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Green Day's 'American Idiot' 15 years later: how the album and musical fit into today's political landscape

It may be 15 years old, but as the Green Day album unfolds through the narrative of a contemporary stage musical, it’s easy to understand how the tracks are still as relevant today as they were back then.

Green Day's 'American Idiot' 15 years later: how the album and musical fit into today's political landscape

Green Day’s archetypal album, ‘American Idiot’, took the shape of The Who’s ‘Tommy’, Bowie’s ‘Ziggy Stardust and the Spider from Mars’, and Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’; concept albums that used running characters and a central theme to tell a story as each song spills over to the next. In following suit, the nature of ‘American Idiot’ allowed it to translate smoothly to a musical, which premiered in 2009 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. It received mixed reviews initially, shocking auditoria with its punk-pop soundtrack atypical of most theatre productions, however most agreed that the show’s pulsating energy was infectious. It went on to receive more unified praise and won several awards, including a Grammy for ‘Best Musical Show Album’ in 2011. But with a storyline so embedded within the cultural and political snapshot of which the Green Day album was written in 2004, how would the stage show still resonate today - 15 years on and counting?

The band’s seventh album ‘American Idiot’ was released smack in the middle of the Bush administration, a year after the Iraq War began, and three years after 9/11. The political climate in the US was turbulent to say the least, with strong opposition to Bush’s Iraq invasion illustrating a decline in patriotism that had spurred immediately after 9/11. In response to what Armstrong perceived as widely-orchestrated media populating TV with violent images, and the overarching failed promises of the presidential tenure, he felt there was a need to represent the disillusioned and disenfranchised young Americans trapped in the suburban underclass life.

The title and debut song of the album transpires to be a not so subtle middle finger to the government and mass media, opening with spirited lyrics that quickly send out Armstrong’s message “Don’t wanna be an American Idiot, Don’t want a nation under the new media.” It continues to throw fairly overt jabs at conservatism or what Armstrong refers to as the ‘redneck agenda’ and ‘age of paranoia’, further spurring anarchistic comradery by his controversial repetition of the word ‘faggot’. It shot to number one, seemingly symbolising the band had hit on something real in the call to break free from a media-fed society.

Green Day then released a string of successful hits from the album. ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’ was the second release and remains one of the band’s most lucrative to date, including scoring the group a Grammy for ‘Record of the Year’. It was then succeeded by ‘Holiday’, another political cannonball, ‘Wake Me Up When September Ends’, a track that became synonymous with Hurricane Katrina after being dedicated to its victims, and ‘Jesus of Suburbia’, named after the anti-hero of the concept album. ‘American Idiot’ went on to win a Grammy for ‘Best Rock Album’ in 2005 as well as multiple MTV Video Music Awards, and made it to several ‘Top Album’ lists.

According to an interview by Rolling Stone with Armstrong, the musical sprang from the enthusiasm to transform the rock opera album into a film - like that of The Who’s ‘Tommy’. This idea was quickly abandoned, but was reborn again following ‘Spring Awakening’ director, Michael Mayer’s, revelation that he wanted to create a musical of ‘American Idiot’ for his next project. Over a year later, the band got a call from Mayer.

Mayer then takes turn at explaining his inspiration for the show to Rolling Stone, declaring he had always been a fan of Green Day, having been somewhat inspired by their thick guitar licks for some of the tracks in ‘Spring Awakening’. While the music of the two productions shares that rebellious punk rock accent, the storyline differs. Mayer describes the plot of ‘American Idiot’ as a “response to a seriously f*#ked-up environment, a political and social situation that became untenable”.

The production centres around three protagonists; Johnny, Tunny and Will. All three have become disenchanted in stagnated suburbia, struggling to find meaning in their lives. They decide to escape to the big city, but their hopes and dreams are soon shattered. Before departing, Will finds out his girlfriend is pregnant and so stays behind while Tunny and Johnny continue on their quest for enlightenment. The pair are met with an America that fails to live up to expectations, leaving a torn Tunny enrolling in the military and a lonely Johnny becoming infatuated with ‘Whatsername’ and venturing down the slippery slope of heroin and drug-dealing. Meanwhile, Will suffers from inertia and finds escapism through drinking.

Though the narrative is based upon the political backdrop of the Bush administration and the post 9/11 world, the themes of dissatisfaction, dreaming of escape via promises of a different life, and exposure of harsh reality and liberation through alcohol, drugs or joining the military are arguably still relevant to this day. Interestingly, ‘American Idiot’ re-entered the UK iTunes Top Ten last year, shortly ahead of President Trump’s visit to the region. However, Green Day’s Mike Dirnt specified that ‘American Idiot’ was not a Bush record, and it would certainly not be giving credit to Trump through dubbing it a Trump record. Instead, the title track and album are for music-lovers; those in search of an outlet for the built up frustration and antidote to deal with the current political climate. An article by Forbes believed that 15 years on, fans still turn to the album for ‘a sense of solidarity’, which perhaps is why its stage presentation of the musical will continue to strike audiences for generations to come.

'American Idiot the Musical' is currently embarking on a UK tour in celebration of the 15th anniversary of the album. Tickets are available now.

Find tickets

Written by
Aminah Barnes
17th February 2019

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