Cultural Analysis: Green Day
Walkn’ with Green Day
By Crystal Wiebe
This paper was written by Crystal Wiebe as partial fulfillment for a course on youth culture taught by CPYU's Walt Mueller at Briercrest Seminary in Caronport, Saskatchewan. The students were to use the our Walk Thru Athens paradigm (modeled on Paul's ministry in Athens in Acts 17) in order to perform a cultural exegesis on some element of today's youth culture.
In 1994 I was the 13 year old girl in the music department of Zellers picking up the latest Green Day Album Dookie. Back then Green Day blasted into my world with their catchy punk rock songs and I desperately wanted to live and breathe the music of Green Day. Green Day were wicked, Green Day were wild, Green Day were cool, and Green Day were 1994 chart toppers with their songs “Longview”, “Basket Case” and “When I Come Around.” Not only was Green Day an amazing band, but they also were able to connect with me during the most difficult developmental period in my life: adolescence. In a weird way that I still can’t fully explain, the music of Green Day became an outlet for me to express the frustration and the angst that I was going through during puberty. I loved them! Now fast forward the clock 10 years and you’ll find that Green Day are back with their new punk rock opera album American Idiot which debuted at number 1 on the music charts and has been staying in the top 10 ever since. Back after filling the past 10 years with mediocre albums, Green Day’s American Idiot snagged six 2004 Grammy nominations (seven if you include the nomination for Producer of the Year – Rob Cavello), and won a 2004 Grammy for Best Rock Album. Why are youth and 20-something’s flooding to the record stores and the Internet to purchase and download American Idiot? What worldview is Green Day teaching our youth? Can three guys with tattoos and studded belts really teach us to understand our youth better? Yes, Green Day can help us to understand our youth better. ‘“My education wasn’t school,” says Armstrong who dropped out of high school. “My education was punk rock – what the Dead Kennedy’s said, what Operation Ivy said”’ (SPIN, 11/04). The Dead Kennedy’s and Operation Ivy were Green Day lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong’s teachers, and for the past 15 years Green Day have been the educators of the youth of the past and the youth of today. Green Day most definitely deserve our attention.
Green Day’s Story
Back in 1986, two 14 year old guys, Billie Joe Armstrong and Mike Dirnt formed the punk rock band Green Day in Rodeo, California and added their current drummer Tré Cool to the band in 1989. Interestingly, Green Day’s original band name was Sweet Children, but was later changed to Green Day, a California slang that refers to the act of “wasting your day smoking pot”(GeekStinkBreath.net). Not long after Cool was added, the band was signed to the
Here’s the scoop on the “Oh, so hot!” Green Day lead singer, guitarist and main lyricist Billie Joe Armstrong. Armstrong was voted by Rolling Stone magazine as one of 2004’s People of the Year and credited as “one of the most influential people in punk rock music” (GeekStinkBreath.net). Armstrong is the youngest of 6 children and lost his father to lung cancer at the age of 10. As a result of his father’s death, Armstrong spent the better part of his life being raised by his mother who supported Armstrong and his siblings by serving food at a local
Green Day bassist and back up vocalist Mike Dirnt, born Micheal Ryan Pritchard, is the child of a heroin-addicted mother. To say the least, Dirnt’s start on life was not an easy one and unfortunately life didn’t brighten for this young man. Sadly, Dirnt’s adoptive parents divorced when he was 7 years old and as a result he spent a majority of his childhood being bounced between his parents, eventually settling at his adoptive mother’s home for some time. Dirnt met Armstrong when he was 10 years old and the two began to spend hours playing music together at Armstrong’s home. Dirnt’s stay at his adoptive mothers home didn’t last long, and eventually he began working random jobs while renting a room from Armstrong’s mother. Dirnt is the only member of Green Day who has graduated from high school. The now 32 year old Dirnt was once married to the mother of his daughter Estelle-Desiree, but has followed in the footsteps of his adoptive parents and divorced his wife, Anastasia. Dirnt loves to party with his band mates and acknowledges that ‘“s**t [can get] kinda weird”’ (SPIN, 11/04).
