United States of Rage and Love: Green Day - "Wake Me Up When September Ends"

The 11th song on American Idiot, "Wake Me Up When September Ends" is arguably the most multifaceted and emotionally powerful composition on the album.

Green Day

American Idiot

Label: Reprise
US Release Date: 2004-09-21
UK Release Date: 2004-09-20

As I’ve already discussed thus far in this series, Green Day’s 2004 masterpiece American Idiot is incredibly multifaceted. Part punk rock concept album (in the vein of the Who’s Quadrophenia) and part social commentary on post-9/11 America, the album offers both an endearing yet tragic coming-of-age tale and a formal expression of the fear and sadness felt within the country at the turn of the century. While the full-length has already featured plenty of wonderful examples of these sentiments, its eleventh track, “Wake Me Up When September Ends”, is easily the most poignant, striking, and universal one up until now. A heartbreaking eulogy to the losses of its central character, vocalist, and even the nation in which it takes place, the song is devastatingly somber, hypnotic, and beautiful. In fact, in terms of pure songwriting, it make be the best composition the trio has ever written.

Structurally, the song is another acoustic guitar ballad at heart. It begins with a humble but heartbreaking arpeggio that, combined with Billie Joe Armstrong’s delicate verse melody and singing, is utterly gripping. In fact, it’s significantly similar stylistically to “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life”)”, although this one is even more sorrowful and dynamic. Listeners can’t help but by entranced by its fragility, honesty, and (eventual) sonic power. Speaking of that last attribute, the piece thoughtfully evolves from the aforementioned bleak solo performance to a full-on freak-out as militarist rhythms, along with some glittery timbres, such as bells and electric guitar, pack quite an emotional punch. It’s as if every element in the production is aching to express the same angst. Perhaps most effectively, the track continues for a few seconds once the song is over, filling the silence with reverberated guitar notes that embody the sad aftermath with stirring accuracy.

As for the meaning of the song, there are several purposes happening at once. In the context of Jesus’ story, it’s in this moment that he realizes fully that life in the City of the Damned hasn’t fulfilled his expectations at all. He left home to find himself and change the world, but that hasn’t happened; not only has he left his family and friends behind, but he’s also lost someone new (Whatshername) in the process. Feeling abandoned, rejected, and hopeless, Jesus feels very similar to how he did at the start of the journey, when he walked along a slightly different introspective boulevard. Among the most telling lyrics for this interpretation are, “Here comes the rain again / Falling from the stars / Drenched in my pain again / Becoming who we are”, which serve to showcase his changed perspective on the world since he first set out on his ride in “Holiday” (“Hear the sound of the falling rain / Coming down like an Armageddon flame”). Also, the song’s opening lines—“Summer has come to pass / The innocent can never last”— as well as “Ring out the bells again / Like we did when spring began”, speak to the idea that his both his summer optimism and romance has gone away.

Of course, another layer of the song concerns the tragedies that befell countless citizens after the World Trade Center attacks. After all, it’s the eleventh selection on American Idiot, which is likely deliberate and symbolic. In this context, the title of the piece, as well as admittances like “As my memory rests / But never forgets what I lost” and the aforementioned “Summer has come to pass / The innocent can never last” speak to the wishes and regrets of, well, everyone in America at that time (to varying degrees, of course). In fact, the music video for “Wake Me Up When September Ends” (directed by Samuel Bayer, who shot most of the music videos for the record), revolves around a heterosexual couple (Evan Rachel Wood and Jamie Bell) who are torn apart because of the war in Iraq. The man enlists in the army to prove his love for the woman; unfortunately, she interprets this as him breaking his promise to never leave her. Of course, the end results are not happy, to say the least. In this way, the video made affectively clear that this agenda is inherent in the song.

Finally, there is a third approach to looking at “Wake Me Up When September Ends”—as an autobiographical reflection by Armstrong on the death of his father, who passed away in September of 1982. Although the entire tone and lyrical landscape of the track contributes to this idea, the line “Like my father’s come to pass / Twenty years has gone so far” really brings it home. Therefore, this piece could represent Armstrong placing himself within the narrative, suggesting that he can empathize with those who’ve lost fathers (or anyone else, really) in the terrorist attacks, as well as with the sense of isolation Jesus of Suburbia feels as he wonders through life.

