[31 May 2010]
Sound Affects Editor
If you haven’t heard the news yet, Green Day’s 2004 album American Idiot was kind of a big deal. A politically-charged rock opera that drew inspiration from the Kinks and the Who—the original masters of the form—American Idiot told the coming-of-age story of Jesus of Suburbia, a discontented misfit youth trying to find purpose amidst the pervasive post-9/11 “redneck agenda” of then-President George W. Bush. Never mind that the album wasn’t really much of a quantum leap compared to its underappreciated predecessors Nimrod (1997) and Warning (2000); in fact, one of its main flaws was that it recycled hooks from those records. There’s no denying that American Idiot captured the zeitgeist of mid-2000s America in a manner unmatched by any other musical attempts at political commentary, an occurrence that vaulted the punk rock trio into the rarified realm of rock megastardom.
Having become both Green Day’s biggest commercial success since its 1994 major label debut Dookie and the recipient of much critical acclaim for its scope and subject matter, American Idiot has been unequivocally enshrined in the public consciousness as an Important Album. The canonization of the album continued apace with the production of a Broadway play based on the record, which began late last year. While a big Broadway production might seem a little pretentious for a bunch like Green Day, the translation of American Idiot into a stage show does provide the means for its story to stand as a true narrative.
The effect is lost, though, when all you have is the music and not the show. As this cast recording demonstrates, the album’s transition into a new medium has changed little about the songs themselves. Green Day arranged and performed the play’s soundtrack, which also incorporates material from the group’s 2009 follow-up rock opera 21st Century Breakdown. The primary type of alteration present is the sort intended to facilitate the flow amongst the play’s musical numbers (for example, the play loses the segue between “Holiday” and “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”, while inserting one between “Favorite Son” into “Are We the Waiting”). One of the more drastic reconfigurations is the combination of “Last of the American Girls” and ”She’s a Rebel” into a call-and-response mash-up, throwing in a snippet of “St. Jimmy” at the end for good measure. Nevertheless, the cast recording is largely identical to the original recordings, throwing in enough changes to pique the interest of those who’ve played the album to death over the years.
This is a play after all, so instead of Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong singing hits like “American Idiot” and “Know Your Enemy”, you have professional Broadway performers tackling the lyrical roles of Jesus of Suburbia, St. Jimmy, Whatshername, and others over Green Day’s backing tracks, assisted throughout the performance by 17 other cast member for group chorus sessions. Talented as all the leads are, Armstrong they ain’t, and that’s probably going to be the deal breaker for a lot of people. Frankly, these singers sound too squeaky-clean for the material they’re tackling. Instead of aggressive renditions of punk rock anthems, the soaring melodies, powerful vibratos, and group harmonies all too often make the record sound like The Cast of Glee Performs American Idiot, or (even worse) Kidz Bop: Green Day. Most emblematic of the disconnect between the performances and the appropriate tone is Tony Vincent as St. Jimmy. The man can sing, certainly, but his approach to the role of Jesus of Suburbia’s punk-urchin mentor St. Jimmy is akin to Sex Pistols vocalist Johnny Rotten as envisioned by Andrew Lloyd Weber. It just sounds wrong. The problem is exacerbated any time the performers have to utter swear words. The end result is like hearing someone curse on Sesame Street: both inappropriately hilarious and uncomfortably embarrassing.
It feels unfair to me to judge the cast’s efforts without the benefit of viewing the stage show, however. A spirited, mesmerizing performance can overcome any reservations about a performer’s voice. Yet the soundtrack album doesn’t have that benefit. In fact, divorced from a Broadway setting the record is rather redundant. When you get down to it, this release is an album of a play based on an album. Despite all the minor changes, I can’t fathom why anyone would actually want to listen to it when one can have the real deal instead of a twice-removed simulacrum. If anything, its main value to listeners is as a souvenir item to accompany warm memories of a Broadway showing.
The existence of the cast recording (and, indeed, the play itself) strikes me as symptomatic of something more troubling: Green Day’s increasing self-importance post-American Idiot. This release allows Green Day to further inflate American Idiot’s legacy, as well as once again highlight that it has Very Important Things to Say. I applaud the band’s ambition, but as a longtime Green Day fan, I can’t help but be disinterested in the group’s delusions of grandeur and rock-god posturing. Is this what the band has come to: crafting self-important concept album fodder for Broadway? And not just one concept album, but two, the latter of which is such a conscious follow-up to its predecessor that its tracks can be folded into the play’s narrative with no problem.
Listening to the brand new composition “When It’s Time” doesn’t alleviate my concerns. Performed not by the Broadway cast but by Green Day itself, “When It’s Time” is the sort of middling midtempo balladry designed for arena sing-alongs. I can practically envision the lighters swaying in the stadium rafters as it plays. Unfortunately, this type of material has become par for the course in the last few years. Green Day has every right to be proud of what American Idiot has accomplished, but in the process of propagating its legend the group seems to have become too enchanted by living up to the myth that has arisen around it.