Monday, February 21, 2011

Punk Schmaltz

Green Day
06 May 2005: CSU Convocation Center, Cleveland, Ohio

When Dookie broke, there were rumblings from Green Day’s northern California punk brethren that they had sold out and had become corporate, mainstream whores. Green Day denied it, and I think they were justified in that denial at the time. But I have to wonder what their contemporaries would think if they attended one of the stops on Green Day’s American Idiot tour.

Admittedly, I wrote off Dookie as, well… dookie. But I eventually picked up their greatest hits collection and then got the brilliant American Idiot when it was released. And the more I listened, the more I was convinced that Green Day were the latter-day Clash. In 2004, Green Day mattered, at a time when very few artists did. And they knew their history: The album is rife with overt references to the likes of the Who, Bowie, and Mott the Hoople. Much like the Clash, they're not afraid to trot out their album collection and put their influences out there, as well as their politics.

Taking its activist and socially conscience tone from “Minority,” a single off their immediately previous album, American Idiot is a fierce indictment against the second Bush administration, the war in Iraq, and the neo-cons of the Religious Right. It contains bold statements of conviction. Lines of songs – like “Maybe I am the faggot America / I’m not a part of a redneck agenda” from the title track, and “Pulverize the Eiffel towers / Who criticize your government” from “Holiday” – drip with contempt and irony that amount to landing a kick somewhere slightly south of the Bible Belt. And the political Left doesn’t make it out of the fray unscathed either, as the band takes a swipe at the John Kerry’s of the world (remember him?) with the “Holiday” line: “Hear the drum pounding out of time / Another protester has crossed the line / To find the money’s on the other side.”

I have been to my fair share of punk shows and seen footage of the Clash live, but nothing prepared me for what I saw one night in May 2005. When I got my tickets for the American Idiot tour stop at the Wolstein Center on the edge of the Cleveland State University campus, I had visions of attending a punk show. I did not get what I expected. What I got was Def Leppard pyrotechnics and a Britney Spears audience. The show opened with five of the first six songs off of American Idiot… but they were peppered with “1-2, 1-2-3-4’s” and “Hey-O” call and responses. As if channeling all the 70’s arena rockers who influenced them, Green Day offered numerous call-outs to Cleveland and lyric changes to incorporate the hometown. Flashpots lit up the stage, synchronized with songs and illuminating the arena. The satiric pinnacle was the cover of Queen’s “We are the Champions” during the encore, complete with lyrics flashing on the giant curtain of lights so the kids too young to know them could sing along. It was clichéd and schmaltzy. And it would have worked beautifully for me on an ironic level, if not for being surrounded by girls less than half my age screaming and crying in N*Sync-like joy at attending their first concert – with their mom’s and dad’s in tow – turning the evening’s proceedings into a wholly surreal affair.

While I was surprised by how much I enjoyed hearing the older material live, I would have preferred Green Day to play the American Idiot album in its entirety – straight through, in order, and uninterrupted. There is a ferociousness to the American Idiot material – a combination of urgency and (what seemed like at the time) timelessness that is still compelling. In spite of the arena rock trappings, the conviction found on the album arrived in tact when translated to the live show, and was surprisingly coupled with an earnestness in its delivery. And while I think the message came across very well to the crowd, I almost wanted more political statements throughout the show to ensure the kids understand just how important it is, that it’s worth giving a damn about, and that they have the power to influence it. I appreciated frontman Billie Joe Armstrong’s political comments that peppered the show and that he closed the show urging everyone in the venue to get out and make a difference. But, if you’re going to neuter your stage presence to the point where a punk show is a semi-political family-friendly event – you might as well pour it on a little thicker.

I remember this being one of the first shows where it struck me just how much concert going has changed. Before the Information Age, you had no idea what to expect when you attended a concert. Things like what the band would perform, stage setups, etc. were all a part of the great unknown. Now, with the interweb, if you choose to look you can find the set list, the stage setup, the pre-show music, reviews, and even how often the songs have been performed on that particular tour.

Going into the evening, I knew all about the big pink bunny, “YMCA”, the theme from 2001, the set list and order, the making a band bit during “Knowledge”, the “King for a Day/Shout” routine, that “Minority” would be the last song of the main set, and that a solo version of “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” by Armstrong would close the encore.

I’m torn on this spoiler knowledge. Part of me misses the sense of unknown and anticipation that going to a show used to generate. There was a sense of “this show is just for me” and, by virtue of not knowing what was done or played at other shows, a sense that what we were seeing was truly a unique experience. Does all this knowledge at our fingertips detract from the overall feel of the show? Maybe, but despite all that knowledge going in, by virtue of their charisma and apparent genuine appreciativeness of performing, I still felt the Green Day show I saw that Friday night in Cleveland was unique and personal and worth both my time and money.

So, is Green Day still a punk band? Are they worthy of Clash comparisons? On disc, the answer is a fairly decisive “yes.” Based on the incarnation of their live show I witnessed six years ago, the answer is a bit more of a shoulder shrug and a half-hearted “sure.”