The first CD I owned was the 2-track single for Hammer’s “2 Legit 2 Quit.” It was a present from my aunt. I was (maybe) seven, and it briefly made me the coolest kid in class. Prior to owning this single I was possibly the coolest kid in class. I had a Zack Morris haircut, an actual girlfriend, I could run fast, and my teacher hated me. In 2nd grade this makes you empirically cool. Throw in ownership of a rap CD and I was, for a moment, untouchable.
Then Doc Martens and Lucky jeans became popular and I was the kid in hand-me-down Gap khakis (Ghakis?). It’s all been downhill since.
Anyway, that was the first CD I ever owned. But the first CD I ever bought? With my own money that I saved up myself? Green Day’s Dookie.
Song of the Week: Green Day, “Basket Case“
When 96X was created, its format was “alt-rock,” but in the early 90’s, that mostly meant “Seattle grunge.” My Brother began collecting those tapes and CDs, so I became a fan by association. Pearl Jam’s Ten and R.E.M.’s Automatic For the People were staples in his room, but I loved them too. There was no need buy my own music; I stole his.
Green Day’s Dookie was a dividing line. It was the first time I liked a band that my brother didn’t; hence, it the first time I had to buy a CD myself. But, bigger picture: 1994 was approximately when 96X’s “modern rock alternative” format expanded from “pretty much grunge and R.E.M.” to “anything that wouldn’t have been popular in the 80’s.”
Specifically, the “alternative rock” genre splintered in a dozen different directions, each focusing on their own flavor of Gen X idiosyncrasies and loserdom. Beck and the Beastie Boys were blending rock and hip hop in exciting new ways. The Cranberries and Hole were fresh female voices in the rock mainstream. The jammy Horde contingent was starting to gain steam (Dave Matthews, Blues Traveler, etc). Second-iteration grunge bands (STP, Smashing Pumpkins) were already huge, popularizing their own version of the “it” sound.
And then there was Green Day, carving out a place for California pop-punk that continued long into the 2000’s.
In so many (probably misguided) ways, I still think of Green Day as Nirvana’s deranged step-cousin. Both were three-piece bands led by the singular vision of their singer and songwriter. Both were essentially punk bands that wrote pop songs within that idiom. Both focused on boredom, self-loathing, and alienation. Both were funny. Both touched on social commentary without being political. Both were unpredictable live.
But while the aspect of punk Nirvana most adopted was its nihilistic freedom, the aspect Green Day cherished was its populism. Specifically, smart songs that sound dumb. Take “Basket Case” or “Longview.” These aren’t just hits: they’re mission statements. Billy Joe Armstrong has always been invested in talking “about nothing and everything all at once.” It was true in 1993, and it’s true in 2013.
Being Green Day is tricky. By straddling the line between self-deprecating goofballs and relevant band, they’ve always run the risk of being massively popular but not taken seriously. For example, “Longview” is an immediately likable song about (among other things) masturbation. The question is, can a goofy song about masturbation also be a smart song about loneliness? Just because a song’s overtly funny, does that mean it’s not serious, too?
So, Green Day has always been taken with a grain of salt, a knowing chuckle, a roll of the eye. Their ingrained silliness is the reason my brother didn’t like Dookie and the reason American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown were met with mixed reviews. But music’s alone in this respect. We adore movies that realistically marry comedy and drama. No serious critic would claim that Seinfeld was actually “a show about nothing.” Like “Basket Case,” it was about nothing and everything. All at once.
But with music, we need our smart artists to act like smart artists. We associate “inaccessible” with “deep.” If we don’t understand, we assume it’s over our heads. Look: I write, sing, and think about songs all day. I’ve done it, too. I’ve used that crutch.
I admire Green Day. It is a very real, very valuable gift to simply say what you’re trying to say. Ever since Dookie went diamond in 1994, Green Day has done the hard, honest work of writing smart songs that anyone can relate to. And if humor lets more people in, they’ll fearlessly make themselves the butt of the joke.
Quick postscript: In 2009, I went to see Green Day in Nashville for the 21st Century Breakdown tour. Brother, now a long-time convert, sat next to me and loved every second. And after the show, I stole his copy of American Idiot.