32 year old Frank Edwin Wright III, most commonly known as Tré Cool, is Green Day’s cymbal loving drummer and back up vocalist. Cool and his siblings were raised by his father, a
Green Day’s Music
Punk rock music was birthed through the music and lyrics of The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, The Dead Kennedy’s, The Clash and countless other die hard punk bands from the mid – 1970’s, and “unlike any musical genre, punk rock music was started as a deliberate reaction to the mass commercialism of music” (www.mt.essortment.com). “Punk rock emphasizes simple musical structure and short songs, extolling a DIY [Do it yourself]” ethic. The most important aspect of punk music is a desire from punk rock artists to “return to the concise and simple approach to early rock and roll” (http://em.wikipedia.org). The emergence of the early ‘90s punk bands Green Day and the Offspring were “the first punk revivalists to break into the American mainstream … [bringing] the spotlight to neglected ‘80s punk bands like Bad Religion and underground punk genres like the third wave of ska revival” (www.mp3.com). Punk means many things to different people: some say punk is this generations “fumbled attempts to get drunk, listen to the band, get laid, and get the last bus home”, while others believe that punk is “a new music, a new social critique, but most of all, it [is] a new kind of free speech” (www.inmusicwetrust.com). Many music critics believed that the fast paced social critiquing punk rock music would quickly fade away and die, but Green Day’s one punk band that’s proven them wrong. Green Day’s here to stay and they’re not going anywhere anytime soon.
Green Day’s music is the kind of music that you get lost in. The combination of Armstrong’s melodic voice and lyrics that speak directly to your broken, lonely and wounded heart, along with catchy guitar riffs and fast paced rhythmic drum beats send you into Green Day’s world; into a world where three men can seemingly help you find “solace” from the pain that today brought you. To many, Green Day’s music is musical perfection and no die-hard punk rocker can help but be driven to own a copy of their musical mastery American Idiot.
On the cover of American Idiot is a hand thrust into the air, holding a heart shaped grenade dripping with blood, possibly symbolizing that Green Day believes that the heart of
American Idiot is a “punk rock opera … musical production in the form of an opera or a musical in a modern rock and roll style” (http://en.wikipedia.org), which tells the story of a “disenfranchised kid and his responses to the world around him both politically and socially” (www.metrotimes.com).
In the fast paced title song, Armstrong belts out “Don’t want to be an American idiot/ One nation controlled by the media/ Information age of hysteria/ Calling out to idiot
Green Day’s 9 minute 8 second medley “Jesus of Suburbia” begins to tell the story of Jesus of Suburbia. In part 1 we are introduced to the “son of rage and love”; a fringe kid who has been raised “on a steady diet of soda pop and Ritalin” and has been void of both mother and father, stating that he sits in front of the TV “while the Mom’s and Brad’s are away.” Part 2, “City of the Damned” is Jesus of Suburbia’s hate for the city he lives in claiming it is a “city of the dead.” In part 3 of this medley, Jesus of Suburbia’s apparent numbness for life is evident as he repeatedly screams, “I don’t care/ I don’t care if you don’t care.” In part 4, “Dearly Beloved”, Jesus of Suburbia cries out asking for some to listen to him, and wonders if therapy will fill the void he feels within himself; ironically, the up beat tempo of the song creates the feeling of bliss and happiness. “Tales of Another Broken Home” concludes with Jesus of Suburbia running away from his home of lies and pain “to find what to believe.”
In the anti-war anthem “Holiday”, Jesus of Suburbia marches to bring an end to the war that exists between the people in his own country who want to “Kill all the fags that don’t agree/ Trials by fire setting fire/ Is not the way that’s meant for me”, and the wars that exist between countries all over the world, “Zieg Heil to the President gasman/ Bombs away is your punishment/ Pulverize the Eiffel Towers/ Who criticize your government.” This song is a reflection of this politically driven bands desire to see the “wars” in
“Boulevard of Broken Dreams” is the heart-wrenching cry of the lonely Jesus of Suburbia. He sings, “My shadow’s the only one that walks beside me” and cries out, “Sometimes I wish someone out there will find me/ ‘Til then I walk alone.” He’s looking for God, whether he realizes it or not. Like Jesus of Suburbia, there are many youth in this world that walk alone and need people of faith to come walk along with them and bring them hope. There is so much pain and despair in this young man’s life, but Jesus Christ can bring Him the hope, the joy, the peace, and the freedom that he is yearning for.
Some people believe that “Are We The Waiting” is about sitting around, waiting for life to happen, while some believe this song is about the tiredness of being stuck in the routine of life, wishing to be freed from the boredom that is slowly killing them. Interestingly, others interpret the lyrics of this song to be about waiting for Jesus to come down to earth, and the sadness that it’s not going to happen because he sings “the Jesus of Suburbia is a lie.”
In the short 3-minute song “St. Jimmy” we are introduced to the character of St. Jimmy, Jesus of Suburbia’s alter – ego, an insubordinate, drug using, fist fighting “resident leader of the lost and found.” Jimmy’s the product of war and fear and states that “we’ve been victimized”; stating that America has fallen victim to the influence and authority of President Bush’s war tactics both in his own country and Iraq.
