Green Day’s American Idiot is a lot of things: A concept album. A punk-rock opera. A vaguely religious, very political screed. A return to relevance. A musical map of a very divided nation. A snapshot of bored suburban life. A sprawling, challenging LP that has somehow spawned two hit singles. A career definer. A manic record (loud, soft, pretty, ugly, scared, pissed-off) for equally manic times. And the audio equivalent of the bar being raised.
But in its infancy, the album certainly wasn’t one thing: easy.
By now, the trials and tribulations of making Idiot — which has earned the pop-punk vets seven Grammy nominations, including Album of the Year — are well documented. There was the intra-band strife (“We had to stop telling the same stupid jokes and start treating each other like men,” bassist Mike Dirnt told MTV News back in September). There were the studio sessions in early 2003 that bore something like 20 new songs, all mastered and ready to be mixed. And, perhaps most important of all, there was the subsequent theft of those masters, which forced Green Day to start over from scratch (see “Green Day: Anatomy Of A Punk Opera”).
“We had completely finished these songs, and we were getting ready to mix them,” Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong explained. “We walked out of the studio and came back the next day, and all of the masters had been stolen … but [American Idiot] was about making mistakes and fixing them.”
So they attacked the re-recording process with a renewed sense of vigor and determination, adopting an “anything-goes” policy that started off silly (the band recorded bawdy versions of Christmas standards) but ended up producing a vivid and varied palate of new tunes through which Armstrong began to weave an arcing narrative. And over time, American Idiot began to take shape.
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“Right after I came up with [the phrase] ‘American Idiot,’ I came up with [the album’s protagonist], ‘Jesus of Suburbia,’ ” he continued. “I felt like it crossed that line between church and state or politics and religion. I thought, ‘How would I interpret the Bible even though I’ve never really read it?’ So, there’s no burning bush, but there’s burning towns and ethics.”
And it’s the keywords Armstrong uses when describing Idiot — “church,” “state,” “politics,” “religion” — that elevate it into the upper echelon of concept albums. Where most efforts fail because they’re rooted in goofy sci-fi or bizarre medieval imagery (Rush’s 2112, Kiss’ Music From “The Elder” come to mind), Idiot succeeds because it’s real.
The album’s themes of love, loss, indecision, apathy and paranoia — played out against the backdrops of politics and religion — make it the perfect soundtrack for a nation still reeling in the wake of 9-11, a society bombarded by 24-hour news pundits and looking for al Qaeda operatives around every corner.
Throughout the course of the album, Armstrong’s characters take potshots at our “gasman president” and his “redneck agenda,” rhyme “television fix” with “crucifix” and cry out for novocaine to numb their pain. They occupy a stifling suburban hell and find inspiration in bathroom-wall graffiti. And the scary thing is how many people — the critics who showered the album with praise, the Recording Academy voters who nominated it and the record-buying public who have snapped up more than 2 million copies of the LP — seem to relate to all of this.
“A lot of the record is about the confusion in what’s going on today. The non-reality of reality television meets what you see on CNN. And what kind of fears are being imposed on you as the watcher,” Armstrong said.
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“A lot of stuff on the record is more political — the confusion inside, the vulnerability inside — that’s what I wanted to write about because that’s the way I feel … and I think a lot of people go through that.”
But perhaps the best thing about American Idiot lies not in its scope, nor its message. It’s the fact that despite the nine-minute songs and religious metaphors, it still feels like a Green Day album. There are traces of Dookie‘s brash juvenilia and Insomniac‘s pro-experimental ethos throughout. And the band is less afraid than ever to pen tunes that match the sweet sentimentality of the massive prom-night hit “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).” It’s complex and full, retro and futurist. It’s the sound of a band at ease with its past, but excited by its future.
“There’s definitely a feeling of coming full circle; a realization of learning and growth in this record,” Armstrong said. “And if there’s any advice I would give, it’d be this: If you just do exactly what you want to do and don’t look back, then things will work out.”
As this year’s Grammys approach, you can get all the latest news on the show, the scene and the nominees in our Grammy news archive. On the big night, February 8, be sure to tune in to MTV at 7 p.m. for our “All up in the Grammys” preshow. Plus check out videos of the nominees and more right here on mtv.com.