Between the Grooves: Green Day – ‘American Idiot’

Part social commentary and part fictional narrative, Green Day's American Idiot came out of nowhere and impressed with its biting political subversion, exploration of teenage angst, love, and uncertainty, and perhaps most importantly, brilliant structures, transitions, and overall cohesion.

American Idiot
Green Day
21 September 2004

10. “Letterbomb”

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 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.