Monday, June 1, 2009

21st Century Confound

Green Day recently released their eighth studio album, 21st Century Breakdown, amidst a fanfare of anticipation and excitement. The band gained insane popularity after becoming arguably the pinnacle of the (faux?)punk rock phase of the 1990s, which then led to their highly-conceptualized, rock-opera-esque, blockbuster release of American Idiot in 2004. And now, after a 5-year absence, the band is back with its most awaited and controversial record ever. So far, 21st Century Breakdown has brought Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt, and Tre Cool a #1 selling album and gobs of respect and admiration. Unfortunately, the only thing it has brought me is utter confusion.

Before we get into this, I must reiterate yet again the fact that I am a music freak; I take it much more seriously than anyone actually should and I waste hours upon hours of my life studying and listening to it. But with that said, I cannot decide where I stand on the topic of Green Day and their new release. On one hand, I respect their newfound creativity, controversy and gumption. On the other hand, I admonish their sudden vanity, whining and disloyalty. So, I’m left with no other choice than to dive in and examine this thing from every angle. Plus, I’m going to do it the old fashion way: Pros and Cons.

Green Day’s pedigree speaks for itself. Dookie, the band’s first major release in ’94, was easily one of the most accomplished and influential albums of the decade. Their following works, Insomniac and Nimrod, didn’t disappoint, either. I even thought Warning, released in 2000, was an underrated album. They defined the 90s era of punk rock that borrowed the sound and concept of The Clash, Ramones, and Sex Pistols while adding a bit of new-age rebellion and smart-assness (it’s a word). In all honesty, they probably weren’t playing “true” punk rock, but they were playing 90s punk rock, and that was good enough for us. The band stood tall on the waves of insurgence, incompetence, and non-conformity, riding them straight into the ears of the teenagers and young-adults who couldn’t stand Mariah Carey, Michael Bolton, or *NSYNC. They took over the “post-Nirvana, alternative rock” scene, and the youngsters out there ate it up with a spoon. In a time of Brittany Spears and Titanic, blasting Green Day’s “Longview” and “Basket Case” was exactly the medicine we seemed to be looking for, which is why the band’s trio had this inevitable feeling of “right place, right time.”

When American Idiot was released in 2004, you could still sense the energy and essence that the band originally started with, but there was something new as well. The band’s seventh studio album had a sense of maturity and deliberation that was not really present before. Green Day went from being sarcastic punks to satirical poets with a cohesive concept album that spoke of (what they believed to be) an inept government, pointless war, and misled nation. They had grown up (literally and figuratively), blossoming from puberty to creativity. A band that was once defined by its three minute, riff laden, punk outbursts was now releasing an album that told a story and made a point. Whether you agreed or disagreed with their stance, you at least had to respect their courage to try something new and adapt to the times. There was a lot to be said for the audacity of the album and the evolution of the group, most notably Armstrong’s. Sure, American Idiot didn’t have too much in common with Dookie or Insomniac, but as a great man once said, “The times they are a-changin,” and Green Day seemed to realize and understand this, acclimating to the situation the best way they knew how. Different isn’t always bad, and thick or thin, different was the way things were going to be.

In many ways, 21st Century Breakdown is the main course to the American Idiot appetizer, the Fiesta Lime Chicken to Idiot’s Spinach & Artichoke Dip. Breakdown follows the same “concept album” path and delves even deeper into its story than American Idiot did, this time examining the world from the “post-George W. Bush, Iraqi War” perspective and the effect it has had on a young (fictitious) couple, Christian and Gloria. Amid the trials and uncertainty that the world is currently facing, the two are forced to “…deal with the mess our 43rd President left behind.” Green Day basically breaks the album into three acts, each of which describes the world and how Christian and Gloria have to deal with it. The band’s message is (more or less) that the country is screwed up, and it’s all Bush’s fault; now, everyone is left to try and pick up the pieces on their own.

The entire time, it looks as if the album is heading towards a bleak ending, culminating in the dreary next-to-last track, “American Eulogy.” However, Billie Joe and the gang throw in a twinge of hope when they close out the album with “See the Light”, the lone Sanguine Angelyne in a sea of Debbie Downers.

But in my opinion, the biggest “pro” of the album (besides refusing Wal-Mart's request for a censored version) centers around how accomplished it is, both musically and lyrically. The development of Billie Joe Armstrong over the years has been extremely impressive. He went from collaborating with his band-mates in order to write 2-1/2 minute, power-chord dominated, first person narratives of a 20-something-year-old loser, to writing every lyric and every note of 21st Century Breakdown, an 18-track, broadway-esque album that explores the human soul and the current times by throwing it in your face with 69+ minutes of guitar-thrashing emotion. I would have never guessed Armstrong had that potential, but he’s proved it with two straight albums, so it’s obviously no fluke. It’s comparable to a scenario where Richard Gere stops making “chick flicks” and suddenly begins starring in movies that require him to have some amount of depth as an actor. Billie Joe is no longer just a one-trick pony.

And yet, with all those good things, my mind is still a-flutter with confusion.

This is not your older brother’s Green Day…and I’m not so sure that’s a good thing. Yes, a lot can be said about the fruition of the band (and Armstrong) from pop-punks to musical martyrs, but is this really what we want? The “new” Green Day goes against almost everything that the “old” Green Day stood for. No one that listened to Dookie back in’94 would have ever guessed that the same three guys would put out anything remotely close to Breakdown over a decade later. I loved “90s-Green Day” for a reason, and today’s Green Day isn’t giving me the same thing.

