I still remember the first time I heard American Idiot in full. It was my 14th birthday, and I’d been waiting for the better part of two months to finally give the album a spin. The record dropped on September 21, but as was the norm when I was young, broke, and trying to cut back on downloading, I often had to wait awhile to buy CDs or ask for them as gifts. Such was the case with Green Day’s first full-length album in four years, which I scrawled on my birthday list between other 2004 albums like Keane’s Hopes and Fears and Sister Hazel’s Lift.
Indeed, it was a long and torturous wait to finally get the album in my hands, on the evening of November 18th, 2004, but the result was the kind of listening experience that you don’t get anymore. It was the excitement of tearing open the wrapping paper on the disc at dinner; the electricity of climbing the stairs to my room, breaking the cellophane wrapper, and removing that annoying sticker thing along the top of the case; the anticipation of placing the album in my CD player for the first time, pushing play, and spending the next hour just letting the music and the lyrics wash over me. And it was all magnified by the fact that I was young and just beginning to discover what a huge role music was going to play in my life.
There aren’t many “first listen” stories that I remember with the clarity of that one, and for good reason. From the very first time I heard American Idiot, I knew it was a record I was going to carry with me forever, that it was an album that was really going to “matter”—though not necessarily in the way that many people thought it was supposed to matter. In the years since, when I’ve talked about American Idiot with fellow music fans, I’ve found that many people write the album off for what they call “hollow political statements.” Such criticisms never made sense to me because, from day one, I never heard American Idiot as an overtly political record. Sure, “American” is in the title. Sure, the album dropped during a particularly heated election year. And yes, the guys from Green Day were never shy about telling everyone exactly how the felt about President George W. Bush. But while the politics are undoubtedly there in American Idiot, they never define it, which is a crucial point to make.
In that regard, American Idiot actually has a lot more in common with Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. than it does with the rock operas and Broadway musicals from which Green Day drew the bulk of their inspiration. No one could deny that Born in the U.S.A. had political undertones (and sometimes, like in the title track, overtones). But an honest and open listen to that album would reveal that it’s about a lot more than just the Vietnam War and the politicians responsible for it. On the contrary, Born in the U.S.A. is an album about friendship, family, home, and how they all slip away too easily. Just like that record captured what it was like to live in America at a time when it was difficult to be proud about being from America, American Idiot captures just how fucked up things got in the wake of 9/11. So while it may have been labeled as a “Bush protest album,” American Idiot is actually an album about living, loving, pursuing the American Dream, and watching it all fall apart in the first decade of the new millennium. Like the era that inspired it, American Idiot is an album that exists under a specter of doubt, hate, fear, paranoia, and rage, and there’s arguably no album in the world that better captures the post-9/11 zeitgeist, or that sounds more like how 2004 felt.
Because of all that, it’s easy to see why American Idiot hasn’t aged quite as well as a lot of the albums I was spinning incessantly in the fall of 2004. Jimmy Eat World’s Futures, which dropped just a month after American Idiot, still sounds as fresh as it did the first time I heard it. Plain and simple, those songs have just continued to grow and change with me over the past 10 years. When I listen to American Idiot these days, I still love the songs, but something about the record just feels intrinsically tied to the past for me.
That could have something to do with the album’s monumental mainstream success: between 2004 and 2006, this record spawned five singles, four of which were inescapable to anyone who ever turned on a pop or rock radio station. The title track was the perfect lead-off, a song that sounded like old Green Day while hinting at the more anthemic, serious tone they were going for on this record, while “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” doubles perfectly as an earworm pop single and a key cog in the album’s storyline. The sobering “Wake Me Up When September Ends” reignited a stream of rock bands trying to write sensitive acoustic ballads, but remains powerful regardless for the way the normally tongue-in-cheek Billie Joe Armstrong writes and sings about his late father. And the raging “Holiday” remains one of the catchiest songs in the band’s catalog—even if its rebellious lyrics sounded a lot cooler to the 14-year-old version of me than they do to the 23-year-old one.
The fact that American Idiot was ever able to spawn one single of any level of success, let alone five of them, was a remarkable feat. Not only was Green Day coming off a commercial disappointment (2000’s Warning) and a four-year hiatus that many categorized as the band in mid-life crisis mode, but they were also re-entering the music world just as the album format was breathing its last breaths of mainstream importance. From Usher’s Confessions to the Killers’ Hot Fuss, 2004 was one of the last years where albums not written by Adele or Taylor Swift could be counted on to spit out one ubiquitous hit after another. Green Day managed just that, but what made the feat so impressive was that American Idiot was a project that was absolutely meant to be heard all at once. Hot Fuss and Confessions play just as well—if not better—by having their best songs split off from the whole and played on compilations, mixtapes, or radio playlists. That’s not something you could ever say about Idiot, which derives 90% of its power from the story and progression inherent in its 13-song tracklist.
