In the summer of 2010, I sat inside the crowded St. James Theater on Broadway and waited for a musical to begin.
The show I was about to see was by far my most anticipated part of the trip.
This was a show I had wanted to see since before I even knew it existed, a show that would have had to actively work against itself to not fill me with nostalgia and joy.
Eventually, the lights dimmed, the curtain rose, and the opening chords of “American Idiot” began to play.
For nearly an hour and a half, a group of heavily made-up actors with impeccable singing voices performed a slew of Green Day songs, including the entirety of the American Idiot album and a few tracks from their most recent effort, 21st Century Breakdown.
There were astonishing set changes, acrobatic choreography and at the end, the entire cast came out with acoustic guitars and they all sang “Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life).”
Some people, who believe “punk rock” should embody a spirit of rebellion and raw attitude, might call this million-dollar theatrical extravaganza “the least punk thing to ever happen, ever.”
I, on the other hand, loved every minute of it.
But I was a musically uneducated youngster, and what little punk I had heard—most likely the Sex Pistols—was not to my liking.
But there was one band I liked, a band that I didn’t even recognize as being “punk”: Green Day.
Most of my knowledge of them came from a friend who spent a full year preaching to me about their brilliance until I finally broke down and bought Warning. I wasn’t completely in the dark before that, though: like any burgeoning young paranoid, I knew the lyrics to “Basket Case” by heart.
So while “real” punk held no sway over me, American Idiot sort of became my religion when it was released in 2005, right as I turned 15.
It’s hard to pin down exactly what about it touched me so deeply: the half-baked political ideas, the never-ending hooks, the recurring characters and musical motifs… Whatever the reason, I listened to that album at least once a day for over a month. There was a brief but vivid period in my life where the opening chords of “Jesus of Suburbia” were more important to me than any human relationship. Sometimes I would sit by my CD player and just replay the first two minutes of that song over and over again.
You could say I was something of a fan.
Aside from a few earlier tracks, my knowledge of Green Day never really extended any further than Warning. Imagine my surprise when I loaded up the band’s first album, 39/Smooth and was greeted with… a punk album.
My entire worldview was shaken.
The only prevailing narrative about Green Day that I knew was this: they weren’t punk.
Whether it was that girl in 10th grade who preached hatred for Green Day with the same eloquence of my Green Day-loving friend, the guy who looked at my American Idiot hoodie one time and shook his head disgustedly, or my numerous friends who hate all popular music, they all told me the same thing: Green Day was not punk. At best, they were pop-punk and at worst, they were the most dreaded things of all, that label that every self-respecting musician struggles to avoid: sell-outs.
Putting aside the fact that “selling out” is a meaningless phrase and pop-punk is actually not a bad thing—Green Day was, at least in their earlier career, a straight-up punk rock band. Sure, their songs weren’t angry—in fact, their first big hit was about being too lazy to even get up off the couch and shower—and sure, they cared about melody. But The Ramones wrote pop ditties about love, and they kind of invented punk rock.
There’s simply no way someone could listen to 39/Smooth and not come away thinking it was punk.
It just sounds like punk rock, with repetitive riffs played on heavily distorted guitars recorded by substandard equipment.
I once read that the defining element of punk (and hip-hop) is the desire to make music despite lack of technical ability, and that definitely fits here. The songwriting is simple, covering such topics as smoking weed and seeing pretty girls in the hallway at school, and many of the lyrics fall into the “brain/pain/insane”-type of rhyming.
On the whole, though, 39/Smooth is charming in its simplicity, and even when it isn’t, there’s a lot of fun to be had in hearing what Green Day sounded like before they started appearing on the radio. Which, by the way, doesn’t mean they became any less of a punk-rock band, unless being punk-rock means a band can never change their sound… and I think The Clash might take issue with that.
Okay, okay, maybe I’m too eager to defend Green Day. They are, after all, one of the most successful rock bands in the world and even if they care whether people think they’re “punk” or not, they certainly don’t need me to defend them.
I have one big problem with Green Day, though: they might not be a band that can convincingly do “epic” for more than one album.
While I still think American Idiot is a great record and a huge step forward for them creatively, their follow-up, 21st Century Breakdown, is a lot less impressive. Lyrically, it’s a more muddled retread of American Idiot, centering on a pair of lovers fighting against… something or another in modern-day America. Musically, it borrows melodies from the band’s entire catalogue and half the songs repeat the same trick of staring slow, then bringing in the guitar and speeding things up.
I hate to fault a band for having too much ambition, but it almost seems like Green Day is incapable of maintaining the sound they developed on American Idiot.
Their current single, “Oh Love”, mediocre though it may be, seems to suggest that Green Day has wisely decided to scale things back… until you find out that their next album is the first of a trilogy that will be released over a span of five months.
Green Day, a band that started out making three-chord songs about crushing on girls at the library, have now turned into a band that can’t even restrain themselves to making one album at a time. Even if they never regain any degree of self-control, it won’t be a total loss.
After all, if Green Day had never switched up their sound, they would have never gotten a Broadway musical based on one of their albums.
And not having a Broadway musical based on one of your albums?
That is so not punk.