When I opened my WSJ last week and saw the three members of Green Day staring back at me, I was incredulous. How does a former punk band, with a penchant for juvenilia end up gracing the pages of the pinnacle of establishment journalism? Maybe their journey from 924 Gilman Street to gracing the business bible of men in expensive suits is in fact a meditation on the reality that the American dream is still alive and well.
Reflecting on where Green Day’s beginnings are rooted (see Jello Biafra incident), the band’s ascension is dripping with irony. The easy route with the boys from Berkeley would be to lob the label “sellout,” as so many have already done. To do so would be walking the well-worn path of many who have turned on bands and artists that have progressed from humble beginnings and the rigors of paying their dues, to eventually taking the rock world by storm.
So, how does a band with punk roots transition from having a fixation with scatalogical references for album names (Dookie and Kerplunk) and masturbation (the song “Longview”), end up being a band that critics laud, and mainstream audiences line up to buy their music and attend their shows? Further, it begs the question, as it does with any band that ascend from obscurity and a niche market to respectability and mass consumption, did Green Day betray their beginnings to reach their current popularity?
Rather than taking the clichéd route and label the band sellouts, it might be more instructive to recognize the natural development of a talented songwriter, like Billie Joe Armstrong, and the ongoing evolution of a band, as it hones its chops and artistic vision. While there will always be those that insist on keeping any band as their own personal secret, the nature of playing music for a living demands that you sell records, draw people to your shows, and have the ability to push swag. This is probably even more the reality now, than ever before, despite the ongoing falsity that claims that the internet makes it easier for bands to break out than ever before. The internet actually makes it much more likely that a talented band or artist gets screwed, as their music can be downloaded, passed around, and the artist receives little, or nothing in return. Having talent helps, but getting breaks, and ultimately, selling out major venues is what allows a musician to finally receive something back for their own artistic contribution.
Back in 1994, Dookie was in heavy rotation in the Baumer household. At the time, 11-year-old Mark had discovered the seduction that bands like Green Day offered pre-adolescents. Mark, who owned Dookie on cassette, frequently cajoled me into popping the tape into the cassette deck of the Camry wagon I owned at the time, as I drove Mark to yet another baseball game. While Green Day was tame by my own indie rock standards of the time, I could appreciate the melodic nature of the music. They were still a band that I typecast as lacking the sophistication necessary to warrant much more than my passing interest, however.
Fast forward a decade and when “American Idiot” burst forth on modern rock stations like WCYY, I noted that Billie Joe, Mike, and Tré Cool had grown up. In fact, the anthemic tune could have been America’s soundtrack in 2004, capturing the angst and frustration many felt post 9-11, considering four more years of theocratic rule, from a pseudo despot with a challenged intellect. The transition from singing about autoeroticism to commentary on the culture, Green Day had clearly come through a maturation process as individuals and as a band.
While American Idiot showed the band’s ongoing evolution, particularly the rock opera elements and what’s become a signature track, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” it also showed the band teetering on the precipice of remaining relevant, or becoming just another reminder of how far punk had fallen from its late 70s/early 80s perch, taking the temperature of suburban America.
With the latest record, 21st Century Breakdown, the band seems to have decided the rock opera format suits them just fine. Musically, they seem to be stuck in limbo between three-chord sensibilities and the DIY ethic they originally wore on their sleeves, and bombastic classic-rock. The ballads, frankly, are a bit too over the top for my tastes. Still, the band is capable of raging with the best of them.
Given that originally, Green Day appeared to be one or two album flash in the pan punk panderers, the fact that they’re still cranking out meaningful music long after all of their peers have faded away is a testament to the trio’s artistic fortitude.