Back in 2004, American Idiot’s story was a thing of much conversation, both on music message boards and in school cafeterias. It was never really difficult to follow the narrative of the Jesus of Suburbia, who flees the suburbs for the city, gets mixed up with a bad crowd, falls in love, ruins his life with drugs and excess, gets his heart broken by the love of his life, and then returns to the exact place he so heartily wanted to escape at the beginning of the story. But there were always questions to be asked in there: was the St. Jimmy character a literal drug dealer, or was he a new personality invented by the Jesus of Suburbia to fit in with the city crowd? When Jimmy “blew his brains out into the bay” during “Homecoming,” was it just Jesus destroying the personality that had destroyed him? And who the hell was Tunny, the character who showed up—in the liner notes, at least—during the Tre Cool-sung “Rock and Roll Girlfriend”?
Today, American Idiot has lost some of its magic thanks to the ultra-literal and paper-thin Broadway musical it inspired. But 10 years ago, the album sprang to life because the story left those little nuggets of interpretation in there for the listener to decide. It didn’t hurt that the songs were really fucking great, or that Green Day sounded better and more energized than they had been since Dookie, and it certainly helped that they brought along some of the adventurous versatility that had made Warning so great. The result was an album that delivered its punches as quickly as Dookie did, but which also had better pacing and more sonic variation. The tightly-wound construction of “Jesus of Suburbia” and “Homecoming,” both ambitious five-part, nine-minute epics, showed the band’s maturation and growing sense of craft. Most bands can’t write 10 distinctive and memorable melodies on a single album, but on this record, Green Day get there in the space of those two songs.
However, the best numbers on American Idiot are not the singles, or the nine-part centerpieces, or even the loud, fast-paced punk numbers (“St. Jimmy,” “She’s a Rebel”) that call back to the band’s roots. Instead, the best songs here are the deepest cuts. A few years ago while writing about “Whatsername,” this album’s balladic grand finale, I got to talking a bit about how some of Green Day’s early fans look upon American Idiot and its mainstream success as a sell-out moment. As I wrote back then, though, sell-out bands don’t make records where the album tracks trump the singles, or where the thematic elements are as important as the musical ones.
The spirit of that sentiment is alive in this album’s two best tracks, the aforementioned “Whatsername” and the blazing mid-album cut, “Letterbomb.” “Letterbomb” comes first, a fireball of rebellious anger that brings the album’s core relationship—between the Jesus of Suburbia and Whatsername—to a sudden, heart-mangling conclusion. “She said I can’t take this place, I’m leaving it behind/She said I can’t take this town, I’m leaving you tonight,” the song concludes, before seguing into the resigned acoustic guitar notes of “Wake Me Up When September Ends.”
“Whatsername,” meanwhile, is American Idiot’s most powerful track, and is an example of the kind of song that Green Day probably couldn’t have written before this album. The chugging guitar chords that start the song sound like a broken toy, and they should: on “Homecoming,” the song that precedes “Whatsername” in the tracklist, the Jesus of Suburbia kills St. Jimmy (probably), comes down from his drug addiction (definitely), gets a desk job straight out of Office Space, and then returns to the dreaded grayscale tedium of his suburban home.
On “Whatsername,” though, he’s not just reflecting on the girl who broke his heart, but on the entire whirlwind adventure that he’s just closed the book on. It’s a moment that symbolizes an end of youth and innocence, and it’s a song that works well because listeners can fill it with their own experiences. There’s a reason that the girl gets tagged as “Whatsername” instead of as someone more specific, and there’s a reason her real name, whatever it was, gets crossed out angrily in the album liner notes. Whatsername is a placeholder. She’s every adolescent relationship you ever had, every lost summer or school year, every awkward moment, every first kiss, and every stinging heartbreak, and she’s a reminder of the fact that, while the people we think we love when we’re young often exit our lives stage left, they never fully go away because they made us who we are. “And in the darkest night, if my memory serves me right,” Armstrong sings in the song’s final moments. “I’ll never turn back time/Forgetting you, but not the time.” What a beautifully apt statement about youth.
Green Day’s stock has plummeted since American Idiot first came into our lives 10 years ago. In 2009, the band tried to make another rock opera, but the resulting album, the long and overwrought 21st Century Breakdown, seemed to forget most of the ingredients that made Idiot great. As for 2012’s misguided trilogy of albums: the less we say, the better. But American Idiot still stands as a monumental accomplishment. It’s the sound of a band that many had deemed “irrelevant” finding their way back, a feat of masterful and bombastic pop songwriting, and one of the last truly great albums in mainstream rock music.
But as I said before, American Idiot isn’t a classic because of the hits, or even because Green Day finally figured out how to make an album that was greater than the sum of its parts. Instead, it’s a classic because of the way it captures a moment in time so perfectly. On this album, Green Day had something to say about life in the early 2000s, and while many listeners got lost or frustrated within the political subtext of it all, that was only ever a fraction of what the album was about. Years from now, it’s not difficult to imagine kids digging up this record to hear all the emotions, fears, frustrations, and insecurities of that era, just like we once dug up Springsteen and Dylan, or the Clash and the Who. The phrase “generation defining” gets thrown out too often, so I won’t use it here, but suffice to say that American Idiot mattered and resonated in 2004, and probably always will.