Loving Green Day is not something I often do in public. At least not the mascara-wearing quasi-political incarnation that’s selling records to 12-year-olds despite pushing 40 themselves. But alone in my car, I don’t have to pretend I don’t know all the words to “Basket Case”. It’s not my favorite Green Day song, it’s not their best song, nor even is it a particularly good song, really, but it illustrates a spirit that Green Day has since been trying in vain to recapture. Writing about “ordinary people in America” must be exactly what the audience wants, and I guess I can’t begrudge them making money, but I think what makes me distrust the current generation’s Green Day is that the whole idea of “ordinary people in America” seems so exclusionary. Not “exclusionary” in the sense that the education system or the government or news anchors like to use the word, as if I think Billie Joe Armstrong is selling racism or xenophobia to pre-teens (actually I probably wouldn’t have a huge problem with that). Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp made tons of money singing about “ordinary people in America” and people are still buying their records and playing their songs on the radio, and no one seems to disparage them for that. I think the reason behind this is that the image of Springsteen, Mellencamp, etc. was, from the beginning, that of a member of the “ordinary people” about which they sang. A lot of that is fabrication, of course; rock stars by the nature of their careers are incapable of being ordinary people. That amount of money and notoriety will change everyday life so much that your emotional life will be so different from that of the majority of people in the world or even the country, although the image can be maintained and probably matters more anyway.
But when I try to put Green Day in a similar category, I can’t. Green Day spent all of Dookie, Insomniac, Nimrod, and Warning distancing themselves from the idea of being “ordinary”. They were rock stars in every sense of the word; they destroyed their sets and instruments and incited muddy madness at the ’90s Woodstock. More importantly, their songs (like “Basket Case”) spoke of alienation and doubts of the narrator’s own sanity while other songs voiced disbelief, disinterest or disdain for society and others. Everybody feels this way at some point between the ages of 11 and 17, and when I was that age bands like Green Day were the very personifications of what I hoped to accomplish by sublimating that anguish. That the guys in the band were relatively close to my own age made it seem a lot more feasible that such a thing would be possible; it seems strange to me now that with a larger age gap between band and fans that such a kinship could be formed. Not only do I think it’s strange on the part of the listener, a 12 year old who feels that the almost 40 Billie Joe Armstrong is speaking from a shared experience, it seems dishonest to me that Billie Joe would market his band that way.
That’s really just a pet peeve of mine, though, I don’t think it really touches on the heart of the matter. Marketing to teenagers is the lifeline of the rock and roll industry, and Green Day is just one example among many. But what really gets my goat about this neo-Green Day is the palpable paradigm shift in their lyrical subject matter. Billie Joe frequently told stories and used characters in his lyrics, but those characters were usually thinly veiled versions of himself told in the first person. When he sings about cracking up in the chorus to “Basket Case” I never doubted his sincerity or that he was speaking from personal experience. Those feelings are universal; anyone from anywhere or any time can relate to feeling out of control, out of touch, unsure of their place in the world. But now, when they have albums called American Idiot or 21st Century Breakdown, narrowing down that field of who this music is supposed to be for, it smacks not only of exclusionism but of a conscious trend away from actual expression to simple manufacture of product. I can’t feel any sort of relationship with Billie Joe Armstrong if he’s not telling me about himself, and I have a hard time understanding how the new wave of Green Day fans can. Even as a teenager I didn’t feel like I needed rock bands to tell me who I was, even if a huge chunk of my so-called individuality was based on publicly self-identifying with those musicians. What drew me toward them was that they were feeling that same self-doubt and angst and distrust of society that I was, and it almost validated those feelings to know that someone else out there experienced them. Billie Joe is still writing songs about all three of those feelings, but I don’t get the sense that the feelings are his anymore. They very well may be, though I kind of doubt it. It wouldn’t irk me so much if I simply felt like Green Day were rehashing their old songs; if they simply remade Dookie every couple of years and let that be that, it wouldn’t fill me with disappointment. At least it would feel like they were still trying.
Maybe this whole thing is my problem and no one else understands where I’m coming from or has a problem with Green Day version 2.0. But in creating their niche market about people living right now, in America, they have permanently associated themselves with this time and place in history. In a hundred years, someone could unearth a collection of Green Day records, pop on Dookie and when “Basket Case” comes on it wouldn’t be unfathomable for that Future Person to nod their head and think, “Yeah… I’ve been there”. I can’t see that happening with a song like “American Idiot”, and it makes me sad that a group of musicians I once felt such a kinship with have sacrificed that potential immortality for a quick buck.