Sunday, January 31, 2016

Holding on my heart like a hand grenade

American Idiot is at Playhouse on the Square here in Memphis; it opened on my birthday and runs through Valentine's Day. The album American Idiot was one of those life-altering artistic moments for me that you only get at a certain time in your life. Released the year I graduated from college and the year Dubya was re-elected, it embodied every disillusionment I had about politics, academia, and the mind-numbing superficiality that had been sold to my generation as a substitute for meaning.

Newsweek, in a retrospective of the Bush years, described American Idiot's impact: "It mattered simply because somebody finally said something, and, of all people, it was Green Day."

For all the good the ubiquity of the internet has done, it has brought with it unquestionable negatives, one of which is that we no longer have universal pop culture phenomena. American Idiot couldn't have happened ten, or even five years after it did, because it couldn't have captured an audience the same way. I don't say this theoretically: Green Day released a part 2 to American Idiot literally five years after, called 21st Century Breakdown. It's arguably a better album. But you don't know it because the world had already changed by the time it was released. It was less about the whole product by then and more about buying singles off of iTunes. Say what you will about Tay-Tay's and Adele's successes in selling their new works; neither of them was selling a concept album. The window for widespread, prolonged attention has, for the time being at least, closed.

I wasn't sure what I was getting into with American Idiot, the musical, when I saw the matinee this afternoon, but I figured the number of times I'd listened to album would have me more than prepared. I wore out a 2004-era, generation 4 iPod on this album alone. I have a vivid memory of missing a bus announcement on my way home from work in Cork, Ireland, because I had cranked up "Jesus of Suburbia" to hearing-damaging heights. The bus driver stopped in the middle of the city center and told me, the only person left on the bus, that I had to get off because his route was ending early that night. I made the 30-minute walk home with "Jesus of Suburbia" on repeat, thinking as I was walking not that I was a fool to have missed the announcement, but that this was real, this was life, and I was connecting with something bigger than me by listening to this music that was so powerful its message.

I don't care if it was dumb or naive or indicative of my age at the time. I'm proud of myself for feeling that way. I miss that certainty of connection, that feeling that something that someone else created was speaking for me. When I listen to the album now, what screams at me most is the devastation of "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" and the childish refrain of "Letterbomb" that cruelly and perfectly anticipated the Facebook era: "Nobody likes you, everyone left you, they're all out without you having fun."

The play was bigger than the album. For one, there were more characters, and more songs. Some of 21st Century Breakdown made its way into the mix, a not-unwelcome surprise. The primary characters were male, but more often than not it was the women who were successful in taking charge of their lives. The time period stayed true to the original CD, and a lot of people were in their underwear for longer than I would have imagined. It was a local production, yes, but it's a good story, and the people in it were earnest in what they were portraying.

I liked it.

Perhaps even more so than me liking it, though, is that I like that it exists. I love that we live in a world where a crappy punk rock band can speak for a generation of lost souls, and that it can trickle down, so that the words that once gave me fuel through ear buds I can now hear belted at me from people on stage who might, in another circumstance, be my friends. Sometimes I look at the world and I look at all of the people around me and I wonder, the rest of you get it, right? That all of this that we call life is only happening because we're pretending that it's real? 

I don't know how many of us really do see it that way... But for the sake of my sanity, I'm thankful that I've known since 2004 that at least Green Day does.


  1. So glad you got to see it! I watched a doc on the making of it on Netflix awhile back, and it looked like fun to see. Was Matt Reed in it? ;). He's in everything in Memphis!! Thanks for sharing, and I'm glad you liked it :)

    - Meg

    1. The documentary was mentioned in the program! I'm going to watch it one of these days. :) Sadly, no Matt much as it pains me to say it, that might be an age thing. I don't think there was anyone in the cast older than mid-twenties!! (But for being little kids, they did a great job. :D)