Wednesday, May 27, 2009

5/29/09 - On the evolution of Green Day

From the Pitchfork review of 21st Century Breakdown, the new Green Day, re:American Idiot:

"Have you tried to parse the lyrics to "Holiday" or "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" lately? This wasn't anti-imperialist dissent set to kick-ass. It was gaudy, way-too-impressionistic, self-congratulatory garbage warbled over lumbering AOR dressed in strings and conceptual malarkey."

Now, when it comes to reviewing music, Pitchfork is a straw man constructed out of the world's largest hay bale, but still, I thought that toward the end of the '00s we were past equating commercial success with lack of quality. Like it or no, describing the Green Day of American Idiot as "lumbering AOR dressed in strings" betrays a gross laziness of musical descriptive powers. You want lumbering AOR dressed in strings? Try picking up a Kansas album, buddy. Green Day's still playing 3-4 pop-punk last time I checked, even if they've taken to adding some stylistic grace notes here and there. OK, a 9 minute conceptual song suite isn't very Ramones-ish on the surface, but if you dig into "Jesus of Suburbia" it's easy to hear the the underlying architecture is still recognizably Green Day - it's just that there's a few more shifts in tempo and instrumentation.

It's something that anyone in the punk idiom has to wrestle with - music based on the anyone-can-play dictum that has, as its primary audience, teenagers, invariably has to either mutate or die, but it comes out of a subculture with pretty rigorous formal codes. Ambition is frowned upon. The two touchstones of the punk revolution, musically, the Clash and the Ramones, serve as very different templates; interestingly, the biggest East Bay punk bands, Green Day and Rancid, both have followed the Clash template, incorporating different influences as they've transitioned from snotty upstarts to established vets. For this, Green Day, especially, gets pilloried?

There's a catch-22 at work here that all bands that last for longer than 2-3 albums have to contend with, but punk bands more than most - do you keep doing what you're doing, or do you change and evolve? There's merit to both, but it's a lot easier to work these things out as a band in a commercial vacuum, because nobody gives a damn. It's also easier to do as a Big Rock Band, because the template was set by the Beatles. So when Radiohead decides to follow up a masterpiece with a half-assed set of song sketches (ahem, Kid A), they get lauded for breaking new ground. When Green Day starts trying to ape the Who, they get the insulting 'AOR mess' tag, as though they're toddlers trying to fly a plane.

Thing is, their only musical problem is how to reconcile the sound of pogo-ing 16 year olds that forms their core (like the way old blues informs the core of the Stones), with the ambition that comes from being honest-to-God grownups, with kids and everything. The tension may show at times, but ambition shouldn't be slapped down reflexively, even if it results in multiplatinum sales and arena shows. Sometimes the lucre comes along with the singalong chorus, and sometimes it doesn't.

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