Thursday, September 03, 2009

21st Century Breakdown

I got a package in the mail this week. It was a rather large box — though most of it was air. Seeing the return label on it, I knew precisely what it was, though such a delivery incited curiosity from my roommates. When I sliced open the box and pried my prize away from the cardboard, a rather heavy book fell out. It was the super-deluxe vinyl version (or whatever) of 21st Century Breakdown, Green Day's latest album. This is my second copy of the album — I already had the deluxe CD version.

Of course, this seems like a preposterous pleasure for me. Ridiculed almost immediately by my friends for my latest purchase, I once again had to soapbox about why I spent the last remaining credit on my Visa to buy the album — again — on three vinyls. And why I need to pore over the enormous, 60-page (ish) book that came with it, which primarily serves to provide extended artwork for the album.

Green Day is the most relevant punk band since the Ramones.

There, I said it. This has been my position all along, since Dookie came out. I was sure of it at the time, though I couldn't vocalize it in my youth. A decade later, when American Idiot came out and Green Day saw that massive success that scorned countless critics and punks, my theory was confirmed. And with the release of 21st Century Breakdown, it now seems obvious.

Now, this isn't a discussion on the aesthetic merits of three-chord punk, or even Green Day's execution thereof. I certainly don't pretend that 21st Century Breakdown is the best music Green Day has ever released (it is their third best album, after all). No, what is much more important is the cultural import that Green Day holds. Within the highly contested arena of popular lore, Green Day absorbs all those bits and pieces that make the minutiae of living borderline interested and packages them into a neat, three-act product to be consumed. Indeed, I don't think Green Day makes any apologies about the method of reception of their music: especially with their last two releases, Green Day fully understands, second, perhaps, only to Radiohead's release of In Rainbows, how their fans operate, who their fans are, and how they interact with media. American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown are meant to be consumed. They are meant to be ephemeral, visceral, temporal. They are meant to exist right now, which is why they will inevitably become classic texts with which the first decade of the twenty-first century can later, retroactively, be understood.

The central idea to 21st Century Breakdown is loose, but simple. The album's arc follows two characters, Gloria and Christian, as they deal with a post-Bush America. On a larger, more metaphorical level, these two archetypes move through the contested space of postmodern hyperreality, where the comforting, recognizable, signs, though once solid in the pre-electronic era, are now lost in a quagmire of vertical restlessness, inducing a choking sense of vertigo as the signifier moves and blurs between modes of signification while the signified seems to shift closer to a Platonic state of ideal Forms. If American Idiot existed because the Twin Towers fell, collapsing in vertical exhaustion and ushering a new decentralized era, 21st Century Breakdown revels in the free-play caused by the loss of a transcendental signifier. This is most acutely witnessed in the quick opening monologue for "East Jesus Nowhere," where a radio introduces the song by saying that we will "see how godless a nation we have become." Less a call for atheism than a recognition of the current state of affairs, this is one of the clearer indications that the album is meant to be read in a postmodern context.

To fully understand how Green Day became the vox populi for the twenty-first century, a brief, albeit blunt, history of punk is in order. The roots of punk can be traced back to the Sixties, and there's a continuous, revisionist, battle to find the fathers of punk, the first authentic punk band. It may have been the Stooges, it may have been the New York Dolls, it may have been ? and the Mysterians. But, for all intents and purposes, punk first became relevant on a larger scale in 1977, when Malcom McLaren imported the New York Dolls to Britain and called them the Sex Pistols. Their infamy is altogether well known: for the first time, the disaffected youth, the hungover remnants from the bright-eyed optimism of the Sixties, found a common voice under which they could band. Short-lived as the Pistols may have been, and as manufactured as their image was, they meant something to anyone who thought that "I'm a street-walking cheetah/with a heart full of napalm" was the best opening line in the history of pop music. Beyond Iggy Pop and the Stooges, the Pistols gave pissed-off teens a voice, an image, in the popular consciousness.

Punk's explosion in Britain eventually made it back across the ocean, to NYC. It is important, at this point, to note that the Ramones had already released their debut album a year previously, but it wasn't until the Pistols that the Ramones started to transcend their own scene. And the Ramones brought something to punk that the Pistols, or even the New York Dolls, could not: they brought a tremendous element of boredom to the scene, manifested in their uncanny ability to write, and sell, the same three-chord song for the length of their career. The Pistols grew up in London; the New York Dolls grew up in New York City; because of this, while people in metropolises across the US and the UK could understand their anger, it was hard to contextualize it. The Ramones grew up in a middle-class suburb in Queens, sitting on a roof huffing glue to fucking pass the time. Everyone has, on some level, sat on a roof mindlessly trying to pass the time. Thus, the Ramones became the first pop-punk band — not so much in their aesthetic considerations, but pop as in popular, similar to how the Beatles were pop rock.

