United States of Rage and Love: Green Day - "Extraordinary Girl" and "Letterbomb"
Heartbreak, rejection, and rebellion collide in catchy, affective, and brilliant fashion on the ninth and tenth tracks from Green Day's 2004 masterpiece.
Up until this point in American Idiot, St. Jimmy (the alias of Jesus of Suburbia) has been wondering around the streets of America alone, unsure of just about everything in his life. He’s felt a calling to incite change and rebellion, not only for himself, but for the country as a whole; unfortunately, without anyone else to help him, the task is easier said than done. But, with the arrival of Whatshername, a snarky teenage girl who seems to be his match both romantically and anarchically, St. Jimmy has found a new purpose in life. Together, they can complement each other while also challenging the conformity and complacency of the country—or so they thought. As we see in the ninth and tenth tracks of the album—“Extraordinary Girl” and “Letterbomb”—this relationship soon crumbles. It’s a riotous and bitter pill to swallow.
For the most part, “Extraordinary Girl” follows your standard punk rock template; however, its unique opening allows it to stand out from the rest of the songs. Both its initial timbres and rhythms evoke Indian tradition, like a sinister tribal ritual that suggests the underlying rejection and deceit that’s to come. In fact, it’s such a distinctive section on American Idiot that it almost feels out of place, as it really doesn’t connect to the rest of the song, nor to anything else on the record. Yet, it’s this stylistic peculiarity that makes the song so cool. After this moment is gone, the trio resorts back to its archetypical formula of crunchy guitar riffs and pugnacious percussion (which continues to work well, of course).
Lyrically, the track details the difficulties within their relationship following the initial joys present in “She’s a Rebel". As always, loving someone isn’t always utopic; if often includes heartache, conflict, and resentment. Armstrong sings a straightforward melody as he confesses that “. . . she can’t seem to get away,” while St. Jimmy “. . . lacks the courage in his mind / Like a child left behind / Like a pet left in the rain.” From this, we get the idea that they’re distant from each other, and the keystone reveal puts it most bluntly: “She’s all alone again / Wiping the tears from her eyes / Some days he feels like dying / She gets so sick of crying.” Near the end of the song, the deterioration is cemented when Armstrong tell us that “Some days it’s not worth trying.” Listeners can imagine the two lovers sulking with their backs toward each other.
Interestingly, we’re also told that she “. . . [has] an image she wants to sell / To anyone willing to buy,” which implies that she’s fraudulent and manipulative. Perhaps St. Jimmy is just the latest boy for her to string along, and now that she sees how hesitant and controllable he actually is, she’s lost interest. She needs someone who can really match her destructive nature and carefree persona, and he isn’t it, no matter if he calls himself St. Jimmy, Jesus of Suburbia, or anything else.
(Also, some critics believe that “she” could stand for American culture and widespread political agenda, with the line “She sees the mirror of herself / An image she wants to sell / To anyone willing to buy” representing the country’s need to influence the entire world. Others believe that “she” symbolizes the sexism in America, with the same expression alluding to our nation’s fascination with beauty and female gender expectations. Take them or leave them, these are intriguing interpretations.)
With “Letterbomb", we hear her final denouncement to St. Jimmy as she departs and he self-destructs. It’s an angrier, catchier, and much more emotionally draining piece than “Extraordinary Girl”; really, it’s one of the most poignant, disturbing, and important moments on American Idiot, for it marks the beginning of the end for St. Jimmy.
It begins with Whatshername (or perhaps St. Jimmy’s psyche) taunting him with a phrase that will reappear near the end of the album: “Nobody likes you / Everyone left you / They’re all out without you / Having fun.” Subsequently, Armstrong plucks notes fiercely as the Dirnt and Cool construct a sophisticated rhythmic stadium around him. Next, all three of them let loose, which immediately draws listeners inward. What’s most interesting about the song from a musical standpoint is how they add subtle effects and timbres to the initial template as it progresses, keeping it fresh, vibrant, and devastating from beginning to end.
For the most part, the selection consists of Whatshername’s final judgment in the form of a letter to St. Jimmy. She speaks of becoming dissatisfied with the rebel movement. She asks, “Where have all the bastards gone?” and “Where have all the riots gone? As the city’s motto gets pulverized.” Later, she attacks St. Jimmy directly, remarking, “The town bishop’s an extortionist / And he doesn’t even know that you exist / Standing still when it’s do or die / You’d better run for your fucking life.” Clearly she’s unhappy with how fearful and cautious he really is, since he hasn’t done enough to show her how destructive he can be.
It’s during the chorus that she puts it all in perspective: “It’s not over till you’re underground / It’s not over before it’s too late / This city’s burning / ‘It’s not my burden.’” Here she’s mocking him for not being true to his word, telling him that he needed to take responsibility and fight until either he or the mission was finished. Undoubtedly, the most interesting part of her letter comes when she denounces both of his personas: “You’re not the Jesus of Suburbia / The St. Jimmy is a figment of / Your father’s rage and your mother’s love / Made me the idiot America.”
Melodically, Armstrong makes her final goodbye heartbreaking and slow, dragging out the decree so St. Jimmy (and listeners) can feel the sorrow word by word. St. Jimmy sings, “She said ‘I can’t take this place / I’m leaving it behind’ / She said ‘I can’t take this town / I’m leaving you tonight.’” Afterward, Green Day extends the track with several seconds of silence, forcing listeners to contemplate the end of the couple’s relationship (and perhaps reflect on how it felt when they were dumped in their own lives). It’s brilliant.
American Idiot is now unfolding in the middle of August, which suits the end of their relationship perfectly since the cliché dictates that summer romances end as September approaches. Indeed, this betrayal surrounds our protagonist in hopelessness, as he’s right back where he started, only this time he must face the added pain of another rejection. As is often the case, depression leads to solitude and extended slumber, since the sufferer can't to deal with the real world anymore. For him, there’s no reason to continue onward, so he doesn’t want to wake up for a long, long time.
Or at least until September ends.