Let's travel back in time ten and a half years. New English wife in tow, yours truly had just returned to America after three years abroad. After getting our first American apartment together in Nashville, we got hooked up to cable and raised the gates of the castle we had built for ourselves, allowing in the shrieking hordes of American culture -- Melrose Place, COPS, Jerry Springer and the like.
Back then, MTV still showed tons of videos, and Green Day's "When I Come Around" aired constantly. I didn't like it that much -- it sounded and looked like warmed-over punk from 1983 to me. But my wife hated it with every fiber in her body. "Who are these wankers?" she would ask. "And why are they singing like they're bloody Johnny Rotten?"
A couple of years later, Nimrod came out, and that album's "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)" was played on every cheesy twentysomething drama that emerged from 1997 to 2000. It was the soundtrack to Real World-inspired sophomoric narcissism. Hated it.
Meanwhile, legions of inferior Green Day sound-alikes popped up across the land like toxic mushrooms. But Green Day, on the other hand, kept evolving, leaving their imitators farther and farther in the dust.
And last year they blossomed fully and released a record that expanded the horizons of not just their band's potential, but also that of their entire genre. American Idiot proved once and for all that pop-punk could be high art, that it could say everything that classic rock could, or hell, even opera. Billie Joe Armstrong toned down the Limey affectations, and he and his band cranked up the songcraft -- today, they've moved far beyond the three-chords-and-a-cloud-of-dust of old. The band's gifts for melody, arranging and hooks are nearly unmatched in any genre on today's corporate radio. And Armstrong's one of the few rockers who can talk about that goofy, dangerous elephant in the room -- or in this case, the White House -- without coming across as a hectoring asshole.
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By last year, even my wife had, well, "come around" -- there was a few weeks last year when American Idiot was all she wanted to hear.
And now here we are in the present. Just last week, I woke up and the first thing I did was switch on the TV. (These days, with our cheap-ass cable package at least, just about the only time you can catch rock videos is at the crack of dawn.) The video for Green Day's "Wake Me When September Ends" was playing. The song, at least the way I hear it, is an elegy to Armstrong's late father, but it is also a universal lament about America's loss of innocence post-9/11.
The video -- which is more like a short film, really -- raises the ante by condensing this huge sea change down to its effects on one carefree slacker couple. They party together, they fall in love, they get engaged. To earn some money and bring a little direction to his rudderless if not loveless life, the guy surprises the girl by enlisting in the marines. His first shock is his fiancée's rage at his rash decision. His second comes in the form of an Iraqi ambush.
Powerful stuff to see the first thing in the morning. It was like rolling out of the rack and taking a 1986-vintage Mike Tyson right hook to the rib cage. So Green Day, here's to ya -- one of us has come a long, long way, and I'm pretty sure it ain't me.