Academic Writing

Thursday, March 03, 2011

American Idiot

Are we all American idiots?
Image from

I know this is a film blog, but I just got home from seeing American Idiot on Broadway, and I felt compelled to write about it. So many of the themes resonate with American pop-culture, both in theater and in film. I hope you like it.

American Idiot comes to us from the Green Day album by the same name. It opens with the titular song and an array of young people singing about how the media controls peoples actions and those people in turn blindly follow the lead of the media. Lyrics such as “I'm not a part of a redneck agenda. Now everybody do the propaganda. And sing along to the age of paranoia… Don't want to be an American idiot.  One nation controlled by the media. Information age of hysteria…” open the musical as both a call to action and a refusal to succumb to the mass media and society’s expectations.

The plot develops around three young men who, all feeling the need to escape, do so in ways that make the most sense to them. Billy finds out his girlfriend is pregnant and takes the responsible route and stays at home with her. Tunny joins the army and Johnny turns to hard drugs. Despite their varied approaches to finding meaning in life, none seem to succeed. All Billy does at home is drink and get high, Tunny gets his leg blown off, and Johnny escapes into a black hole of drug, being egged on by his new “friend” St. Jimmy. These three men all go their own ways to create a meaningful world for themselves, yet none end up happy.

I found this play to be very interesting on a number of levels. First, I find the parallels between it and Hair quite similar. Both tell the stories of disaffected youth rebelling against their families and the government. It’s interesting that in the 40 decades that separate these two musicals, they both ended up on Broadway at the same time (Hair in a revival and American Idiot in its debut). It’s also interesting to see that while there are definite differences, so many of their themes are strikingly similar. Have we really not evolved that much as a society that the young people are still hating it? Or is it just something that “the youth” will always feel? Starting in the 1950s youth rebellion emerged into the public sphere when James Dean yelled at his parents, “You’re tearing me apart!” in 1955’s Rebel without a Cause. Have we as a society spent the last half a century continuing to do just that to the youth in this country?

If the three main characters represent the three paths available in life, the play presents a rather futile existence to audiences. Even when Johnny is able to break away from his drug habit and take on a “responsible” job he feels more trapped and doomed for death than he did when he was lying on the floor drugged out of his mind. And what about Johnny? He did what he thought was the responsible thing and stayed home to be the dad to his child, but he found himself resenting his girlfriend and their situation. When she finally leaves him he laments “Nobody likes you/Everyone left you/They're all out without you/Having fun.” The grass is always greener. Little does he know that his two best friends are equally as miserable as he is.

One striking similarity between American Idiot and Hair is the relationship both the plot and the characters have to the war. Both works emerged during a time when American was fighting an unpopular war, however the main difference is that in the 1960s the young people were being drafted and forced to fight in a war they saw as unjust while in today’s war there is no draft and soldiers are going off to fight for a whole plethora of reasons which I am not about to assume to understand. That difference, however, is striking. In American Idiot, Tunny goes off to fight in today’s war to find a meaning and to bring respect for his life. He returns from the war, albeit physically damaged, but with that sense of meaning. Because of the conscious decision he has made to fight for his country, he returns a man, while scarred, someone who has found love and self respect, and appreciation for his friends. Clyde, however, in Hair does not return from Vietnam. The country and the government who forced him to fight has killed him and left no sense of optimism for his or the any of the futures of the nation’s youth.

Another interesting parallel is the relationships the youths have with their parents. Parents and adults are largely absent from both shows, yet they are alluded to. In Hair there is a complete disconnect between the parents and the children. When in relation to one another the two parties are simply referred to as 1948 and 1968, underlying the difference is based on their generations. Something interesting to note in American Idiot, is that parents are physically absent from the play entirely. They are merely mentioned as Johnny talks about his mother and father. The relationship he has with his parents differs from his mother to his father. When escaping the life he hates he brags about how he stole the money from his mother, only to amend the statement to say that she in fact gave it to him. His mother loves him and he so much wants to hate her, but he cannot. His father on the other hand is the bigger source of strain. This is not uncommon as sons have traditionally looked to their fathers for guidance and role models. Again, starting with James Dean, fathers in popular culture got the bad rap as sons couldn’t look at their fathers for guidance as they saw them solely as hypocrites and tools of society.

What Johnny learns that James Dean’s character never did is that being a so-called tool of society is a necessary evil. It’s not something that fathers like to do, but it’s something they had to do to provide for their families. The whole idea of growing up and having actual responsibilities isn’t romantic or sexy, but it’s reality. It’s how the world functions and the other alternatives, as shown by the main characters, are not always a better choice either.

So what’s the message? It’s pretty dire to think that the whole idea of the play comes down to the fact that we actually all are American idiots. We will live the nuclear lifestyle that keeps the world turning. However, to keep from being the idiot Green Day warns of, we can go through our lives, but keep an eye out for being “controlled by the media” and refusing to be a part of the “redneck agenda.” As enlightened and educated members of society it is our responsibility to refuse to get sucked into the insanity that surrounds us every day in so many ways. We must learn to filter out all of the idiocy around us and lead lives that are meaningful to us, and not just get sucked into, as the song goes, “Information age of hysteria. [That’s] calling out to idiot America.”


There has been some feedback from people that they aren’t clear on whether I enjoyed the show or not, so I wanted to add to my posting that yes, I did greatly enjoy the show.  From a technical standpoint, thought that the staging was interesting.  Central to it, the use of new media as a central piece of the set design was particularly interesting and added another layer of meaning to the whole notion of what it means to be an “American Idiot.”  The images were built into and projected onto the backdrop, making the media an inescapable part of both the audience’s experience as well as the characters’ lives.

To echo Shaina’s comment below, a big part of my enjoyment comes from the fact that I happen to really like Green Day’s music.  That obviously helped tremendously.  I already thought the music to be moving and powerful as a standalone album and seeing it woven together in a cohesive storyline was powerful.  While I’ll admit to being a bit unclear about what was going on for some of the show, especially as the plot was getting underway, overall the story held together nicely.  The characters were compelling and relatable.  Furthermore, one character, St. Jimmy, was particularly interesting.  Played by AFI’s Davey Havok, who just replaced Green Day front man, Billy Joe Armstrong in the role, he represents Johnny’s id, his urges to fulfill any and all of his base desires, namely heroin.  It’s is St. Jimmy that precipitates Johnny’s descent into addiction, but without that fall Johnny also would not have realized the important lesson he came to learn by the end of the play.

1 comment:

shaina324 said...

I saw this show with the original cast and on Billy Joe Armstrong’s first night as St. Jimmy. John Gallagher Jr. was brilliant as Johnny (such a far cry from Moritz in Spring Awakening) and Billy Joe was amazing to see live as St. Jimmy. I really enjoyed the show and one reason could be because I love Green Day and was surrounded by other people in their late 20’s-mid 30’s that were also clearly fans of the original music. The show also felt very personal to me as someone who experienced this time as a “young adult”. I can only imagine that must have been what it was like for someone in their 20s who went to see Hair when it first opened. And as someone who was in NY on 9/11, the “When September Ends” scene was eerily familiar. I’m so glad you liked it, and I loved reading your review and thoughts on the story and subject matter. Keep up the awesome blog!
p.s. Have you seen Biutiful? Any interest? It may be a good one for your blog. ;)