By Harvey Wasserman
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In the aftermath of a Presidential election rife with allegations of fraud, and then the 9/11 tragedy, the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, and the seemingly daily battering of democracy by the Republican Administration, Green Day felt the weight of the darkness that covered the country during Bush’s first term. As they sat back trying to find a new voice in an era that was disorienting for many, the band became increasingly distressed at the state of things. By the time they got around to pulling the material together for their next album, the group could no longer ignore the serious issues of the day.
The music always had plenty of passion but now it had purpose, bursting forth in American Idiot. The record is a modern-day rock opera that follows a character named Jesus of Suburbia, who has difficulty coming to grips with the collapse of the American dream. Yet Green Day more profoundly takes aim—to borrow Hunter S. Thompson’s description of Nixon’s America in 1972—at the “dark, venal, and incurably violent side of the American character almost every other country in the world has learned to fear and despise.”
Released in 2004 just before the Presidential election, the band offered one of the sharpest and loudest voices of protest against the Bush Administration and the America it continued to shape. American Idiot’s daring decree makes it an exemplary punk record. “I found a voice,” Armstrong says. “I made it to give people a reason to think for themselves. It was supposed to be a catalyst.”
The band didn’t cower in the face of the scoundrels and hucksters who wrapped themselves in the American flag and resorted to the cheap and hackneyed dismissal that anyone who criticized or challenged Bush’s policies was “anti-American” or “helping the terrorists.” Selling out stadiums all across the United States, the band opened each performance with the title song which included the lyrics, “Don’t want to be an American idiot/Don’t want a nation under the new mania/And can you hear the sound of hysteria?/The subliminal mind fuck America.” In addition to the album’s title track, the remaining twelve songs address lost innocence (“Wake Me Up When September Ends”), the death of the American dream (“Boulevard of Broken Dreams”), and the invasion of Iraq (“Holiday”).
With Barack Obama’s victory, a perceived new era of hope was ushered in and perhaps even a post-9/11 moment was arising where democracy could be revived and maybe even flourish. The band hoped, as many of us have, that we were emerging from this nightmare but soon realized that the reality remains much different than the dream.
When 21st Century Breakdown was released on May 15 it sold over 200,000 copies, even though Wal-Mart refused to sell it. “Wal-Mart has become the biggest retail outfit in the country, but they won’t carry our record because they wanted us to censor it,” Armstrong says. “They want artists to censor their records in order to be carried there. . . . We just said no. We’ve never done it before. You feel like you’re in 1953 or something.” . . .
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--Mikhail Gorbachev on the need for nuclear disarmament
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