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21st Century Breakdown

Green Day

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: May 28, 2009
Category: Rock

Consumer Warning: This is not a site that deals with politics; I struggle with that sometimes, but I generally manage to take no positions or even refer to current events, except when I’m reviewing a book about money or the environment. But now Green Day has a new CD. And it’s great. Which is a problem: Green Day is a political band. Conundrum: Can I write about the group without writing about its politics? Not really. But if I don’t write about Green Day at all, is that discretion — or discrimination? My decision: deal with Green Day as it deals with American life (that is: straight-on) and warn readers who don’t wanna know from politics that they might want to sit this dance out. So…consider yourself warned.

Know Your Enemy

You haven’t lived until you watch some middle-aged white male blither on CNN with the sound muted and Green Day pounding out of your speakers. A Supreme Court appointment, greedy autoworkers, homeowners who never deserved to own their homes, gay marriage — the topic doesn’t matter, and neither do the nasty words tumbling from the lips of these oh-so-concerned men. What’s under those words does matter: raw rage. And there’s no mystery why it’s showing up. The tide of history is slowly but inevitably leaving these guys stranded on the beach, and they’re pissed off.

Well, so are the three white guys in Green Day.

Rage is annoying when it’s an act. And it can be just that. The vitriol of some politicians may be nothing more than an audition for a lobbying job or a pitch for contributions; anger, it turns out, can be a commodity, sold by the word.

Green Day’s rage is equally suspect. The band sold 12 million CDs of its last anger-drenched CD, American Idiot, and they’ve spent the last five years crafting the rock opera that is 21st Century Breakdown. They’re not punk kids any more; they’re married, with kids of their own. After two decades in the music business, they’re pros at manipulating audiences. And the press as well. They know, for example, exactly how to keep WalMart from selling their CD — just refuse to soften lyrics like “I’m not fucking around” — and, in that refusal, sell even more CDs. Let’s get real: Green Day is a cash cow for Warner Music.

And yet I’m completely convinced that these multi-millionaires aren’t posturing. They hated George Bush’s America, and there seems to be nothing a less divisive President can do to calm them down. They were born angry ("We are the desperate in the decline/ Raised by the bastards of 1969") and never got nursed. And every institution that could have stood up for them sold them out. Yeah, they’re free; they’ve got “the freedom to obey”.

But these three guys not only make alienation sound loud, they make it sound good.

“Know Your Enemy” — the signature song of this CD, but hardly the strongest — is typical. Start with thundering drums. Add burning guitars. And then come the screamed vocals.

Only there’s more to Green Day than that. If you ever loved the Clash or the Who, you’ll quickly understand that these are their successors. If you’re a U2 fan, the cry for personal responsibility will be very familiar. And if you swoon for the harmonies of the Beach Boys — that’s right, the Beach Boys — listen up.

And as for the rage thing, you might profitably spend some time reading the lyrics. Do they want you to get out of your chair and strike a blow for real freedom? Absolutely:

Overthrow the effigy
The vast majority
Burning down the foreman of control

But I don’t think they’re calling for literal violence, literal revolution — they’ve thought too hard to fall for that false, impossible dream. Listen to bassist Mike Dirnt:

We grew up in an era that was a lot more fucked up on the surface. But things are way more fucked up right now. We have hope with the new president, but he’s got a lot of work to do — we’ve all got a lot of work to do. The kind of things we grew up with was literally the first half of the song "21st Century Breakdown." We grew up in refinery towns, kids going out and getting drunk to all hours of the night. Big-time fighting in the house. Our kids aren’t seeing that. But as a kid, I didn’t look ahead and think, "There’s a mountain of shit I’m going to inherit, severe problems that I’m gonna have to fix.”

Those are heavy things. People can police the Internet all they want with their kids, but they can’t stop the front page from saying we’re at war. Kids see that. They’re not stupid, even if they’re not talking about it all the time. This record  — it’s not telling people how it should be. We’re telling them how we see it.

And what they see it is, finally, that we need, for the sake of our souls, to use what we know — because, hey, we do know what’s going on, we can see it for ourselves, so long as we refuse to listen to the cable TV and the suits and the stooges. Their hope is that you’ll speak up, that we’ll all speak up. And not just smartly, but loudly, loud enough for you to hear who your friends are and bond with them:

Silence is the enemy
Against your urgency
So rally up the demons of your soul

Exciting? Sure, it’s a call to action, and those don’t come along like commuter trains. Better, it’s a call to action that has punch and power and more than a little art. You think the songs sound alike? Nonsense. And what about the ballads? My lord, there’s a love song here that Billie Joe wrote to his wife that nicely sums up whatever’s decent and deep in any marriage.

At the very least, this is music for exercising; at most, it’s a welcome slap in the face, a challenge to the deal you’ve made with what we pretend is reality. Play it loud — there’s no other way — and when you get to the end, if you don’t think, “Yeah. Fuck, yeah”, I’d respectfully suggest you repeat the experience. Because this is right up there with the best of the best.

— by Jesse Kornbluth, for

To buy “21st Century Breakdown” from, click here.

To buy an MP3 download of “21st Century Breakdown” from, click here.

To read more about “American Idiot” on, click here.

To visit the Green Day web site, click here.