“Give Me Novacaine” has the feeling of being on a drug trip, a trip to a land where a person can be free from pain (mental, physical and /or spiritual), free from having to feel anything. Jimmy sings, “Tell me that I won’t feel a thing/ Give me novacaine/ Out of body out of mind.” Numbness is the desired result, just like when the dentist gives a patient a shot of novacaine to numb the pain of dental work.
Whatshername is introduced to us in “She’s a Rebel.” Whatshername is Jimmy’s girlfriend, and not only is she a rebel but she’s also a saint; a very interesting combination. Whatshername is the “missing link on the edge of destruction” and she is a passionate woman on a mission. What that mission is isn’t clear; are Whatshername’s destructive actions destroying Jimmy’s heart? and/or is she on a mission to lead a revolt against the American government and the war in
“Extraordinary Girl” is a song that talks about the emotional and mental state of St. Jimmy and Whatshername. The song reveals that Whatshername “… gets so sick of crying/ She sees the mirror of herself/ An image she wants to sell/ To anyone willing to buy”, and St. Jimmy “… lacks the courage in his mind/ Like a child left behind/ Like a pet left in the rain.” Sadly, both St. Jimmy and Whatshername are consumed with pain and despair, two topics that can easily be related to.
“Letterbomb” is a break up letter from Whatshername to St. Jimmy. Whatshername drops a bomb on St. Jimmy by writing him a letter in which she states, “ I can’t take this town/ I’m leaving you tonight.”
The pain of Armstrong losing his father can be felt in “Wake Me Up When September Ends.” About the death of his father Armstrong sings, “Wake me up when September ends/ Like my Father’s come to pass/ Twenty years has gone so fast/ Wake me up when September ends.” The pain of losing someone you love is not something that can quickly be forgotten, which is evidenced by the fact that Armstrong is still mourning the loss of his father 22 years after his death.
“Homecoming” the second medley on this album, kicks off with “The Death of St. Jimmy” in which Jimmy gets killed off (possibly in a Fight Club – Brad Pitt/Edward Norton sort of way). “Jimmy died today/ He blew his brains out into the Bay/ In the state of mind/ In my own private suicide.” The song quickly moves along to “East 12th St.” in which Jesus of Suburbia cries out “Get me the f*** right out of here/ So far away/ I don’t want to stay/ Get me outta here right now/ I just want to be free/ Is there a possibility?” “Nobody Like You!” is the inner monologue of Jesus of Suburbia, screaming “nobody likes you, everyone left you/ they’re all out without you havn’ fun.” In his moment of personal despair, Jesus of Suburbia gets a postcard from a friend in “Rock and Roll Girlfriend” in which the friend brags of having the life: he’s in a band, has a girlfriend, has a car, has a couple of kids, and has been clean for over 22 days. In “We’re Coming Home Again”, Jesus of Suburbia returns to his hometown only to “start f***ing around again/Just as soon as [his] feet touch the ground.” Ironically, home is a place of hopelessness and despair for Jesus of Suburbia.
The album concludes with the song “Whatshername.” Jesus of Suburbia recalls the memories he had with Whatshername. Although Jesus of Suburbia misses Whatshername, he admits that he chose to take a different path, and states that “the regrets are useless, in my mind”…“I’ll never turn back time.” The lyrics of this song are reflective of Armstrong’s motto to live life regretting something you have done rather than regretting something you haven’t done.
What’s the Draw?
So, why are today’s teens drawn to Green Day’s music? What “need” is Green Day meeting in these young people’s lives? Why is Green Day such a successful band? Well…
They act and look young. Although the members of Green Day may look like they’re in their twenties, these men are actually fathers nearing their mid – thirties. Interestingly, many of today’s youth don’t see the age gap and reason being is the members of Green Day still act and look like they’re teens themselves. Today’s teens don’t look at the members of Green Day and shun them because they think they’re old. Today’s teens look at the members of Green Day and embrace them as one of their own.
They’re style is appealing to youth. Let’s face it, in the eyes of today’s youth the members of Green Day are cool. Being punk is increasingly becoming cooler in the adolescent sub - culture. Tattoos, studded belts and bracelets, stretched ear lobs, and dark clothing are all part a statement that teens are making; against parents and society. Being punk also means that marginalized youth have a crowd of peers whom they can identify with because they listen to the same music and are going through similar life situations.
American Idiot is original. Who doesn’t like a good story? What’s appealing about their new album is that they have put to music a story about a disenfranchised kid, whose is void of parents, and filled with pain and loneliness, so he runs away from home, continues living a reckless life, and finds himself a girlfriend. Don’t forget, he’s also got a political streak in him too. Today’s youth are connecting with this album because they can identify with many parts of Jesus of Suburbia/St. Jimmy’s story.
