Burning Bush 

Green Day replaced Dookie's idiocy with American Idiot's insurgency. Will the kids follow?

"It makes me extremely proud to make punk rock the biggest music in the world right now," declares Green Day bassist Mike Dirnt.

Kanye West might disagree with him there, but there's no denying that Green Day's latest, American Idiot, has radically altered even longtime fans' conceptions of "punk." In that regard, Dirnt's boasts are on much firmer ground. "I think it made our genre dangerous again," he says.

Ten years after storming MTV with the bratty, diamond-selling Dookie, Green Day dropped American Idiot on an unsuspecting population in September '04. The thirteen-track opus -- replete with nine-minute mini-operas -- was a brash, loud, and typically snotty response to the Bush administration, recorded during the pre-election furor that preceded John Kerry's loss. And though it couldn't bring down W, Idiot undoubtedly resuscitated Green Day's flagging career, giving the trio its best sales since that mid-'90s heyday -- not to mention its best critical reviews ... well, ever.

Fans and collaborators attribute this success to Green Day's return to punk's outspoken, politically volatile roots. "There was an element of danger to pretty much anything the Clash or the [Sex] Pistols were saying," longtime Green Day producer Rob Cavallo explains. "But if you look at the last five or six years, you'll see there's been no danger, or real statement that talked to kids directly: 'What's your government doing? What is your news telling you at six o'clock on Channel 4? Why do you have to believe that?'"

The original ethos of punk sought "to question everything," as Dirnt puts it. Early icons didn't limit themselves to three-chord machine-gun guitars and bratty screaming, either -- "punk" was once synonymous with challenging authority and calling out injustices, from Bob Dylan's "The Hurricane" to Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues." But slowly, snarling dudes with screeching electric guitars took over that role. "I think a lot of punk bands write the history of the world," declares Jay Navarro, frontman for Detroit ska-punk vets the Suicide Machines. "From the Sex Pistols to the Clash to the Dead Kennedys all the way up to what we're putting out now, people can look back on it and either see what the problems were, how people were feeling about them, or how to change them."

But punk's rabble-rouser image has softened considerably in the past decade. Who's to blame? Uh, Green Day, partly. Dookie's rampant success and apolitical party-band agenda spawned a legion of pop-punk disciples: Blink 182, New Found Glory, Sum 41, and, more recently, Fall Out Boy.

Punk had once "offered an escape route for kids who weren't allowed to participate within the commercial culture," A.S. Van Dorston wrote in his 1990 zine essay "A History of Punk Rock." But MTV, with Green Day's help, turned punk into commercial culture and invited every teenager in America to join the fun. Consequently, "The current punk stereotype is [now] scarred by mass marketing and an emphasis on style over substance," Bad Religion frontman Greg Graffin concluded in his infamous 1998 essay "A Punk Manifesto."

"It spawned a whole legacy of bands that loved the sound and style, and started to make their own versions of it," Cavallo concedes of Dookie now. "A lot of the other versions that came out, though, they didn't really understand what the punk-music genre was all about, and only took from it some of the lesser elements of punk rock: the humor, the snottiness, the brattiness. These are definitely parts of what punk rock is, but that's not even half of it. There's a blue-collar work ethic to it. There's a cultural and social awareness, and very much a political awareness that goes along with it. Without these other elements, you're really just talking about music for kids."

Music for kids remains a lucrative field, of course. "I'd say, if you want to do a band like this, it's pretty easy to do," Fall Out Boy bassist Pete Wentz admits. "You can just follow the pattern as far as the music and lyrics go, and look the right way. There's a lot of bands that do that, and it's kind of depressing to me."

But pop-punk's all-fun, no-conscience mentality changed with the invasion of Iraq, which by 2004 had mobilized both longtime firebombers (Bad Religion's The Empire Strikes First) and relative political newcomers like NOFX (via The War on Errorism and frontman Fat Mike's vaunted Punkvoter campaign), not to mention Green Day. Even the once-neutral Suicide Machines titled their latest record War Profiteering Is Killing Us All. "I have no problem with writing a goofy song about a dog or a girl," Navarro says. "But not right now. Now is not the time for it."

Green Day might not be the most vehement Bush-bashing band out there (though American Idiot itself makes a few overt political statements, it doesn't name names), but the Berkeley trio is undoubtedly the most commercially successful, selling nine million copies of Idiot worldwide, and crashing the covers of Spin and Rolling Stone -- the latter went so far as to declare "Green Day Saves Rock 'n' Roll." Rock 'n' roll? "When we signed to a major label, it was because we wanted to be the greatest rock 'n' roll band on the planet," Dirnt says. "I don't think that's a bad thing. I definitely think that's what the Sex Pistols had in mind. All those bands, the Clash and the Ramones, they wanted to reach as many fans as humanly possible."

Now it's a matter of influence: Can Idiot turn young punks on to politics the way Dookie turned them on to ... dookie? Idiot blew away a stable of relatively tame pop-punk competitors that failed to meet expectations, from Sum 41's Chuck to Good Charlotte's The Chronicles of Life and Death to A Simple Plan's Still Not Getting Any .... Fall Out Boy's From Under the Cork Tree is finally climbing the charts, but only after nearly six months struggling to gain traction after numerous magazines anointed the band 2005's "Next Big Thing." If this is any indication, America's interest in trivial pop-punk is waning, while its taste for a more substantial punk is on the rise.

Response within the punk scene is mixed, from Dirnt and Navarro's confidence that punk is witnessing a positive regression, to New Found Glory frontman Jordan Pundik, who acknowledges American Idiot's influence but remains wholly unrepentant for NFG's unwillingness to repent. "That's just not the type of band we are," he says. "I hate Bush as much as the next guy, but I don't know how to write about it." Pundik further contends that punk is less an actual genre these days, and more a state of mind: "There are still punk bands like the Casualties and Rancid, but, to me, it's more like rock bands with a punk attitude," he explains. "When I say that, I mean the bands that went on tour, slept on floors, are good to their fans, and are good people, you know?"

Dirnt is careful to respect Pundik's success while politely disagreeing. "I think that statement is reflective of where he is in life, and an opinion. I don't think any musical genre will ever be dead, as long as someone has passion about what they're doing in it."

Green Day still has that, though its outlandish success and "Saves Rock 'n' Roll!" magazine declarations obscure the message sometimes. It's a tightrope Dirnt freely admits to walking. "I don't look at punk rock as what's on the radio, because ten years ago there was no punk rock on the radio before this all broke loose," he says. "I grew up in a scene where most of the music I was really influenced by came on demo tapes. Those are the sparks that create a movement." Today, with a bigger pulpit and more kindling available, Green Day is vying to create something bigger -- a revolution.

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