I’m not really here to go to bat for senseless contrarianism, that feeling of “well because the person who says they’ve got power says it’s good, it must be BAD” type shit. But I also don’t can’t talk to people who’ve never had that impulse, never done something just cause it’ll shock people. As an artist I’m always looking for a reaction and we all go through that phase before we figure out what we’re doing. There’s some sort of equation that determines how much I can deal with — if you’ve been like that for more than 6 years I really just have to cut you off — but I’ll also go to the barricades for people who are just starting to do that and still figuring out the hows and whys, and defend art that isn’t exactly deep but it’s a great starting point for those angsty fifteen year olds who don’t have anywhere they really feel right and are desperately seeking it. With that out of the way, let’s talk about Green Day.
I know that punks like to deride Green Day’s 2000s work, praising Dookie and Nimrod as when they were “punk” and denouncing American Idiot as being “too pop,” even as you can tell it was their anthem in middle school. The accusations of being “not punk enough” don’t really add up to much — it’s not like the pop rhythms of “Holiday” are that different from “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue” or that the relatively soft and slow sounds on “Are We The Waiting” are any heavier than “Lost In The Supermarket” — but the one that gets me worst of all is the “it’s just teenage edgelord shit” accusation. It totally is, but I think there’s value to that if done correctly.
Art doesn’t need to have a complete message, or even necessarily a coherent point. Great art makes you feel something real, but larger than you feel it when you’re around it. Punk adds the “fuck the establishment” element, but has never been great at reconciling that their targets can be destroyed with things besides screaming “ANARCHY!” over some fuzzy guitars. New Wave got laughed off of the London punk scene for being soft and silly and I can’t take anyone who felt that way seriously. X-Ray Spex’ “Identity” is a great take down of passive conformity and hopefully a wake up call for some people who “see themselves in the TV, see themselves in magazines, see themselves and want to scream,” but can you really say that the Sex Pistols were anything more than “Fuck yeah anarchy! Whatever that means!” and still consider The Jam singing about “two lovers kissing masks a scream of midnight/two lovers missing the tranquility of solitude” isn’t a more intense mockery of that same passive lifestyle?
No, it’s not advocating for anything. It’s nothing more than an attack on some lifestyle that probably fits most people fine. But it’s vivid, it feels more than real, and conversations of whether it’s better to rally around a dream of tomorrow or the nightmare of today need to be kept within equally vivid art. If your criteria for how angry it is boils down to little more than “is there enough fuzz on the guitars that they cease to sound like anything?” you’ll always sound like the idiot purity punks Johnny Hobo thoroughly took down back in ‘05 and I can’t find anything better to say than he already did on that subject.
Which brings us back to the Green Day issue, which is really weird to think about at the times of their releases. The early EPs and Kerplunk were pretty quickly accepted as “punk enough” by everyone who heard it, which was admittedly limited to Berkeley and wherever they toured at the time. When Dookie hits in 1995 it is a far cry from the grunge and grunge adjacent work seen as “real punk. I hate to spit on the grave of Kurt Cobain, but half of Nirvana’s songs are just stringing together words you’re not supposed to say, and their acclaim was at times just the 90s giving up on trying to have meaning. Yes the mellower tone meant you’d never want to start a riot to “Basket Case” when “Killing In The Name” is both way better for that and still fresh in 1995, but can you really say that songs like “R*pe Me” are somehow more potent and powerful than “Well, don’t get lonely now, and dry your whining eyes/I’m just roaming for the moment/Sleazin’ my back yard so don’t get/So uptight you been thinking about ditching me.” And by 2003 when American Idiot was unavoidable, punks had largely recognized this.
The irony is that American Idiot uses far more of the styles that Dookie was dismissed for not having, and the lyrics hit even harder. There were more “underground” and “indie” bands of course, Billboard hits will never be that, but very few had something as potent and relatable as “City of the damned/Lost children with dirty faces today/No one really seems to care,” which isn’t even the best lyric in the nine minute glory of “Jesus of Suburbia” it’s just the one I can chop down to article size and not go “but the next line is SO good.” Sure 21st Century Breakdown had a good number of duds on it, but if I ever write an opening lyric half as good as “she puts her makeup on like graffiti on the walls of the heartland” I’ll feel like a huge success.
At the end of the day I’m convinced this is some quirk of counter culture and rebellion. It’s kept alive by youth who may or may not fit, but jeez they’re fed up with the life they’ve got and need to live a different one for at least a bit. Most people who get past that mock it as naïve and foolish regardless of if it actually is. The fans will never be able to articulate why it’s actually more profound than a lot of the old stuff, they’re too confused to know what to say, but I wish the old punks would be mature enough to know how stupid a lot of their music was too. Once the fans are older and can articulate what the work meant, it gets redeemed. Brian Fallon commented on the backlash to Painkillers being folky and Americana that those same people had hated Get Hurt upon its release and were gonna love Painkillers in a year. I was definitely too harsh on that last Gaslight album when it was released, but I’m also underwhelmed by how his solo debut isn’t getting as much of a revision as it deserves, since it spoke to me immediately.
It cuts across genres to a certain degree. Punk has the silliest ideas of it out of the genres I know well, but there was a certain fetish of “outlaw” in country that was silly (although the current prominence of Bootlicker Outlaw or “Bro Country” makes it a fight worth having). The cycle feels inevitable and maybe is but it’s also awfully new when you realize identity based on your generation and when you were young didn’t really happen on a societal level before radio. It’s a kind of stupid I won’t fault anyone for having impulses about — don’t talk to me about folk punk cause I’ll say it’s been mostly garbage except the few bands from the early 2010s still holding on — but I would encourage you to not voice that impulse unless you’ve thought it through and can say it without discouraging eager ignorance. There will always be some truly stupid stuff, but don’t let that make you be an asshole to a kid who finally feels seen.
Elizabeth von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. Her expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.
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