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By: | Posted: 02/22/2012
America's love affair with stupidity has a long and shameless history, from slavery and Prohibition to professional wrestling, beer pong, and the average political attack ad. The one place you will not find much stupidity, however, is in the Broadway punk-rock-opera American Idiot.
Certainly, you will see young people making all kinds of ill-advised choices, and the central characters themselves are numbskulls, but the intelligence behind the show is far more clever—and conservative—than all the sex, drugs, alcohol, rage, and indolence onstage would suggest. In fact, if you didn't know the songs were written by Green Day, you might think they were commissioned by the American Council of Common-sense Parenting, or based on a book called Why Bad Things Happen to Stupid People.
Under all the attitude, mascara, tattoos, and hair gel, Green Day front-man and chief songwriter Billie Joe Armstrong turns out to be a traditional dad with upstanding, all-American values (hey, he called his first band Sweet Children). On the surface, American Idiot may be a gritty wail of protest against the comfortable/hypocritical façade of suburban life, but the true messages of the show boil down to:
—If you think drugs are going to improve your life, you're an idiot.
—If your best friend is a drug dealer, you're both idiots.
—If you have unprotected sex before you're ready to accept the responsibilities of parenthood, you're an idiot.
—If you join the army, you may not be an idiot, but they're going to treat you like one.
—If you run away from parents who love you, you're an idiot.
—If you think life in the suburbs is as bad as it can get, you are a complete and total idiot.
At its core, American Idiot is really a defense of middle-class normalcy cloaked in the guise of music about the tedium and meaninglessness of teenage life. The show starts with the line, "Don't want to be an American idiot," and the rest is basically a cautionary tale explaining why being a moron isn't a very rewarding life path. As the song "Too Much Too Soon" says to the unfortunate young lovers who accidentally produce a baby, "Now it sucks to be you."
To convey these wholesome messages, of course, one must show kids drinking, smoking pot, shooting heroin, having sex, yelling at god, giving the world the collective finger, and rattling the shackles of conformity and expectation. That's how teen rebellion is done in America. But the show has more in common with The Wizard of Oz than it does with such teen-angst classics as Hair or Rent. After all, the central character, the slacker/stoner known as Suburban Jesus, leaves home and goes on a hallucinatory odyssey, wherein he meets his own charlatan puppet-master, St. Jimmy the drug dealer, only to return with the understanding that there's no place quite like home. Hugs all around. The only difference is that Surburban Jesus ends up suffering a fate worse than death—i.e., he has to get a job.
If you are a Green Day fan, you won't be disappointed by the performance or volume of the music. The playing and singing are superb, there is plenty of thump and crunch in the drums and guitars, and most of the songs have more intricate arrangements than the originals, in part because there are women onstage who need something to do. The defiant spirit of the songs isn't nearly as watered-down as you might expect, either—the vigorously aerobic choreography makes sure of that. And for the over-forty crowd that listens to Green Day for the sake of the kids, the radio staples they'll recognize, "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" and "Wake Me Up When September Ends," begin with some tasteful acoustic strumming before the distortion kicks in.
The saddest part of American Idiot is that, unlike Hair, which was about teens protesting the Vietnam War, and Rent, which dramatized the HIV/AIDS crisis in New York, there's nothing tangible for these kids to fight, and hence no great struggle to help give their lives meaning. Unfortunately, you can't shoot suburban ennui, and all the bogeymen in today's world— terrorism, global warming, financial instability, the national debt, Iranian dictators, the coming apocalypse, etc.—can be silenced by simply changing the channel. (Personally, I find that when Anderson Cooper gets too glum, it helps to watch a little Hillbilly Hand-fishin'. ) Lacking a life-threatening foe, the song "Do You Know Your Enemy?" makes it crystal clear that the true enemy these kids are fighting is themselves. And that, of course, is the height of stupidity.
There are at least two other ironies hiding behind American Idiot's bluster and spite. The first is that no band in history has had its anti-establishment cred co-opted as swiftly as Green Day (American Idiot the album was released in 2004), so there's nothing remotely anti-establishment about it; the second is that the rebellion depicted in American Idiot is comically old-fashioned. Punk rock, pot, mohawks, and stupor-sex—really? That’s so 1980s. Today's true rebels—the ones who have figured out how to beat "The Man" at his own game—are teenagers hopped up on Red Bull and Adderall crunching code to create an Internet start-up and become billionaires by their 25th birthday.
But then again, you have to be smart for that plan to work.
American Idiot runs through Feb. 26 at the Orpheum Theater.
Tad Simons is a contributing editor for Mpls.St.Paul Magazine's arts and entertainmenet section. See bio
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