Suicide Onstage: What Green Day's Theatrical Debut Means
There is a lot of sound and fury over the upcoming stage version of American Idiot. Unfortunately, it signifies nothing. The recent announcement that Berkeley Repertory had at long last assembled the creative team for the opener of their '09/'10 season with the world premiere of the trio's iconic American Idiot has produced a variety of reactions, from open hostility to unrestrained excitement.
Me? I just think it raises some questions about whether Green Day is headed for the dustbin of history.
It might make sense to put American Idiot onstage. It is, after all, a "rock opera." And Green Day's portrait of rebellion and anxiety in Bush's America was, it needs to be said, impressive for when it came out. Few acts in the rock mainstream had dared to step outside their comfort zone and produce a work of this magnitude that questioned the bad trip the country seemed to be on at the time.
Sure, not all of the songs were successful--many of Billie Joe Armstrong's first attempts to write socially relevant lyrics were obviously first attempts--but the urgency of their message wasn't lost on anyone. Though nay-sayers on both the right and the left derided them for jumping on the "anti-Bush bandwagon," the fact was that the Bay Area trio managed to reach an unprecedented amount of disillusioned kids who no doubt felt the same way.
The question is whether a stage production is the right move to give that message a new platform. Though the rule of Bush the Second might be over, the forced austerity of the Great Recession, continuation of two occupations and blatant denial of rights to the LGBT community have ensured that the anger and alienation are not things of the past for young working people (and this is even the thrust behind Green Day's recent followup to Idiot--21st Century Breakdown). These are not the people, however, who are likely to be dressing up for a night at the theater.
During my time living in Washington, DC, I worked as a play reviewer for a local paper. The clientele I was forced to rub elbows with in this position were not, shall we say, the most blue collar folks out there. Doctors, lawyers, professionals and other members of the upper-middling classes were the primary audience members I encountered during my time writing these reviews. They were, after all, the ones with enough scratch to pay for the often pricey tickets.
There's a certain tragedy here, given that theater didn't always used to be such a middle-class art-form. The 1930s saw the radical plays of Clifford Odets and Bertold Brecht performed for audiences of workers, and there are even notable exceptions to the rule today. The fact remains, though, that for the most part, the stage is today an out of reach luxury for most people.
Why Green Day would want to divert a work they deem of such importance into this dead-end is perplexing. The group are not clueless. And the songs off of both American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown at least a vaguely acknowledges the need for radically fundamental change--even if it isn't always communicated in a successful way.
And yet, a deeper examination on the forces tugging on the group reveal that while there might not be a method to the madness, there is a madness to the method. Chief among the influences for both Idiot and Breakdown were the Who and the Clash--two hard-rocking, rebellious bands who were never afraid to push the boundaries of their own work.
At this point, becoming the Who--a band who are by now so big that they devoured themselves a long time ago--seems no sweat for Green Day. Accomplishing what the Clash did, however, would require a greater political and social acumen than the boys from Berkeley have at their disposal. The politics that guided the Clash's art were steadfast, a product of the revolutionary spirit that was sparked the uprisings of 1968 and fomented in the worldwide economic crisis of the '70s. When the Clash played reggae or hip-hop, you knew it was a direct act of solidarity, a giant red flag carried through the music world that dared it to revolutionize itself.
The odd thing about Green Day is that they actually do seem to believe in one of the basic ideas that the Clash were proponents of--that punk rock can help change the world. I was reading an interview with Jello Biafra recently, who reminded the journalist that even after becoming one of the biggest bands in the world, Green Day played benefits for Food Not Bombs, often raking in massive sums of 40 or 50 grand to feed the homeless.
Alas, Green Day do not have at their disposal the full extent of the ideas that the Clash did. We do not live in the aftermath of a 1968; we are building from scratch. So perhaps it comes as no surprise that this kind of earnest radicalism (however vague it might be) has become increasingly watered down by a mushy liberalism that ultimately separates them from the ebbs and flows of everyday life. While Joe Strummer and Mick Jones looked out their window for inspiration, Armstrong's view seems increasingly obscured the bigger his ivory tower gets.
Although 21st Century Breakdown reveals Armstrong, Mike Dirnt and Tre Cool to be deeply affected by the upheavals taking shape in the current economic crisis, the album's greatest flaw is that it seems rather inorganically separated from some of the most exciting trends currently taking root in music.
With this in mind, the most notable thing about Breakdown is how much it sounds like American Idiot. Green Day intended their most recent album to be a continuation, the next chapter if you will. But thanks to their reliance on the same mix of three-chord thrash and acoustic melancholy that made Idiot so memorable, Breakdown sounds less like a sequel than a redux. It's an attempt to rehash the same formula and call it pushing the boundaries, which is ultimately the best way to describe the former's arrival on the stage.
This gets at the crux of Green Day's contradiction. The band will put its best foot forward, only to be ensnared in the classic music industry clap-traps. They channel Bush-era disillusionment with American Idiot, then allow it to be turned to a middle-class musical. They speak out against the war in Iraq, then release a version of John Lennon's "Working Class Hero" on a compilation that calls for troops to be sent to Darfur. They rail against the worst excesses of the American establishment on 21st Century Breakdown, then appear on "Good Morning America" to promote it in front of a thoroughly hand-picked audience.
Maybe the group are, like so many before them, trying to use the system against itself. Maybe they are cashing in on the time-tested formula of empty musical rebellion. Much more likely, however, is that the band are coming to the realization that there are some fundamental things that need to change, but aren't quite willing to jettison the system that feeds them to make that change a reality.
Throwing your lot with that system overboard might seem like career suicide, but it's not quite as impossible as one might think. Artists varying from Radiohead to DangerDoom are experimenting with what it means to make music outside the confines of an industry that is increasingly irrelevant. In doing so, they have implicitly asked what it means to share vibrant art and urgent ideas in the midst of a social and economic shit-storm. Green Day have attempted to join in on that storm, but have ended up simply replicating it inside a teacup. If they dare to peek over the edges, they might discover the difference between spectacle and substance.
Alexander Billet is a music journalist, cultural critic and activist living in Chicago. He is a columnist for SleptOn.com and the Society of Cinema and Arts, and is also a regular contributor to Socialist Worker and ZNet.
His blog, Rebel Frequencies, can be viewed at http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com, and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.