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

11. “Wake Me Up When September Ends”

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 11th 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.