Their music is anything but boring. The sound of Green Day’s music is appealing to many. Their music is appealing because it’s not the same music that producers have been mass-producing recently. About their music Armstrong says, “We’re not just doing the same old thing again” … “[other bands] are so f***ing boring, they don’t challenge themselves. That’s what rock records that I grew up on did. Let’s push it to the heights that nobody’s doing right now, like Outkast, or even Eminem for that matter” (www.au.launch.yahoo.com). Youth are drawn to bands that push the limits, which is why so many youth are drawn to Green Day’s music.
Their DIY (Do It Yourself) attitude is appealing to teens. Being punk is all about individuality, and the idea that anyone can do anything themselves without having to rely on anyone else. The idealistic young minds of the young are yearning to break free from the “control” of parents, teachers, etc., to branch out into the world and do whatever they dream of and feel like doing. Teens look at Green Day and see a living and successful example of three guys who came from low to middle class families, some of whom were dysfunctional, and have succeeded musically and financially.
They’re passionately political. Many of our youth care about the world, and issues of war are definitely on their radar screen. American Idiot is an anti – war anthem and many youth strongly agree with the stand that Green Day are taking against war and the actions of President George W. Bush. Any album that makes a political statement is going to draw attention.
They sing about issues teens can easily relate to. These never wanna grow up boys are still making music that teens can identify with. These fathers aren’t singing about being fathers, they’re singing about issues that today’s teens are struggling with. Youth listen to their music and say, “I connect with them.” Any musician who sings about sex, drugs, relationships, heartache, bad parents, bad friends, loneliness, etc. is going to find a huge percentage of youth who will connect with their music. Today’s teens are looking to find comfort in finding other people who are going through the same turmoil they are. It’s no wonder they’re connecting with Green Day.
Their nihilistic worldview is appealing. Their music is far from promoting Christian values and moral principles, and that’s exactly why a lot of youth like their music. Many youth think that the nihilistic lifestyle that Green Day are living is glamorous, exciting, and something to strive for. In our postmodern world, our youth think that it’s o.k. to do whatever they want when they want to because it feels good, and that is the attitude that Green Day are promoting through their music.
Their fan base has doubled. Interestingly, Green Day’s success is not limited to today’s teens, but their fan base also extends to the teens who grew up with their music and are now adults. Green Day can not only credit their success to their ability to connect with today’s teens, they can also credit their success to the fact that they are still connecting with the 20 something’s who were listening to Green Day’s music when they were teens.
The media has marketed them positively. Our technologically advanced youth are being educated on various musicians and celebrities through the TV and the Internet. All a person has to do is Google Green Day’s name and you’ll find countless online articles praising their new album. Music channels like MTV and Much Music are frequently playing Green Day’s music, and it seems like whenever you turn on the radio you’re listening to another one of their songs. Also, they have teamed up with Apple to hook up their listeners with Green Day iTunes. The media does a really good job of creating hype around a particular cult phenomenon and they have generated a lot of hype around Green Day. Green Day are “It” right now.
How should we respond?
Our youth are listening to Green Day… what should we do?
Avoid cutting down the band. For some youth, Billie Joe Armstrong is going to feel like their best friend, and they’re quick to jump on anyone who makes a cut about one of their favorite band members. Green Day’s music can be quite offensive and I know that the immediate reaction of many parents and youth leaders is to verbally drive Green Day into the ground. I don’t think that approach is going to stop them from listening to Green Day’s music. Rather, first approach your critique of the band by pointing out the positive qualities of the music your youth are listening to. You will enter into your youths’ musical territory on more peaceful grounds and they will appreciate the fact that you chose to look at the positive aspects of the band.
Listen to the music. The lyrics are dark and depressing, and sometimes the lack of hope that is seeping through these lyrics make me feel like I’m going to suffocate. The sheer darkness of this album is the reason why so many youth are listening to Green Day’s music. So many of today’s youth are lost, wandering around in a dark world, and they have found a band that is in the same space as they are. Today’s youth are identifying with Green Day’s music and listening to the music of Green Day will help you as you try to understand the space that your adolescent is in. If possible, I suggest listening to the music with your adolescent fan as well.
Listen to your youth. Once you have listened to the music, start asking your youth questions about the music they are listening to. Ask them why they are listening, what they love most about the band, what lyrics speak to them the most, etc. Sit back and listen. As you listen to your teens speak you will begin to get somewhat of a grasp of what’s going on in their lives. Listen, listen, and listen some more. As you listen you will find the music to be a useful tool in assisting you as you try to connect with your youth. Green Day are connecting with your youth, so use their music as a connecting point to your teen(s).
