of Your Life,” Green Day were no longer the sole province of the kids who dyed their hair green at overnight camp, but now belonged to middle-aged desk jockeys and high school valedictorians as well. For broadening their audience in such an unexpected (and in some corners, unwelcome) manner, TOYL has often been viewed with skepticism within the Green Day catalogue, like a guy who brings all his friends to a birthday party despite only semi-tangentially knowing the host.
But it’s not just the sound and intended audience that puts “Time of Your Life” on an island in Green Day’s discography. Look at the list of five songs I mentioned above–notice anything about it? Well, they all come off the same two GD albums–Dookie and American Idiot, the decade-separated pillars of the Green Day catalogue, which defined the band in its two best-known incarnations (snotty jackoffs and semi-righteous freedom rockers, respectively) and sold over 15 million copies combined. “Time of Your Life” was an anomalous ditty off 1997’s Nimrod, an album which until TOYL was released as the second single, looked like it was going to be Green Day’s second-straight LP to perform well under expectations, and is still far from being one of the band’s most celebrated works. Graphing Green Day’s career trajectory would leave TOYL as a rather glaring outlier in an otherwise fairly consistent career of extended peaks and valleys–an unusual set of circumstances that leaves what by almost any standards was one of the most popular songs of the 90s as something close to a footnote in Green Day’s career.
But is the song, y’know…good? Well, probably, but to be honest, it’s still a little hard to say. I’ve mentioned before the statute of limitations my friends and I tend to put on overplayed pop songs, where after five years out of the limelight they officially become eligible for re-evaluation. But when your’e talking about a song as beaten to death as TOYL was, there’s really no telling how long it’ll take–it could be five years, it could be a decade, it could be an entire lifetime. The main way my opinion of the song has congealed in the passing years is that I have a lot more respect for it than I did back in 1998. Dirnt has called releasing the song the “most punk” thing the band could have done at the time, and I’m tempted to agree with him. In fact, Green Day rolling the dice with “Time of Your Life” and pulling it off foreshadows the risks in evolution that the band would later take on American Idiot with great reward, and arguably presents the first sign that Green Day would not go down in the books as a Great 90s Band, but rather just a Great Rock Band.
Similarly, I now understand that despite the deviation from their well-established aesthetic, “Time of Your Life” wasn’t really as much of a change-up as we all thought at the time. One of the encounters with the song that inspired the writing of this article was something that happened at the New Year’s Eve party I went to this year, where an acoustic guitar was broken out, and one of my friends–a girl who was more of a theater kid than anything resembling a miscreant back when the song came out–tried to think of a song she knew how to play, and began fumbling with the TOYL chords. It occurred to me that there was probably an entire nation of sensitive, acoustic-oriented souls out there who learned the rudimentary chords and picking of TOYL as one of their first songs the way that a generation of skate rats like my older brother learned how to play “Basket Case” and “Welcome to Paradise” in their earliest lessons on the electric. You wouldn’t really think of it, but in essence “Time of Your Life” packs as much of the previously-mentioned “three-chord anthemery” as any of Green Day’s buzzier classics. (Not to mention that despite its melodic, gentle nature, the thing is still a bitter break-up song whose original title was fucking “Good Riddance.”)
And if you still have doubts over whether the song is good or not–and the more I hear it these days, the more into it I get–take a listen to The Offspring’s decade-late acoustic breakout, “Kristy, Are You Doing OK?” Might not be quite as bad as I remember, but it’ll definitely put things into a little bit of perspective.