Monday, September 21, 2015
September 21, 2015: September Texts: Wake Me Up When September Ends
[With another autumn upon us, a series on presences and representations of the season’s first month in American cultural texts. Share your fall connections in comments, please!]
On what was necessarily time-sensitive about Green Day’s concept album, and what was more timeless.
As an aside in this 4th of July post, I mentioned the critique leveled at Green Day’s American Idiot (2004) concept album/rock opera by Brandon Flowers, lead singer of The Killers. To Flowers, the album, and particularly its title track with the repeated line “I don’t want to be an American idiot,” represented a calculated and unnecessary bit of anti-Americanism, particularly when the band toured with it abroad. While I take his point about audiences in other countries singing along to that lyric, I think Flowers was more right than he realized in linking Green Day’s song to Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” Like that complex stadium-rock song, Green Day’s punk rock anthem is easily oversimplified or misinterpreted, but to my mind forms one satirical part of a socially smart and meaningful whole work.
Indeed, as an album American Idiot is far more consistently and cohesively linked to its moment than Springsteen’s (on which only the opening title track and closing “My Hometown” are overtly tied to the album’s mid-1980s moment). Indeed, if The Rising offers a definitive musical take on September 11th (as I argued a couple weeks back), then American Idiot is the front-runner for the definitive musical response to the George W. Bush era more broadly. Balancing the specific story of its everyman protagonist, “Jesus of Suburbia” (introduced in that epic four-part song that follows the title track and moves us into the rock opera proper), with the kinds of more thoroughly political statements made by songs like “Holiday” (which follows “Jesus,” immediately establishing the album’s back and forth structure), the album highlights both the subtle and the extreme discontents of life within Bush’s America. As a result, even the more non-specific songs like the mega-hit “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” become tied to those contexts—following “Jesus” and “Holiday” directly, “Boulevard” can’t help but be read as a vision of identity and community (or the lack thereof) in that Bushian nation and world.
Well, it can’t help but be read that way if you’re listening to the album, anyway. As a single on the radio (where it achieved that mega-popularity), “Boulevard” has far more universal appeal, speaking to isolation and angst well beyond any particular moment or context. I would argue that that’s even more true of the album’s other ballad, “Wake Me Up When September Ends”—because of the song’s lyrics and the way they use the familiar imagery of summer’s end and fall’s arrival to reflect universal experiences of loss and grief, and because of the very personal September 1982 loss (of his father) out of which Billie Joe Armstrong drew the inspiration for the song. There’s nothing wrong with art emerging out of and engaging with very specific historical contexts (my favorite song is “American Skin [41 Shots],” after all)—but the greatest art has the power to endure well beyond those moments, and to speak to audiences distant from as well as connected to those particular contexts. “Wake Me Up” does just that, and it elevates Green Day’s concept album into something more as a result.
Next September text tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other fall texts you’d highlight?