From Warning (2000) to American Idiot (2004), the band’s style and perspective on music changed, and this is no more evident than in the recent release of 21st Century Breakdown. They seemed to have given up on their punk roots and moved on to some form of deep, grandiose, emotional musical expression, with a political agenda to boot. I like my Green Day derisive and raw, not poignant and…whiny (for lack of a better word). The Ramones would have never been caught dead making an album like Breakdown, and not because it wouldn’t make for a successful, accomplished album or because they didn’t have the ability, but because it wouldn’t be their style, their persona – frankly, it wouldn’t be the Ramones. That’s why this Green Day album makes me feel slightly betrayed; why, all of the sudden, have they gone from punks to political analysts? Why the shift from careless rebels to American-hating activists? Jerry Seinfeld once said, “It’s like going to Idaho and having a carrot. Sure, I like carrots – but I’m in Idaho. I want a potato.” This is exactly how I feel. Sure, I can respect a band with a deep and ambitious political message – but I’m listening to Green Day, so I want Green Day dammit!

However, it would be short-sighted and na├»ve of me to pretend that there are no musicians out there that have changed their style or put forth a political agenda – I just feel that Green Day is the wrong band to follow this path. For example, Bob Dylan changed his style of music (and even his message and motives) numerous times throughout his music career. But there are major differences in what Dylan did and what Green Day has done. Dylan changed to things that were either unpopular or unappreciated at the time, such as when he alienated his folk fan-base by going electric. Dylan was also a protest-song writing, politically driven artist from the second he put a guitar in his hands. His style and topics may have changed, but his overall concept and existential approach to songwriting did not. He was a poet when he started and he’s a poet still today. Green Day’s story does not match up to that. Green Day called out the government when it was popular and easy to call out the government and completely re-directed the foundation of their music in midstream. They started out as punks, but suddenly we’re supposed to believe that they’re revolutionaries? The transformation is just too much too handle, like when the Doobie Brothers added Michael McDonald. And trust me, that was not a good thing.

You could also compare Green Day to a band like U2. It’s widely known that U2 and Bono have a clear public and political agenda, and yet they keep that removed or muted when it comes to their music. Green Day hasn’t done that. Plus, you have to remember that these are the same guys who used to write songs about doing drugs and masturbating in their mother’s basement. Now all of the sudden we’re supposed to see them as the voice of reason and experts on today’s society? That might be just a slight stretch. Green Day has every right to their political opinion, but it doesn’t have to come through in their music. It ovokes a feeling of when Cat Stevens suddenly became Yusuf Islam. And once again, that was not a good thing.

You do still get a sense of the “old” Green Day “sound” on songs like “Last of the American Girls” and “Horseshoes and Handgrenades” from Breakdown, but for the most part, the “old” Green Day is dead. Billie Joe may still have those wide green eyes and spiky black hair, but underneath it is a brain that’s working on a completely different wavelength.

Because of all this, I have a hard time appreciating Green Day for what they’ve become, because it seems so different from the Green Day I learned to love. I listened to Green Day because I liked them just the way they were. When that changed, it became hard to accept and understand, because it was so out of the ordinary. It would be like Matthew McConaughey running on the beach with his shirt on. If something worked so well before, why change it now?

The Decision
In the end, I’ve decided that it really doesn’t matter whether I like the new Green Day or not, because either way, that’s how it’s going to be. No one wanted Woody to replace Coach on Cheers, but Coach died, so a replacement had to be made. No one wanted Foreman and Kelso to leave That 70’s Show, but they did, and there was nothing we could do about it. Women everywhere wept when Clooney left ER, but it became evident that there would still be injured patients without him. The same thing sort of happened to Green Day. We all loved the pissed-off punks from the 90s, but it’s 2009, and they had to grow up sometime. The most shocking thing about the band is that Armstrong, Dirnt, and Cool are 37, 37, and 36 years old, respectively. That’s right, LATE 30s?!?! They have kids! They coach Little League! At some point, they had to stop writing songs about the stupid, perverse things they did in their mother’s basements, because at some point, it no longer applied. That time is now.

In many ways, Green Day was forced to step up and be the voice of our generation, the new generation, because all the other voices were getting old and dying off. Doing drugs and chasing girls didn’t affect them anymore; the government, the world, society – those are the things that impact their lives now. They went deeper and more conceptualized because it was the only way they could express themselves at the moment, the only way to transition from old to new. The times they have a-changed.

The Beach Boys once sang about growing up and leaving their childhood behind, and how it “Won’t last forever / It’s kind of sad.” The same could be said about “old” Green Day. Sure, I loved the days of Dookie, and I still love Dookie now. But just because that album can still live on today, doesn’t mean the band can do the same. Eventually things have to change, just like the Beach Boys said they would. And yeah, maybe it is kind of sad, but no one can be Peter Pan. Ultimately, you do have to get older; you always have to grow up.

American Idiot introduced it, and now 21st Century Breakdown has solidified it: A “new” Green Day is here, and that’s just the way it will have to be. Because for better or worse, whether I like it not, the “old” Green Day is gone forever. Good Riddance.

Thanks for reading


Billie Joe Armstrong said...

You, my dear, have a great future in journalism. Thank you for putting into words exactly what I was feeling, but could not put it into words. I will be reading you in the magazines or newspapers in the future, of that I am sure! From down in New Orleans, your friend.

Adamgv said...

Check out this new Christian band that just released their first album.

From what I heard on the samples site, they sound really good.

Introducing the new Christian National Anthem: Guns & Jesus.

Charissa said...

Very insightful and well articulated from a kid who was 5 in a time of Brittany Spears and Titanic...