Released September 20, 2004
57 min, 12 sec
Green Day were in an incredibly bad spot in 2003.
Coming off of the lack of any success or notoriety that Warning: gave them back in 2000, the general consensus regarding Green Day was that they were a great pop-punk band for the 90s, but they’d been surpassed by the then-current kings of pop-punk, blink-182. Between Warning: and what would become American Idiot, Green Day had released two end-of-career markers: a Greatest Hits album in International Superhits!, and a B-sides album in Shenanigans. The end was, clearly, near.
Except it wasn’t. Green Day had been working on a follow-up to Warning: entitled Cigarettes & Valentines, which the band noted in interviews to be “good,” but also “more of the same.” However, before the album could be completed, the master tapes were stolen. Faced with the prospect of re-recording everything, the band instead decided to scrap everything they’d written up to that point and start over. This restart eventually resulted in American Idiot, and provided the kick-start the band needed to revitalize their career.
American Idiot certainly deserves the near-universal critical acclaim it received. Tightly packed but with the grand scope of a rock opera, the album tells a very clear story of the titular American Idiot as he goes through an evolution of character, from the Jesus of Suburbia, to Saint Jimmy, all the way back to the American Idiot reminiscing on the life he used to lead. Along the way, a love interest is introduced in “She’s a Rebel,” referred to only as Whatsername. Jesus of Suburbia descends into decadence and self-destruction as the album goes on, even after Whatsername joins him; by the time “Homecoming” begins, the Jesus of Suburbia has lost everything, including his own Saint Jimmy persona, stripping himself back down to the American Idiot by the end of the album.
The songs demonstrate a variety of sound that the pop-punk genre offers, much in the vein of Green Day’s 1997 album nimrod., while still remaining identifiable as Green Day. This is a band with, at that point, sixteen years of history behind it – American Idiot is as close to a reinvention as the band could ever get.
Once it gained steam, the album was an unstoppable cultural force. Five tracks were released as singles; “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and “Wake Me Up When September Ends” were, by far, the most successful, with “Boulevard” topping nearly every US chart and “September” nearly doing the same thing. Accolades were poured down on the album and its singles, including a Grammy for Best Rock Album in 2005 while being nominated for several other categories that same year. An adaptation of the album for Broadway premiered in 2010 after having several runs in Berkeley the previous year, which even featured frontman Billie Joe Armstrong in the lead role for a brief time. A film has also been in development since the album’s release, though it has spent that majority of that time in development hell.
Green Day rode the album’s success for several years, touring in support of the album for a year and a half in 2004 and 2005. That tour spawned the live album Bullet in a Bible, selling over a million copies in its own right. Though Armstrong began writing for the next album in 2006, the album (21st Century Breakdown) would not materialize until 2009, and did not enjoy nearly as much success as American Idiot, though it was also a rock opera in the same vein as the previous album.
American Idiot was one of the first albums I ever owned, alongside Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory. (I know, I know.) I received both of them on Christmas Day, 2005, after hearing their respective radio singles over and over again, and I played both albums the same way – on repeat, for years and years. I grabbed up as much of Green Day’s back catalogue as I could, took it all in. They were one of my favorite bands all the way through 21st Century Breakdown‘s release, and I’ll admit, I thought that album was awesome when I first heard it. It didn’t stick in my head the same way that American Idiot did, though, and Green Day fell off my list of “best damn bands in the world” pretty quickly after that.
That’s something that’s expected when one expands their musical tastes, though, and I never really took to the idea that Green Day has always been a universally horrid band. They make great music, most of the time, and it’s usually very radio-friendly, which was a huge part of success in the 1990s. One cannot fault them for wanting to make a living doing what they loved, and they produced a set of classic albums in the process. 13-year-old me wasn’t the jaded, opinionated asshole that 21-year-old me is when it comes to music – if something sounded good, I didn’t care what the band’s “reputation” was, or what people thought of a band’s fans. I just listened, and if I stopped liking what I was hearing, I stopped listening. Simple as that.
I still keep up with Green Day – their most recent albums, the trilogy of ¡Uno!, ¡Dos!, and ¡Tre! are in my library, and you can expect them to be covered as a result. They haven’t had quite the same success with that trilogy that they had with American Idiot, or even 21st Century Breakdown; part of that is probably tied into Armstrong’s public meltdown during the 2012 iHeartRadio music festival, where he insulted the festival organizers, Justin Bieber, and everyone around him, then smashed his guitar and stormed off-stage. Naturally, the band’s management announced that Armstrong had been checked into rehab the next day, derailing the band’s touring plans for the entirety of the 2012 album trilogy’s release cycle.
They’ve since recovered, but Green Day has lost the superstar status it held in the mid-2000s yet again. Time will tell if the band will be able to put out another album that can boost them back into the mainstream, or if their career has begun its slow slide towards nostalgia act status.