Considering how much “Wake Me Up When September Ends” accomplishes in terms of emotion, political/social critique, and overlapping meanings, it’s easy to see why it’s often regarded as deceptively simple yet subtly brilliant. On a personal level, it’s among the bravest and most revealing songs Armstrong has ever written; as an observation on the legacy of 9/11, it’s overwhelmingly truthful and touching; and as the next chapter in the journey of Jesus of Suburbia, it’s works well in implying his mental state and means of action. He’s given up on trying to be someone he’s not (St. Jimmy), as well as on trying to change things that are out of his control. He set out to find a new, prosperous path, but ultimately he only found more heartache and disappoint, so there’s nothing left to do but turn around and prepare for the homecoming.

Previous installments:

*Introduction and "American Idiot"

*"Jesus of Suburbia"


*"Boulevard of Broken Dreams"

*"Are we the Waiting" and “St. Jimmy”

*"Give Me Novacaine" and “She’s a Rebel”

*"Extraordinary Girl” and “Letterbomb”






A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.


The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.


Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.


Kathleen Edwards Finds 'Total Freedom'

Kathleen Edwards is back making music after a five-year break, and it was worth the wait. The songs on Total Freedom are lyrically delightful and melodically charming.


HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' Is Heady, Poetic, and Mangled

Laying the everyday experience of Black life in 1950s America against Cthulhuian nightmares, Misha Green and Jordan Peele's Lovecraft Country suggests intriguing parallels that are often lost in its narrative dead-ends.


Jaga Jazzist's 'Pyramid' Is an Earthy, Complex, Jazz-Fusion Throwback

On their first album in five years, Norway's Jaga Jazzist create a smooth but intricate pastiche of styles with Pyramid.


Finding the Light: An Interview with Kathy Sledge

With a timeless voice that's made her the "Queen of Club Quarantine", Grammy-nominated vocalist Kathy Sledge opens up her "Family Room" and delivers new grooves with Horse Meat Disco.


'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.


'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.


Max Richter's 'VOICES' Is an Awe-Inspiring and Heartfelt Soundscape

Choral singing, piano, synths, and an "upside-down" orchestra complement crowd-sourced voices from across the globe on Max Richter's VOICES. It rewards deep listening, and acts as a global rebuke against bigotry, extremism and authoritarianism.


DYLYN Dares to "Find Myself" by Facing Fears and Life's Dark Forces (premiere + interview)

Shifting gears from aspiring electropop princess to rock 'n' rule dream queen, Toronto's DYLYN is re-examining her life while searching for truth with a new song and a very scary-good music video.


JOBS Make Bizarre and Exhilarating Noise with 'endless birthdays'

Brooklyn experimental quartet JOBS don't have a conventional musical bone in their body, resulting in a thrilling, typically off-kilter new album, endless birthdays.


​Nnamdï' Creates a Lively Home for Himself in His Mind on 'BRAT'

Nnamdï's BRAT is a labyrinth detailing the insular journey of a young, eclectic DIY artist who takes on the weighty responsibility of reaching a point where he can do what he loves for a living.


Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few Play It Cool​

Austin's Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few perform sophisticatedly unsophisticated jazz/Americana that's perfect for these times


Eleanor Underhill Takes Us to the 'Land of the Living' (album stream)

Eleanor Underhill's Land of the Living is a diverse album drawing on folk, pop, R&B, and Americana. It's an emotionally powerful collection that inspires repeated listens.


How Hawkwind's First Voyage Helped Spearhead Space Rock 50 Years Ago

Hawkwind's 1970 debut opened the door to rock's collective sonic possibilities, something that connected them tenuously to punk, dance, metal, and noise.


Graphic Novel 'Cuisine Chinoise' Is a Feast for the Eyes and the Mind

Lush art and dark, cryptic fables permeate Zao Dao's stunning graphic novel, Cuisine Chinoise.


Alanis Morissette's 'Such Pretty Forks in the Road' Is a Quest for Validation

Alanis Morissette's Such Pretty Forks in the Road is an exposition of dolorous truths, revelatory in its unmasking of imperfection.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.