A wall of televisions occupies the stage. Each screen plays its own clip, from Hurricane Katrina news coverage to Survivor episode segments. Then, the screens synchronize to play a single video. George W. Bush, in his 2001 address to a joint session of Congress, steps up to the podium and proclaims, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” The television sets turn off. The lights dim. American Idiot: The Musical begins.
Within the first minute of the show, which ran on Broadway for one year and is currently on a national tour, the musical grounds itself in a specific sociopolitical context. The media montage, drawing content from television shows long discontinued and national crises embedded in the past, creates the eerie sense that America has entered a new era. Flickering onstage, the mosaic of moments invites viewers to reflect on the recent past, at once so immediate to us and so far removed.
The decade following the release of Green Day’s 2004 album American Idiot has been far from quiet, and the overwhelming visual cacophony of the production’s first few moments offers a novel synthesis and retrospection. The musical, as it brings to life the album’s storyline, narrates the triumphs and tribulations of a generation coming of age in the post-9/11 era. Perhaps American Idiot’s themes of political discontent and a desire for change drive its continued success. Such discussions resonate with millennials, whose experiences in the decade following 9/11 continue to inform their political and social views. Rather than offering a point-in-time snapshot of a political moment long past, American Idiot traces the evolution of the millennial generation and canonizes the generation’s journey to understand how to engage in our nation’s political system.
America in Transition
Millennials are familiar with the era of political tension explored by American Idiot; after all, they lived through it. Billie Joe Armstrong, lead singer of Green Day, told the HPR that “[w]hen I wrote the song ‘American Idiot,’ I was responding to a feeling of total confusion. It seemed like we were going in reverse … we were in this war, and there was no reason for it, no just cause.” The title track criticizes the “American idiots” ignorant of the media’s political agenda. Meanwhile, “Holiday” attacks the aggressiveness of American international policy following French opposition to military involvement in Iraq, claiming that we “pulverize the Eiffel Towers / who criticize our government.”
But American Idiot is driven by more than unbridled anger or frustration. “Wake Me Up When September Ends” expresses a sense of collective disillusionment. “I initially wrote the song about the death of my dad,” Armstrong said. “But when we played it, you could see it in people’s faces. It meant something more: it was everyone’s loss; it was the loss of the ’90s American innocence. 9/11 changed everyone’s world. My kids grew up with war on television.”
The political environment captured in American Idiot continues to guide millennial political engagement today. In a conversation with the HPR, Kristen Soltis Anderson, vice president of the Winston Group and a leading expert on the politics of the millennial generation, noted that even the oldest millennials came of age as the nation was “engaged in armed conflict overseas” and “battling an economic recession.” “The millennial generation has had a rude [awakening] into its political consciousness,” she continued, “and it has led [them] to be very frustrated and distrustful of the political process.”
A Generation’s Coming of Age
The plot arc of American Idiot, in both its Broadway and rock album forms, reads as political allegory, featuring characters— The Jesus of Suburbia, St. Jimmy, and Whatsername—who embody differing attitudes towards the political present. The Jesus of Suburbia, frustrated with the stagnancy of suburbia, chooses to leave home and venture to the city, where he meets St. Jimmy and Whatsername. St. Jimmy emerges from the city’s underbelly, while Whatsername acts as the Jesus of Suburbia’s love interest. When St. Jimmy sneers that “we’re f-cked up but we’re not the same / and mom and dad are the ones you can blame,” Whatsername “sings of revolution / the dawning of our lives.” Armstrong explained that “St. Jimmy is toxic, he is flamboyant, and he is one of those individuals that just wants to watch the world burn. Whatsername is someone that’s truly empowered. She wants more out of her life; she sees the world as bigger than the small space she’s trapped in. She cares about the world a little more. She has eyes that see beyond herself. ”
Here, the story presents the protagonist—and the listener— with two mutually exclusive choices. The Jesus of Suburbia, who introduced himself as the “son of rage and love,” must now choose between the embodiments of the two ideals. St. Jimmy’s “rage,” and his ability to blame everybody but himself for social issues, offers a rebellion characterized by the rejection of everything and the embrace of nothing. In contrast, “love” motivates Whatsername’s rebellion, suggesting that rejecting the norm must be followed by the active construction of a newer, more fulfilling reality.
Millennials today face this exact choice. Anderson notes that “[t]here are two simultaneous narratives for the millennial generation. The first is that they are cynical and disappointed. Polls show a high level of frustration. On the other hand, millennials are also very focused on problem solving and really believe they can make the world a better place. We see a lot of millennials going into nonprofits [and] Teach for America.”
So the Jesus of Suburbia’s journey is this generation’s journey. Just as he must choose between St. Jimmy and Whatsername, today’s young people must decide how to participate in a political system whose hypocrisies had alienated them as they came of age.
Ten Years Later: What’s in Store for Jesus?
Perhaps American Idiot, then, can also serve as a cautionary tale. The Jesus of Suburbia chooses St. Jimmy’s lifestyle of blind rebellion, but St. Jimmy commits suicide. The album concludes with the Jesus of Suburbia returning to the suburbs isolated and resigned.
In the wake of Occupy Wall Street’s inability to identity any specific political platform, one wonders if the millennial generation is following a similar path. Sensationalist news aggregators like Upworthy are more popular than ever. Critics argue that youth today would rather “Like” a page than volunteer for the cause it represents. However, such arguments trivialize the methods of millennial political engagement. John Della Volpe, director of the Harvard Public Opinion Project, the largest survey of the politics of Americans ages 18 to 29, acknowledges that the generation’s political participation challenges norms and is difficult to characterize. “Frankly, many times, their community efforts aren’t measured well. When I ask a young person in a focus group if they are involved in community service, they have difficulty responding,” he told the HPR.
But while the nature of their activism is more complex, it is not necessarily less meaningful. Della Volpe continued, “So much of their lives are integrated with work, family, friends, and service. What is service, and what isn’t? A young person who donates her hair to kids with cancer makes the community better, but this isn’t typically categorized as community service.” Millennials are making a difference, however unconventionally. Moreover, Jeff Fromm, vice president of the advertising agency Barkley and co-author of Marketing to Millennials, told the HPR that millennials respond strongly to ideals and causes. He predicted that millennials will usher in “a whole new political culture of ideas that engage people, that have a purpose and a soul. These ideas can win.”
Nearly a decade after the release of American Idiot, millennial political engagement looks dramatically different than it did in 2004. They’ve grown up. The generation has experienced more milestone moments, from the Great Recession to Edward Snowden, that have transformed its views. However, as millennials continue to navigate their political roles, the lessons of American Idiot—and the choice between rage and love—will likely remain relevant. As Armstrong remarked, “Nobody can forget about that decade. That time period will always have that feeling that it could happen again, whenever we hear about the conflict in Syria or our troops in Afghanistan.”