[30 December 2009]
Sound Affects Editor
Before I begin, is anyone going to argue that “Basket Case”—Green Day’s second Billboard Modern Rock Tracks number one hit, the result of a vibrantly cartoonish music video and the band’s infamous mud-slinging set at Woodstock ‘94—isn’t one of the best songs on Dookie? Because if you are, you are objectively wrong and you suck and I hate you. Here’s why.
First, let’s look at how the song is laid out. “Basket Case” has a pretty straightforward song structure: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus, and finally outro. Simple, huh? Except that’s not how the listener perceives the song.
You see, in order to keep “Basket Case” from sounding like thousands of other songs with a similar framework, what Green Day does is cast the first verse and chorus as a long intro section, a mere prelude for the mayhem to follow. For much of the first verse/chorus pairing, only singer/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong is playing on the track, instantly grabbing the listener’s attention with an unforgettable introductory monologue:
Do you have the time
To listen to me whine
About nothing and everything all at once?
I am one of those
Neurotic to the bone no doubt about it
The first verse alone sells the song. Really, all the words afterwards merely sustain the impact of those initial lines. In my opinion, no one in the 1990s was better at self-effacing song lyrics than Billie Joe Armstrong. Even though the Green Day frontman wrote the song about his frequent panic attacks (the sort of thing that generally falls under the heading of “perfectly valid problems to ‘whine’ about”), he casts his woe as irrelevant piddle. Obviously it isn’t, but Armstrong’s put-down streak never abates on Dookie. On “Basket Case”, no one takes Armstrong seriously, least of all himself. The entire second verse is about Armstrong seeking out first a shrink and then a whore in search of relief, only for both of them to dismiss his aliment (the former by saying he needs to get laid, and the latter by telling him his life as a bore, adding to “quit [his] whining ‘cause it’s bringing her down”). No matter what he does, Armstrong is a loser, an anxiety-ridden jumble of insecurities with no answers and few excuses. Just as important is that he’s not shy about laying out his failures for all to see. By never letting himself off the hook, Armstrong not only earns the listener’s sympathy, but his or her camaraderie.
But let’s get back to the music. Aside from some token drum rattles and harmonized vocal phrases, Armstrong is on his own during the intro/first verse. As a result, his guitar-playing serves a percussive purpose to support his singing. For those of you who don’t play guitar (and for those of you who do, you are playing along to this post, right?), Armstrong utilizes a technique called palm-muting, where the instrumentalist dampens the guitar strings as he strikes them, which creates muffled, chugging sound (best demonstrated when played through an amplifier). It’s a popular technique in metal; Metallica for instance derives a lot of its attack from palm-muting. In addition to crafting a solid backing rhythm for his vocals, Armstrong occasionally lets slip an unmuted chord—typically on the second and third beats of the bar, but occasionally on an upbeat—to spice up the section. These intermittent unmuted chords help indicate to the listener that the section is gradually building up to something big.
When Armstrong hits the line “I think I’m cracking up” partway through the first chorus, the band properly kicks in, only to pull back again for a brief interlude where Armstrong performs some sixteenth-note flourishes, dabbed by a tasteful bass fill by Mike Dirnt. After that, it’s on: Green Day is now in full attack mode. Tre Cool’s drum rolls alone are as captivating as the vocal hooks. Because of the structure, the second verse and chorus convey familiarity due to the repeated chord progressions, but the song doesn’t become repetitive.
A brief bridge section emerges where Armstrong sings “Grasping to control” before hitting a brief pause, followed by the words “So I better hold on” as the band resumes its punk rock Light Brigade charge into the lyric-less third verse. At the start of the third and final chorus, Armstrong resorts to palm-muting again, but this time he has the whole band behind him, giving the section the momentum of a freight train leading into Armstrong’s final cry of “I think I’m cracking up / Am I just paranoid? / I’m not sure”. Following that, the guitarist plays an outro melody supported by Cool’s hammering fills, and the song concludes in an appropriately rockist manner with a few dramatic chord strokes.
What makes “Basket Case” utterly thrilling is that this all that occurs in little more than three minutes. Armstrong, Dirnt, and Cool were not content to simply bash out a few chords as fast as humanly possible, repeat three times, and then commit the product to tape. Instead, they crafted a concise package intended to take the listener on a journey through surging pop brilliance. Luckily they worked out the finer points beforehand so you shouldn’t have to worry about them whenever “Basket Case” comes on the radio. Really, trying to spot all the compositional tics as you listen to this song is akin to passing a signpost at top speed on the highway. That is, you’re not experiencing this to enjoy the scenery. The song is built perfectly so as to elicit a visceral, emotional reaction from the listener. Considering that, it shouldn’t require much pressure to surrender yourself to the tune in the first place. “Basket Case” is intended to grip you from the start, and will lead you through the next three minutes without ever lettering you go until the last chord fades away. Suitably, by song’s end your pulse is racing and you’re ready to hear it all again from the top.
And that, boys and girls, is what a perfect pop song sounds like.