Why 2K?

by David Swerdlick

12 January 2006


Linda (Meryl Streep): Did you ever think life would turn out like this? ld turn out like this?
Michael (Robert De Niro): No.
The Deer Hunter (1978)

The most important music video of 2005 is Green Day’s “Wake Me Up When September Ends.” It offers a nuanced look at how the ongoing war and the past four years of U.S. politics have eroded the faith of many Americans in the values, spirit, and future direction of a country that calls itself “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” What makes “September” noteworthy as an artistic statement is that it is a measured and open-ended critique of the current societal ethos, rather than a dogmatic and oversimplified expression of outrage.

“September” tells a familiar story: two middle-American young people (Evan Rachel Wood, Jamie Bell) declare their love for each other in a brief, but intense dialogue scene set in a picturesque field of tall grass gleaming in the sunlight. They don’t have anything in the world but each other, and that is all they need or want. She says, “Don’t ever leave me,” and he replies, “I won’t… I won’t.” The music starts and a montage pays tribute to their carefree courtship—at a carnival, at a birthday party, kissing and playing video games in their parents’ spare room. The enviable bliss comes to an abrupt end as the music stops and gives way to a heated exchange. She cries, “How could you do this to me?” Wanting to explain why he has enlisted, but not finding the right words, he shouts, “I thought at least of all people, you would understand why I did this! I did this for us!”

The music kicks in again, as the images cut to young guys of different backgrounds marching off a military bus and into a military barber chair where their hair is unceremoniously sheared off. In the next sequence, the young man is in a Middle Eastern town, with bullets and bombs flying, while a hijab-clad mother and her children try to stay out of the way of the fighting. As the music crescendos, there is a series of images of urban combat, including a soldier blindly firing a Humvee-mounted .50 caliber machine gun as others take cover. The now chastened young soldier takes cover behind a concrete wall, looking out to see chaos, death, and destruction, not sure what he should do next. The video ends with the young woman, alone on the rusty bleachers of a high school playing field, her own words echoing in her head: “No matter what, you’ll always have somebody here for you. I’m never gonna leave you.”

“September” presents what seems to be a single perspective: the main characters are working-class Whites. But they also represent the inner-city, immigrant, and farm kids, who along with their working-class White counterparts have served disproportionately in this war. Part of the message is that these are regular folks—many of them teenagers—whose lives have been drawn into a geopolitical conflict, largely apart from their experience and understanding. The battle scene depicts soldiers fighting courageously, but shooting aimlessly at an unseen and undefined enemy. In this way, “September” is both sympathetic and critical, but doesn’t condescend to soldiers and their loved ones.

The characters also become symbols of the dissonant perspectives within a divided society. The young woman represents a segment that feels left behind emotionally and intellectually. The couple’s argument is emblematic of the tension in the culture today. If she didn’t still love him, it wouldn’t be so hard for her to see him go away to war, but she does, and so his departure—against her wishes—and betrayal of their partnership is almost unbearable for her.

The young man embodies another point of view, committed to the idea that the war effort is a cause is worth killing and dying for, and the key to a secure future. But conviction quickly turns to confusion. When the soldier hesitates behind the wall with his M-16 pulled back, his look doesn’t say that he’s scared to fight or even afraid to die. But it conveys a sense that he is unsure of why he is where he is and whether or not he wants to re-engage. His look says that he has come to the abrupt and sad discovery of his limited options. Green Day’s criticism of the war is illustrated in this moment, when the young soldier has lost confidence in the patriotically correct motives that got him into the war, but only after he passes the point of no return. This fissure in the mythology of American motivations results when the country is at war but most people cannot pinpoint what the war is about.

Green Day’s professed skepticism about the war is evident in the song’s title. As frontman Billy Joe Armstrong says in a 17 November 2005 Rolling Stone feature, he wrote the song about his father. But the video transforms the lyrics into a lament about the intellectual fog that surrounds the politics, propaganda, and meaning of the war. The words “Wake me up when September ends” speak to the frustration with the morphing of the genuine patriotism demonstrated in the aftermath of 9/11 into the poorly defined and miserably executed “war on terror.” Not coincidentally, “September” is track number 11 on the album American Idiot. When Armstrong sings, “As my memory rests / But never forgets what I lost,” he is signaling a collective longing for less fearful times—only a bit more than four years ago—and the words “Drenched in my pain again / Becoming who we are” forecast the regretful potential of the future.

While the “September” video might be compared with the similarly skeptical Jarhead, or 1999’s Three Kings, both about the first Gulf War, it most closely tracks a Vietnam War-era film, The Deer Hunter. The 1978 Oscar winner for Best Picture examines the paradoxes of war in an unusual way. The first hour-plus of the film is devoted to a group of friends preparing for a wedding, including a male-bonding deer hunt. The traditions and beliefs of their Greek American blue-collar community are laid out, then turned upside down when the film shifts from small-town Pennsylvania to rural Vietnam. In the same way, “September,” directed by Samuel Bayer (of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” fame), conveys the stark contrast between classic American teenage romance and the strain of close combat.

“September” has been replaced recently on the video charts by My Chemical Romance’s “Ghost of You,” a weaker song and lesser video, but a follow up on the same theme of fractured mythology. MCR’s video portrays the band members as clean-cut American G.I.‘s, with fresh-faced young women at a 1940s USO dance. These images are intercut with those of the soldiers storming Normandy Beach, using identical staging and camera angles as those in the opening of Saving Private Ryan. Eventually the scenes collide, and the ocean waves break across the dance floor, washing away their protected innocence and along with it, their pristine American experience.

Green Day long ago moved beyond being strictly punk, into the general category of big rock band, and MCR, while throwing off an emo/goth vibe, is best described as rock/pop. This evolution was addressed by The New York Times’ Jon Pareles in his 3 September 2005 review, noting that Green Day “fulfilled the long-delayed promise that punk rock could triumph in the pop Top 10.” It might seem counterintuitive that a mainstream group like Green Day would be responsible for the most visible protest art of the past year, but it makes sense when viewed in the context of the current culture. In the Rolling Stone profile, drummer Tré Cool notes that many young soldiers are drawn to the military by aggressive marketing campaigns for recruitment. In response, he says, “The video is like a commercial for free thought—or peace—using the same tactics that the government uses to get people in the Army.”

In the Vietnam era, youth culture contributed much to the anti-war movement, in part out of young people’s desire not to participate in the war. Today, it is still largely people in their late teens and early 20s fighting, but the various protest efforts have been led by and largely made up of older adults. It follows then that the first widely recognized anti-war video comes from a group that has been in the public consciousness for over 10 years and is made up of mature performers in their mid-30s. Although the rock community has produced earlier and more forceful dissent, such as NOFX’s 2003 The War on Errorism and the 2004 punk rock compilation Rock Against Bush, their efforts have reached a relatively small audience, and their much less commercial songs produced no videos. In 2004, Jadakiss’ “Why?” was the most notable protest from hip-hop. It reached a wide audience, but it was less focused on the war and more on the Bush era in general. In a cultural space dominated by media conglomerates, commercial websites, and post-literate teenagers, the mega-group Green Day reaches and represents a broader demographic.

In the last scene of The Deer Hunter, Michael, Linda, and their friends are gathered together following the funeral of their friend Nick (Christopher Walken) whose remains are brought back from Vietnam. One of them begins to sing “God Bless America” and they all eventually join in. They cling to what is left of their belief in the ultimate good in themselves and their way of life. In that way, the young woman who sits alone at the end of September beckons to the young man, asserting that her love is stronger than his mistakes, and that all can still be made whole if he will only find his way home.

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