Throughout the Eighties, long after Sid Vicious killed Nancy and himself, long after the Clash dissolved, the Ramones kept putting out albums with startling regularity. The songs never really varied, but each album was another chapter in a bored teenager's life. Instead of asking your friends, "what do you want to do today?" for the millionth time, the Ramones played A-D-E over and over again. It was comforting, it was real, and it was what everyone was thinking.

Similarly, Green Day holds a parallel position in popular culture, though, rather than boredom, Green Day perfected postmodern punk — that is to say, punk that doesn't seem like punk at all and has already been done. It is punk without a center, and thus free to revel in the movement between tropes.

One of the biggest critiques of 21st Century Breakdown is that it is uninspired: we have already heard Billie Joe Armstrong move through these chords, use these melody lines, exhaust these themes. But, what most critics seemed to miss is that this is indeed the point of 21st Century Breakdown. It was not meant to be groundbreaking, it was not meant to be innovative. Punk scarcely ever is. Instead, it was meant to be the embodiment of those wandering feelings everyone has. Nothing seems real anymore to anyone: between the ludicrous acceleration of culture, due in part to radio, television, and the Internet, and the loss of faith in a transcendental signifier, popular culture finds itself in highly unstable, ungrounded terrain. People could only stand and gape at the Towers falling, covering their mouths with their hands, because that was all they could do. No other reaction fit. Not because the event was so out of the ordinary, though it was, but because there was no other reaction that could be captured electronically so perfectly. On the copper highways, popular culture learned that, at last, there is nothing left to say. And that's, really, the whole point. September 11, 2001 was the last whole-heartedly real moment of this decade.

So now it's time to pick up the pieces. It's time to mourn. What better way to move forward than to go revisit the past and try to understand what on earth is going on? In the face of such jarring abnormality, there is no choice but to revert to what we know works. So the footage of the Towers falling is transmitted ad nauseum, until it loses immediacy, until every frame is permanently engrained in popular consciousness, and thus, co-opted into the extremely recent past. At that point, nostalgia begins to take hold, and the grieving process can move forward. America becomes fully postmodern at this point as Bush runs amok — it's not that he was an idiot, unqualified as he may have been. The American President, at that time, necessarily had to be clueless. His Office meant nothing — authority meant nothing. If the Towers could, literally and metaphorically, fall that easily, nothing was safe.

In this void, American Idiot is released. On the surface, it's an intensely political album, but the lyrics seem to suggest that, like second-wave feminism, the personal is political. The characters, Jesus of Suburbia, St Jimmy, Whatsername, are purposefully named as such so as to be able to function as archetypes. Those who listen to the album are supposed to place themselves in Jesus of Suburbia's place when he introduces himself as "the son of Rage and Love."

When considering that 21st Century Breakdown had to follow the massive success of American Idiot, and that these types of albums rarely ever live up to the original magic, there seems to be no other choice, if you want the album to succeed, but to release an album like 21st Century Breakdown. To be sure, it continues the theme of the personal as political, more overtly this time, but, more importantly, it is the apparent lack of originality, the very same lack that grated critics, that makes it intensely powerful and relevant. By revisiting past Green Day structures and themes, Billie Joe is able to record what the lost youth unconsciously feels: that there is nothing new, ever, and that it doesn't even seem to matter. A fatalistic view, to be sure.

So 21st Century Breakdown tells us what we already know: the scratchy old radio that opens the album on "Song of the Century" suggests that the recent past is always just beneath the surface. The drum beat to "Know Your Enemy" is a direct copy of the beat used on Bikini Kill's "Rebel Girl" (Green Day's proteges in the Nineties). "Christian's Inferno" sounds like a song that could have been included, save for the lyrics, on Green Day's New Wave 2003 side-project The Network. "¿Viva La Gloria? (Little Girl)" opens with a very similar progression to "Misery," off 2000's Warning. "American Eulogy" uses the same vocal melody as "Deadbeat Holiday," also off Warning. It's not that Billie Joe is overtly emulating his heroes, like Queen or Paul McCartney — though he is — it's that Billie Joe is overtly emulating himself. He's already played these songs. We've already heard this music. And yet, it's done in such a way that it resonates. We've already had this conversation. We've already seen this episode of television. We've already read this article. We've already been through this. We remember, acutely, but we don't know what to do with it. The best part is that, unlike the Ramones, we are not bored with it. We are lost. The landscape always looks the same, the signs always point in the same direction, but we can no longer make sense of them. We see the signpost, but we do not see the arrow. We understand that there is a tree, and that the word "tree" acknowledges that, but it doesn't seem to matter.

There's a scene in "Murder City" where Billie Joe sings, from the point of view of Gloria, "Christian's crying in the bathroom/and I just want to bum a cigarette." Of course Gloria just wants to bum a cigarette, despite Christian's reaction to the recent riot, to the light cast on the apartment's wall by the flames outside the window. No other reaction fits. We've already been through this.

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