Green Day is one of those rare bands that can change the face of music and the way a generation thinks. And they’ve done so not just once, but twice. When they introduced themselves to the world with Dookie back in 1994, they changed the whole music industry almost overnight. Dookie ended up being massively successful, launching a new wave of pop punk into the mainstream and paving the way for countless other bands to follow suite. That album became an inspiration for dozens of artists that would come a decade or so later – everyone from blink-182 and Simple Plan to Avril Lavigne and Lady Gaga site it as one of the reasons they started doing music in the first place.
But Green Day surprised everyone when they accomplished the same feat again – a full 10 years into their major label career. After years of declining sales and overall popularity, Green Day came back suddenly, and bigger and better than ever. All thanks to an album called American Idiot.
Rising From The Ashes
By the early 2000s, Green Day had lost their popularity, and were written off as has-beens despite their earlier prominence and influence. After a nostalgic greatest hits collection in 2001, Green Day started work what would have been their 5th album. It was called Cigarettes & Valentines. Whether the story is true or a fabricated cover-up, Green Day later said the master tapes for the new album had been stolen, and instead of re-recording the “mediocre” songs, they decided to start over. That may have been the best choice of their career.
Green Day rose from the ashes of the unreleased Cigarettes & Valentines, coming back bigger and better than ever with American Idiot on September 21, 2004. It was the kind of comeback few can achieve in a lifetime, the kind that surprises everyone, least of all the band members themselves.
American Idiot started off with a bang when the title track and first single was released in August 2004. Many described it as a return to form – and indeed, it brought back a lot of the spunk, energy, and appeal that was heard on Dookie 10 years earlier. “American Idiot” was fast, crunchy, and in your face. It was also political, but in a rallying, fun way. Old fans were pleasantly surprised, and moreover, new listeners were tuning in for the first time, intrigued by the irresistible punk sound.
The second single, “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams” was released at the end of the year, and ended up being their biggest single from the album. It was slower and moodier, and the kind of song any music fan could enjoy.
“Holiday” came in as single #3, and was more akin to “American Idiot.” Like the lead single, it was rather political in nature, as well as up-tempo and fun. Its gypsy-like chant was infectious, as was their gritty, cross-dressing music video.
The 4th single, “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” was a song many people could relate to. Although the common assumption is that it’s about the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Billie Joe Armstrong actually wrote it about the death of his father. At the tender age of 10, his father was diagnosed with cancer, and died only a few months later in September 1982. “Wake Me Up When September Ends” is something nearly everyone can relate to, whether they associate it with a lost loved one or the 9/11 attacks.
These singles weren’t the only standouts on the album, either. Sometimes, albums are defined by their singles, while the rest of the songs are rather bland by comparison. Not so with American Idiot. Every single song on the 13-track album packs a punch and brings something different to the table.
On Top Of The World Again
All the singles did well, and American Idiot was a huge success. The album sold over 15 million copies worldwide – second only to Dookie in Green Day’s catalog. It also earned them numerous awards – plenty of Grammy nominations and wins and a near sweep at the 2005 VMAs. It was lauded by critics and casual listeners alike, and Green Day was on the top of the world for the second time in their career. They became a household name again, were once more accepted as an important band in music history, and gained countless new fans.
In spite of the seemingly unanimously positive response, there were some longtime fans that were less than happy with Green Day’s new direction. Some didn’t like the new sound, instead preferring the simpler, and, some argue, more authentic songs of their earlier days. But for all the fans they unfortunately lost, Green Day also won over new ones. Some of the younger fans were only interested in American Idiot, but many others used that album as a gateway to the rest of Green Day’s music. Some fans only stuck around for the 2-3 years while Green Day was popular, but others remained with the band for the years that would come.
Moving On: 21st Century Breakdown, A Musical, & The Trilogy
Green Day took a few years off after the whirlwind that was American Idiot. After a brief stint as their side project Foxboro Hot Tubs in 2008 (much like their ultra-secret 2003 stint as The Network), Green Day was ready to follow up with an album that was even more ambitious. 21st Century Breakdown came out in May 2009, and although it didn’t have quite the impact of American Idiot, it was overall well received and successful. It had a very similar musical and thematic style to American Idiot, but was more political and experimental. Some say it was also over produced. And although “21 Guns” was a great single choice and become the main hit from the album, different singles before and after it may have made the era a bit more memorable. (Why wasn’t “East Jesus Nowhere” a proper single?? It should have been the first single.)
Instead of 21st Century Breakdown being as monstrous as its predecessor, it kind of went by the wayside after the “21 Guns” single ended its course. 2009 was perhaps more marked by the debut of American Idiot: The Musical. It started in Berkeley, California in September 2009, and was soon picked up for Broadway by spring 2010. Although Green Day was on to a new album, American Idiot was still as prominent as ever.
In 2012, Green Day was officially ready to move on from 2004. They ended up releasing not one, but THREE new albums. And this trio of records spanned different styles and themes, both familiar and uncharted. ¡Uno! was the most like Green Day’s earlier material – the simplicity of Kerplunk or Dookie, but told through a slightly older lens. By contrast, ¡Dos! showed a new side of Green Day. It was girttier, dirtier, and had somewhat of an inebriated party atmosphere to it. Some would compare it to the Foxboro Hot Tubs – not an inaccurate statement, considering Green Day repurposed a Foxboro original (entitled “Fuck Time”) into a Green Day track. The final record from the trilogy was ¡Tré! This was the most akin to the band’s two previous non-trilogy albums. The grander scale of American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown was most noticeable here. Between the three new albums, Green Day showed that they could still go back to their roots, could still continue expanding as they had since the new millennium started, and could still try new sounds – and do all remarkably well.
American Idiot Today
Since its release back in September 2004, American Idiot has remained an important part of Green Day’s identity. For better or worse, they still haven’t fully moved on from it. The album was huge between 2004 and 2006, and despite releasing a full new album a few years later, 2009 and 2010 were stilly very much about American Idiot rather than the overlooked 21st Century Breakdown. Its transformation into an award-winning Broadway musical proved not only how important the songs remained after half a decade, but also how versatile they were, and how they could still communicate their message even in a new medium. The musical is still very much alive today.
Moreover, a movie adaptation of American Idiot is reportedly in the works – and it is thought to star Billie Joe as St. Jimmy. There is no confirmation of that or a release date as of yet.
Today, American Idiot is still remembered as an iconic album. It not only re-launched Green Day’s career, it also impacted a generation. Teenagers, 20 somethings, and adults alike were affected by the songs on that album. It described bigger issues that we were all facing – political and social struggle, a post-9/11 world, the way an entire generation thought about the world they lived in. But it also described what people go through on a personal scale – finding yourself, losing a loved one, falling in and then losing love, growing up. American Idiot describes not just big issues – it also taps into smaller issues. And sometimes those smaller, personal problems are a lot bigger to an individual.
American Idiot takes the macro and makes it micro, and vice versa. Many describe it as a political album. This author disagrees. 21st Century Breakdown is much more political, and explicitly so. No, American Idiot is more about the individual growing up. It’s set in a political and social sphere, but what the songs really delve into are emotions and struggles that a person goes through by him- or herself. That is what makes the album so relatable and important. And that is why it is still important today, and will be for many years to come.