I was 16 when I first heard Green Day. The album was Dookie, which was released a few years before and went gangbusters. 16 was about the time you discovered them, I suppose, back in the mid-’90s and before eye-liner, a failed Presidency and super-slick production elevated them in the imaginations of boys and girls everywhere.
These days, Green Day are ostensibly a brand for dangerous political anger but they’re really still poster-boys for the inarticulate and self-absorbed rages of teens everywhere. That Green Day started picking on Bush rather than picking their boogers didn’t mean that they weren’t doing what they had always done—turning teenagers on by giving them a musical approximation of their hormonal misfirings.
Previously, Green Day had achieved this with scatology and drug references. Before “Jesus of Suburbia” and their status as professional martyr-makers of adolescent ennui, Green Day didn’t take themselves so seriously. Back then it was rare that a performance or live appearance didn’t end in the breaking of equipment. Or wind.
They’ve grown up. They’re fathers now, and their snotty, solipsistic lyrics have been replaced with political protest. So let’s assume that their embrace of politics isn’t cynical. Let’s assume that they realised that their own drug-addled form of nihilism wasn’t… congenial. Let’s assume they grew out of it. They grew up.
But their audience hasn’t. Green Day are still courting children the world over. Their audience has, after all this time, stayed young. The longevity of their appeal—and the unchanging nature of its demographic source—is remarkable. Green Day have maintained, more or less, an appeal with teenagers for nearly 20 years, and I’m only dating that back to the release of the breakthrough Dookie (1994). I can think of no other band with this weird, unchanging, Peter Pan-like demographic. Fans normally age with the band.
How to explain this? Well, they’re wearing make-up now, and engaging the style of the times—confession. Are they embarrassed? It doesn’t show. What Green Day have done is to slide out of the once-popular snot-punk and its culture of indifference and ride a new and profitable wave of emotionalism and confession. Nothing is so serious as self. Emo’s a big market, it seems, and if boorish blokes in their late-20s are put off by the make-up, the loss of that market may not matter.
While older albums have spoken to indifference, their new one speaks to disaffection. Have you seen them? It needn’t take the caustic observations of John Lydon to see how stupid they look. They’re in their late 30s, for chrissakes.
Their most recent album, 21st Century Breakdown, is longer than anything they’ve done before, which isn’t surprising. Their signature brevity was stuffed ever since they discovered the “concept album”. Breakdown is vertiginously earnest. A pretentious swirl of bumper sticker liberalism, emo myth-making and confected rage. It’s wank, committed by a band neither musically or intellectually capable of pulling off an existential rock-opera for the new century.
Billie Joe is still irritatingly nasal, the band’s harmonies haven’t come very far in two decades and the distinction between their brittle ability, and the long, long reaches of their ambition leaves one half-deaf.
The kids love it. One of the reasons for this is that Green Day have invited the kids to sit at the grown-ups table for some serious conversation. What Green Day do is flatter their listeners’ egos by not only legitimising their hormonal hell, but by including their rotten inner-lives in the larger, grander sweep of History, Politics, God and other anxieties of our time.
It’s a neat trick of inclusion—Green Day are playing the cooler, older punk-Uncle, but it’s a little difficult to stomach the preaching of a band who not long ago were writing songs about the joys of masturbation. While Green Day may have invited the kids to the table, it doesn’t sound like much of a conversation.
When I discovered Green Day I just liked their hooks. They wrote great ones. Their snottishness may have appealed to me, but it was eclipsed by their poppiness. At its core, Dookie is an immensely melodic record. I wasn’t without my angst, but Dookie didn’t do much to reflect, massage, or legitimise it. I just liked the sound.
Rather, my teenage rebellion was soundtracked by hip-hop. One day after school my younger siblings told me about being teased by one of the kids that lived next door. I was furious. Not long before I’d seen him ride his bike down to the nearby boat harbour. I stormed down there bent on avenging my family’s humiliation and I did so with my Walkman playing a dubbed copy of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic. Yes: the overture to pushing this kid off his bike and chasing after him as he fled in panic was West Coast G-funk. Snoop, George Clinton and visions of “bitches and money” gave me my war-cry. So much of hip-hop did.