Affirm the good things that Green Day are doing. To many, Green Day may seem like a band rooted in goofy, trouble making pleasure, but there is actually a side to this band that is serious. Not only are they on a mission to spread their message of anti – war, but they’re also on a mission to help. In response to the tsunami that hit
Green Day have been given musical gifts from God that must be highlighted. The reality is, the members of Green Day have been created in the image of God. God has blessed these three men with the ability to make good quality music and they are composing music that is new and exciting. Armstrong has a beautiful voice, Dirnt can walk all over a bass, and Cool can keep up with the best of drummers. Even though Green Day’s lyrics are not always honoring to God, their ability to play music is glorifying God.
Their nihilistic worldview must be challenged. The members of Green Day do and say anything that they think is fun and immediately gratifying. They live by Armstrong’s motto that “it’s better to regret something you have done than something you haven’t done.” In our postmodern world our youth are being taught to pursue everything and anything that feels good, and we need to be teaching our youth that just because something feels good doesn’t mean that it’s right. We need to continually be teaching and reminding our youth that part of entering into a love relationship with God means that His followers need to be obedient to Him. God is the only One who can truly satisfy our deepest desires, and we must daily strive to find our joy and fulfillment in obeying and serving Him.
Their blatant disrespect for authority must be challenged. The members of Green Day have a blatant disrespect for George W. Bush. Our youth need to be taught that it is possible to disagree with someone in authority without disrespecting them. The Bible says, “we must submit [ourselves] to the governing authorities for there is no authority except that which God has established.” (Romans 13:1 NIV). We need to be teaching our youth how to respect those in leadership, and at the same time teach them to challenge issues that are pressing.
We need to teach our youth that emotional pain is not something that can be medicated. As humans our immediate reaction to pain is to run. The pain of a breaking up with your girlfriend or boyfriend is gut wrenching, the pain that dad caused you and your mom when he left makes you want to explode with anger, and you yearn to be free of the bullying that happens at school everyday. It’s so easy for people to believe that they can escape from the pain of life through the consumption of drugs and/or alcohol, and many buy into the lie that it is better to escape the pain than live through the pain. Not only do we need to teach our youth that trying to escape the pain is futile, we also need to lovingly walk with and pray for our youth as they deal with their emotional pain. Hopefully, as we love on’ em they will experience the love and the healing power of Jesus in their lives.
We need to continually remind our youth that they don’t have to be alone. “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” makes me want to cry. I want to cry because there are so many youth who are identifying with this song, so many youth who are alone and “wish someone out there will find [them].” We need to be continually loving and remind our youth that Jesus earnestly wants to be with them. Jesus loves them and wants to bring them life and joy and hope and peace and satisfaction. As well, we must never give up our efforts to create communities of love wherever God has placed us. We have to keep on prayerfully working to introduce Jesus to the people in our lives, and we must keep on encouraging our youth to do the same. As Jesus’ servants we need to continually be shining His light into the dark places in this world.
Mentor critics of music. Unfortunately, we can’t make our teens choices for them; however we can teach them to critique the music they listen to. In our entertainment driven society we allow the messages of the media to seep into our lives and we don’t even put up a fight. We sit back into our easy chair, turn off our minds, and allow the music to teach us lies as we soak it all in without even giving it a second thought. It is our responsibility to teach our youth to be musical critics. The lies that are being relayed through the media are everywhere, which means we need to teach our youth how to critique the positives and negatives of what they’re taking in by lining the messages of the media up against Jesus’ words. We need to empower our youth to look at the world from a biblical perspective, so that they can flee from Satan’s lies, and cling to God’s Truth.
Many people are quick to criticize and judge the clothing style and musical taste of punks; the studded belts and bracelets, the piercings and tattoos, the dark clothing, the dark hair, the dark make-up, and the noisy/angry music. In their blind criticism they fail to see that standing before them are a generation of youth who are identifying with punk bands like Green Day because their lyrics and musical style reflect their feelings of being alone and in pain, of struggling with being different, and of objecting to certain political and societal issues. In a world where each day another kid ends up the victim of a broken or abusive home, and an increasing number of latchkey youth are raising themselves, it’s no wonder that the youth who are alone, bruised, and in pain are turning to Green Day’s music to sooth and medicate their broken hearts. As parents and leaders of youth we need to love our youth, walking with them and reminding them that Jesus has experienced the pain, the loneliness and the abandonment that they feel, and we must lovingly remind them that there is a God who loves them more than any other person in this world. Listen to the music of Green Day, love those kids and dialogue with them about their music.
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