by Jeffrey Webb, edited by Erik van Rheenen
The thing about the Jesus of Suburbia is that he doesn’t start out as a nihilist— he starts out bored. Victimized by his broken home and his own peculiar slice of suburban hellscape, sedated and titillated by the alternating lows and highs of television and Ritalin, the “son of Rage and Love” flees the “land of make believe [that] don’t believe” to the Big City in a Sartrean search for meaning. All set to alternating windmilled guitars and soft-keyed interludes, multi-layered harmonies and fury-fueled shrieks. By the end of the nine-minute, Pete-Townshend-on-speed anthem that is the opera’s introduction, Billie Joe Armstrong has shown that anarchy begins at home, and apathy is its gateway drug.
The story that follows—the story of Green Day’s 2004 magnumopus, American Idiot—is a bildungsroman that’s equal parts Joseph Campbell and J.D. Salinger, and all the tension that pairing entails: hero (whiny jerk?) leaves home, faces adversity (but not real adversity?), and returns home redeemed (a total failure?). Any attempt to appraise its merits thus acts as a Rorschach test of one’s aesthetic gestalt. The JoS’s quest is either inspiring or entitled, epic or annoying. Given the ubiquity of the maturation theme, and the delusions of grandeur that usually accompany so-called rock operas, it’s a story that should be overly affected, passé. Instead, ten years later, somehow, miraculously, it still pulses, snarls, demands attention. Why?
The reason is not because the album is one of the great protest rock records of all time, though it certainly is that. It’s difficult for teenagers now to imagine the swelling of indignant rage Americans felt after September 11th, rage that metastasized into a kind of dyspeptic autoimmune disorder that we voted upon ourselves: the Patriot Act, whack-a-mole adventures in the Middle East, surrealist color-coded threat levels that shifted like a terrorism mood ring. So it’s difficult for those teenagers —hell, it’s difficult for the rest of us — to remember how subversive it was in 2004 for a band to sneer at our self-righteousness, to stand athwart the military-media complex, yelling, “stop.”